Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why Netanyahu's pleading that Israel - or 80% of historic Palestine - be recognised as Jewish territory, cannot be conceded

A review article from July 2003, soon after the U.S. had declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq and cursorily acknowledged "the road map" to peace in Palestine.

How Road Maps Can Kill

Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, 2003, (Various Publishers).

Ahron Bregman, Israel's Wars, A History Since 1948, 2002, (Various Publishers).

MAPS are charted to aid in navigating territory. Never have maps been designed to imprison communities or lock them into irrevocable steps totally divorced from the free exercise of their will.

The latest effort to restore a semblance of normality in Palestine goes under the appellation of a "Road Map" to peace. At a meeting at the Red Sea port city of Aqaba in June, the Palestinian and Israeli Prime Ministers, Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon, sealed their acceptance of the Road Map under the watchful gaze of U.S. President George Bush. After the Mitchell Plan drafted by a former U.S. Senator, and the Tenet Plan assembled by the Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the "Road Map" represents the third effort since the current Palestinian uprising began to put the so-called "peace process" back on track.

The Road Map enjoins a number of reciprocal steps on both sides to the conflict. The Palestinian side is expected to cease all violent attacks on Israel and its citizens. In return, Israel is committed to implement measures that improve the humanitarian situation in Palestinian towns and villages, notably by easing restrictions on movement. Israel would also end hostile actions against civilians and stop the demolition of homes and the seizure of Palestinian property. While freezing fresh construction activity, "outposts" to Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, which point towards an intent to confiscate larger tracts of Palestinian land in the near future, are to be dismantled.

In the month since the Road Map came into force, Israel has continued with the construction of its wall of separation across the West Bank. This 25-foot wall, from which the U.S. has chosen to delicately avert its eye, signifies the final fortification of the Jewish state. It has divided Palestinian families and cut off villages from the agricultural land that sustains them. It has involved the demolition of hundreds of Palestinian homes and the dispossession of numerous families in the security interests of Israel. Once completed, the wall of separation would effectively end all but the barest minimum of movement between Palestinian towns and villages. The control of the social, economic and political interactions of an occupied people - now an arduous task performed by thousands of Israeli soldiers - would be accomplished by simply shutting them into a giant, walled prison encampment.

While this symbol of apartheid comes up, Israeli raids and incursions into Palestinian habitations continue unhindered. Fresh detentions are being made even as the Palestinian Prime Minister bargains with his Israeli counterpart for the release of prisoners held in the course of the uprising and earlier. A few settler outposts were dismantled in a blaze of publicity but a larger number were constructed in that interval. The settlements themselves have been expanding continuously, recognising few restraints even in confiscating Palestinian lands.

Tanya Reinhart, a recognised expert in linguistics, was not among the many Israelis who saw the Oslo accord of 1993 as a new beginning for the people of the region. But while expressing her scepticism about the new forms of apartheid enshrined in Oslo, she was prepared to hope. As the peace process wound down in acrimony and horrific violence, she has dared to go against the tide of opinion in her country. Rather than reflexively blame the Palestinians, she has held up the Israeli record to the light and found a chronicle of illusory concessions, evaded responsibilities and betrayed promises. Underpinning all this was a growing mood of disdain for the Palestinian people and outright contempt for their rights.

Reinhart began her career in political writing with Oslo. Her book is perhaps the most accurate account available of the course of negotiations that followed. Israel, she warns, is now, more than ever, in thrall to a militarist cabal that believes in the most extreme solutions. The public mood has been unsettled all through the years of negotiations with the Palestinians, and in the absence of a forceful popular assertion of sanity, the "political generals" in the Israeli Defence Force have established themselves as the most stable pole in the polity. Where any sensible person would seek solutions to the endemic conflict in the region in redressal and atonement for the ethnic cleansing of 1948 which brought the Jewish state into being, the "political generals" today speak unabashedly about "the second half of 1948". The message is clear and unequivocal: Israel's survival now demands the completion of the unfinished agenda of 1948. Lands occupied then and since in warfare would have to be purged of their Arab populations, so as to safeguard the ethnic identity and character of the Jewish state.

"What was until a short while ago the lunatic right wing of the Rehavam Zeevi school is now becoming Israel's political centre'', writes Reinhart, referring to the Israeli Minister who was assassinated in 2001. Leader of the right wing Moledet Party, Zeevi was a former General who rather implausibly held the Tourism portfolio in the Cabinet of Ariel Sharon. Not inclined towards hospitality or verbal finesse, he was known to refer to Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza as "lice". His place in the Cabinet has since been taken by the Moledet Party's Benny Elon, whose most recent flirtation with world headlines came from an open call for the "carpet bombing" of Palestinian settlements. Reflecting the rise of the lunatic elements to political prominence, opinion polls taken among the Jewish citizens of Israel have indicated an alarming rise in the public endorsement of "population transfer" as a solution to the problem of Palestine.

Reinhart does not record the actual practice of the policy of "transfers". That has been done ably and with a wealth of documentation by other authors, notably Nur Masalha (A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-96, Faber and Faber, London, 1997). But Reinhart does provide a terrifying picture of conditions in the occupied territories, a situation deliberately engineered by the Israeli government to make life sufficiently intolerable to induce a large outward migration of the Palestinian people. A South African Minister is cited to emphasise how the Israeli occupation is worse than the unlamented system of apartheid in that country: "The South African apartheid regime never engaged in the sort of repression Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians. For all the evils and atrocities of apartheid, the government never sent tanks into black towns. It never used gunships, bombers or missiles against the black towns or Bantustans. The apartheid regime used to impose sieges on black towns, but these sieges were lifted within days".

To this quite chilling catalogue of atrocities, Reinhart adds her own account of an Israeli effort to bring the Palestinians to heel through a "systematic policy of starvation". "What we are witnessing in the occupied territories," she writes, "is the invisible and daily killing of the sick and wounded who are deprived of medical care, of the weak who cannot survive in the new poverty conditions, and of those who are approaching starvation".

Reinhart's narrative is suffused with the sentiment that the Jewish nation somehow lost its innocence with the occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967. It is a basic premise with her, that if Israel had stopped with the ethnic cleansing of 1948 - known in the collective memory of the Palestinians as the Nakba or catastrophe - she could have "probably lived with it". "As an Israeli," she writes, "I grew up believing that this primal sin our state was founded on may be forgiven one day, because the founders' generation was driven by the faith that this was the only way to save the Jewish people from the danger of another holocaust".

Israel was formed, she recalls, by a "haunted, persecuted people" who "sought to find a shelter and a state for itself, and did so at a horrible price to another people". This is of course the dominant truth, though it overlooks the basic point that the "Jewish question" - as it was known in Europe - was an effort to steer between two hazards. On one side, there was the challenge of exclusion posed by European societies, the denial of basic rights to the community. On the other, there was the lure of assimilation, of community identities being diluted in the process of modernisation and Jewish communities being incorporated into newly coalescing national elites in Europe.

As Bregman points out in his account of Israel's wars, the troubles in Europe in the inter-war years of the 20th century greatly accelerated the Jewish migration into Palestine. But this was not the destination of choice for most of the victims of Nazi persecution. "Many of these Jewish immigrants," writes Bregman, "would have preferred to go elsewhere, especially to America, one of the most sought-after destinations for immigrants, but the gates to America were half-shut. Among other reasons, this was because the leaders of the Zionist movement exerted all the influence they could muster to make sure that the U.S. did not open up immigration to these Jews for the simple reason that they wanted to herd these same Jews to Palestine."

Walter Laqueur has observed in his standard history of Zionism that the Russian Minister of the Interior in the 1880s, responsible for instigating many of the worst pogroms of the day, strongly encouraged Jews to migrate to Palestine. The alternative of migration to the U.S., he told them, was not especially attractive. Palestine offered the Jewish community the option of maintaining a distinct identity, while the U.S. did not.

Zionist ideologues seeking to persuade the main imperial powers of the merits of their case, worked with the notion that Palestine was "a land without a people" lying in wait for "a people without a land". In 1914, Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the first President of the state of Israel, invoked the idea of an "empty country" which was the staple of Zionist campaigners: "In its initial stage, Zionism was conceived by its pioneers as a movement wholly depending on mechanical factors: there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?"

In 1969, Golda Meir, then Prime Minister of Israel, denied that the Palestinians existed as a people. This perception exerted a powerful influence till as recently as 1984, when Joan Peters published her infamous book From Time Immemorial on the non-existent Palestinians. As the Palestinian-born social theorist and commentator Edward Said observed, the book "represented a natural analogue to the concerted, sustained Israeli attack upon Palestinian nationalism, the invasion of Lebanon, and the unstated desires of the Jewish state... that the Palestinians do not exist, or, if they do, they are to be wished away, expelled, or slaughtered''.

Jewish expansionism and Arab dispossession in Palestine ensured that circumstances turned rapidly hostile. The fiction of a "land without a people" was rapidly unravelling. Laqueur later recorded rather plaintively that the "tragedy of Zionism" was that "it appeared on the international scene when there were no longer empty spaces on the world map".

As with much else in Zionist ideology, this perception reflects a skewed morality. The true dilemma for Zionism, as the Jewish dissident and holocaust survivor Norman Finkelstein has observed astutely, was that it appeared at a time when the methods of securing "empty spaces on the world map" - extermination and expulsion as practised in the North American and Australian continents - were no longer acceptable.

Later Zionist revisionism dropped the extravagant notion of an "empty land" and spoke of establishing "friendly cooperation between two Semitic peoples which, in the Middle Ages, had together been the torchbearers of progress and science". But the author of these lines, Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, was intolerant of the Palestinians and disinclined even to grant basic rights to the Arab citizens of Israel. And as Bregman points out, Ben-Gurion presided over a policy of ruthlessly hunting down and eliminating all refugees returning to the land Israel claimed in 1948. Though a resolution of the United Nations made the return of the refugees a necessary condition for Israel's recognition, the challenge they posed to the ethnic identity of the Jewish state had to be extinguished at the very source.

Those were days of a policy of heavy-handed retaliation for real and imagined attacks on Israel, with Ariel Sharon, a young Army officer leading an infamous commando task force, being its main executor. The acts of provocation went far afield. Bregman points out, for instance, that Israeli Army operatives went so far as to plant a series of deadly bombs in various Jewish quarters of Baghdad to create an ambience of terror and induce a wave of migrations into the newly constituted Zionist state.

As he made the seamless transition from military service to politics, Sharon became an outspoken advocate of expulsion as a final solution to the Palestinian problem. He was also firm in his belief that all talk of a Palestinian state was so much misplaced clamour, since Jordan already fulfilled that function.

The Israel that was moulded by its early leaders was an expansionist state, driven to relentless hostilities against its Arab minority and its neighbouring nations. It was not directly threatened by Syria in 1967, but attacked that country after disposing of the Egyptian and Jordanian challenges, because it had to capture the Golan Heights to secure the head reaches of its water sources. In the process, it risked the antagonism of the U.S. by attacking an American surveillance ship, the USS Liberty, sailing just off the Sinai coast, killing several servicemen. Bregman sheds valuable light on this affair, which in the audacity of the Israeli attack and the subdued U.S. response, captured the essence of the new strategic relationship emerging between the two countries.

Since 1993, Israel, with the active abetment of the U.S. and under the protective gaze of the world media, has kept up a pretence of negotiations with the Palestinians to partly appease global outrage at its policies. But the purpose, Reinhart argues, has merely been to negotiate endlessly without yielding anything. In explicitly recognising the existence of a people long denied, Israel was seeking little else than to make them accomplices in their own subjugation. And in tackling the popular impression that Israel made an offer of unprecedented generosity at the Camp David summit with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 2000, Reinhart does a convincing job of exposing the insincerity and disingenuousness of the posture.

Far from offering to return East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, to serve as the capital of a future state, Israel managed through a clever drafting ploy to reduce the scope of this concession to a few villages far removed from the city, which would be renamed to foster the illusion of Palestinian control over the seat of their social and cultural life. And in defiance of the common sense that Gaza represented little of value to Israel - being "one of the most densely populated and poorest areas of the world, with little water or natural resources" - Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted on retaining not only a number of settlements in the territory, but also on annexing the land surrounding and connecting them. The offer made on the West Bank was, as Reinhart convincingly demonstrates, far worse.

All this was programmed into the Oslo accord. In 1993, the principal Israeli peace negotiator Yossi Beilin concluded a memorandum of understanding with Mahmoud Abbas (alias Abu Mazen) of the PLO, laying out the scope of the territories in Gaza that would be returned to Palestinian sovereignty. PLO leader Yasser Arafat was aware of this memorandum, but hoped that better would be on offer after hard negotiations. What he got in the Gaza-Jericho accord that followed the Cairo summit later that year, was in fact, much worse.

Reinhart provides convincing evidence that quite contrary to his pretensions, Barak was essentially a soldier, sharing the perceptions of the militarist cabal that Sharon best represented. By commandeering the two main political formations in Israeli politics, the two former soldiers managed between them, to squeeze out the constituency for peace in Israel. The alarming growth of the constituency that actively advocates ethnic cleansing has been an immediate consequence.

Reinhart and Bregman offer differing prognoses on where Israel and the Palestinians are headed. The former is much more critical and sensitive, alive to the deep ethical dilemmas that confront the Jewish state. The latter discerns a greater sense of fatigue with warfare than before, and suggests that the Israeli volunteer army may not quite be the force that it was in the past. The economic crisis in the country is also dealt with by both authors as a factor that could potentially have a crucial bearing on the future of the state. Both these books have been republished for the Indian audience after fairly successful debuts abroad. With a serious reappraisal of India's relations with Israel now under way, both these books - Reinhart's in particular - would reward serious study.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Narco-imperialism, the opiate of the west

Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, the ISI and the New Opium Wars, Hachette India, Delhi, 2009, pp xvii + 302, Rs 495, ISBN 978-93-80143-02-6.

Imtiaz Gul, The Al Qaeda Connection: The Taliban and Terror in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, Penguin India, Delhi, 2009, pp ix + 308, Rs 499, ISBN 978-0-670-08292-6.

Eight years ago, a poor and impoverished nation, devastated by decades of strife, was being pounded by the U.S. in a ferocious aerial bombing campaign. Many then thought the whole war strategy disproportionate and ultimately rather pointless. It seemed that the purpose was to “shock and awe” (though the phrase only entered the strategic vocabulary a little later, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq) rather than to achieve defined military objectives. Dissent was actively discouraged, but the few voices that managed to make themselves heard above the din of righteous nationalism, did point out that the didactic value of high-tonnage explosives launched from safe distances, was limited and short-lived.

George Bush, the U.S. president who ordered thousands of soldiers into action, knew they were doing nothing else than “pounding sand”. And clearly, he and his inner cabal – notably Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz – were half-hearted about the whole enterprise.

Richard Clarke, then principal counter-terrorism adviser to Bush, has written of how from the very moment that four aircraft were hijacked in U.S. airspace, of which three crashed into iconic structures in New York and Washington DC, Wolfowitz was busy planning an invasion of Iraq (Richard Clarke, Against all Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, Free Press, New York, 2004). That was perhaps an ideological commitment for the hyper-Zionist Wolfowitz, though his boss Rumsfeld, who carried none of that baggage, put out a rather more interesting and pragmatic rationale for the focus on Iraq – that it had a surfeit of targets that could be bombed, unlike Afghanistan, which had very few.

The September 11 havoc was promptly ascribed to Al Qaeda and the principal target of the U.S. military campaign that ensued was identified as Osama bin Laden. In the event, the fearsome aerial bombardment of Afghanistan, never too scrupulous about what came rather delightfully to be called “collateral damage”, did not manage to find and fry Osama bin Laden. The cordon that had been laid by land-based forces proved altogether too porous, since the U.S. could never commit enough troops to the mission. The Bush cabal chose, rather, to sub-contract the job of capturing bin Laden to a syndicate of local Afghan warlords who just happened to be, contingently, on the same side then.

Far from decapitating the Afghan regime, the U.S. left sufficient room for it to flee the battle and reconstitute itself. The prevalent wisdom is that the regime though locationally scattered, still has a coherent and centralised chain of command. The term “Taliban” is still an accepted description for the insurgent groups that continue to inflict a price in blood on the U.S. and allied military forces deployed in Afghanistan.

The resilience of the Taliban in turn is ascribed to infirmities in the transition process and the ineptitude and insincerity of those who were entrusted with the mandate of effecting a credible democratic transformation. Gretchen Peters, a journalist with long years of experience covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, now offers a rather different answer: the Taliban perhaps owes its survival to incompetent military strategy by the U.S. and its allies. But the Taliban resurgence and its continuing ability to threaten the regime of President Hamid Karzai, comes from its control over the flourishing narcotics trade that originates in Afghanistan and has linkages all over the world.

Afghanistan, says Peters, grows over nine-tenths of the world supply of opium poppy. In a book that documents the sordid history of fierce religious puritanism coexisting with the world’s most disreputable trade, Peters establishes that the Taliban has been among the most important sponsors and beneficiaries of the boom in opium cultivation. Indeed, “Taliban” has itself become something of a catch-all term, applied to every manner of entity. Beyond these entities’ single shared attribute, that they all oppose the Karzai regime in one form or the other, they have little else in common, except perhaps their active engagement in the narcotics trade.

A world audience that suffers from a chronic attention deficit may not have the inclination to piece together a pattern from media reports of the numerous attacks on occupation forces in Afghanistan. Peters reveals that insurgent actions in Afghanistan are “most often diversionary attacks to protect big drug shipments, rather than campaigns for strategic territorial gain. In many areas, drug smugglers have their own armies whose fighters are widely referred to as ‘Taliban’”.

The “new Taliban” as Peters puts it, is a world removed from the old. It is now a “fragmented, transnational force devoid of many of the group’s prior characteristics and political aspirations”. And as recounted by a senior Afghan security official: “These are not old Taliban. We don’t even know who they are anymore”.

Peters revisits the terrain of the initial emergence of the Taliban in an Afghanistan devastated by the virulent civil war that followed the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992. Najibullah had defied western estimations and survived almost four years after the withdrawal of his Soviet backers in 1988, warning just as his regime was tottering, that fundamentalism once ensconced in Afghanistan, would stay for “many years”. “Afghanistan (would) turn into a centre of world smuggling of narcotics drugs. Afghanistan (would) be turned into a centre for terrorism”, he said.

Najibullah’s warnings went unheeded. And the cabal of Islamic warriors who took the reins in Kabul under a deal brokered by Pakistan, soon carved the country up into a patchwork of warring fiefs, each of which became a quasi-autonomous state that zealously guarded rights of transit through the landlocked country. Levies imposed on the transit of legal goods through Afghanistan became the main sustenance for the warring tribal chieftains. But the yields from this traffic were modest. Transporting goods of great bulk and volume through Afghanistan’s wrecked transportation network was a logistical challenge that the warlords were unequal to. What they needed was a commodity with high value and relatively low volume.

If Peters had been familiar with the history of imperialism, she would have identified the strong connections between the Afghan Taliban’s response to this challenge and the pathway that British colonialism found in the mid-19th century, to settle its balance of payments problems in India. Opium, the British colonialists discovered then, was just the right stuff, with the optimal combination of both value and volume.

During the latter years of the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan was rapidly increasing its area under opium cultivation, particularly in the southern province of Helmand. A pivotal figure in the opium traffic was Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, a Pashtu tribal chief and the main sponsor of the anti-Soviet resistance in the south. Opium grown in Helmand fed the refining centres in the east of the country, controlled by another powerful Pashtu chieftain, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

This arrangement of convenience was underwritten by the theological dictum that growing the narcotic substance was no sin, and neither was its trafficking. Vice lay rather, in the consumption of the substance. And as long as the “infidel west” remained the main locus of consumption, the conscience of the Islamic faithful remained unsullied.

In one of the few efforts by the U.S. to intervene in the situation, a top official from the embassy in Pakistan demanded a meeting with Akhundzada in Quetta, at which the deeply pious Pashtu warlord was shamed into issuing a diktat against opium cultivation. The crop in Helmand started dropping almost immediately, much to the ire of Hekmatyar, whose refining units were suddenly obliged to pay much higher prices for their basic input.

Akhundzada was assassinated in 1990 in Pakistan’s north-western frontier city of Peshawar. And his brother, who assumed leadership under accepted rules of tribal succession, lost little time in ordaining that opium cultivation should resume with all the earlier vigour.

Chaos deepened and commerce entered increasingly into conflict with territorial ambitions. The numerous warlords who had carved up Afghan territory began to be seen as obstacles to the free flow of the narcotics commerce. With a certain attitude of revelation, Peters tells us that the received wisdom of the Taliban being sponsored, promoted and given their entire start-up capital of money and firepower by Pakistan’s military intelligence services, is only half the truth. And like many half-truths, it obscures the greater reality: that it was the smuggling mafia that underwrote the emergence of the Taliban. The brief pretence that the Taliban made, of ordaining the end of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, was mere smoke and mirrors. The market-savvy Islamic militia was only seeking to cash in on the inevitable spike in prices that would ensue – and at the same time, harvest the aid bounty that it was promised if it were to accede to western demands to end opium cultivation.

Peters tells her story well, with justified moral indignation. Pakistan features heavily in her story with all its low intrigues in sponsoring the drug trade and the rise of the Taliban. But the larger geopolitical game, in which Pakistan was merely a link, is hardly dealt with. In this respect, it is best always to go back to original sources, written immediately after epochal events have taken place, when journalistic objectivity is yet uncompromised.

How else does one account for a silence that echoes through Peters’ book: on the role that the U.S. oil companies played in the rise of the Taliban?

This omission seems to be part of a larger pattern. The reader of Peters’ book for instance, would never guess that President Karzai’s regime itself is under the scanner for its possible involvement in the narcotics trade. Hemmed in by the obduracy of the warlords that he has been forced to talk terms with, unable to make much of the vaunted quantities of western aid that have been flowing to Afghanistan – because much of this flows back into western coffers through the corrupt rules of the international aid racket – Karzai himself has chosen to make his peace with the drugs trade.

Elements of the western security establishment are perturbed that their man in Afghanistan is quite so blatantly doing deals with the drugs cartel. In July 2008, a former counter-narcotics envoy for the U.S. wrote a mammoth article in the New York Times, documenting with a wealth of detail, how Karzai had made the opium fields in Helmand – a bequest of the Akhundzada clan -- a personal protectorate (Thomas Schweich, "Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?", The New York Times, July 27, 2008). There was no other source of revenue that he could tap to keep his regime afloat. And his western backers were never quite willing to crack down on the narcotics trade with the zero-tolerance attitude that they were apt to show towards weapons of mass destruction.

Peters acknowledges these realities rather cursorily and puts them down to corruption and incompetence. The reality, though, maybe more complex. Devoid of political authority, starved of resources through which he may seek to buy needed legitimacy, Karzai has brought back several old confederates of the Taliban into positions of power. To ensure that he is not toppled off his precarious perch, he has also decided to cultivate the favour of the drug-lords in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Bound by common ethnicity, Karzai and his Pashtu kinsmen in the south of Afghanistan, see the Helmand opium crop as perhaps their only sustenance in an unrelenting battle for political preeminence in Afghanistan, against the Tajik-Persian cabal that controls most other sectors of Afghanistan’s governance and commerce.

Meanwhile, a country conjoined with Afghanistan by history, has begun to be sucked ever deeper into the geopolitical trap. Pakistan, once regarded in the west as part of the solution – whether in the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or the September 11 attacks in the U.S. – is now decisively, part of the problem.

When the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996, the U.S. had no more fervent wish than to see a new day dawn for Afghanistan, in which transit rights from the Central Asian oilfields for its multinational companies would be assured.

More reasonable commentators warned that the dangers of a fundamentalist takeover in Pakistan were more alive than at any time before.

It it comes, that fundamentalist takeover will not be inspired by any kind of overarching loyalty to an Islamic theology. Rather, there would be multiple affinities that propel the movement on, most important among them being the cross-border tribal ties that bind Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the arbitrarily drawn frontier that is increasingly seen as an illegitimate bequest of British imperialism.

Imtiaz Gul’s work shows with a wealth of detail, how the cross-border ties – which have been encapsulated under the rubric of two convenient terms, “Taliban” and “Al Qaeda” – are really rich in complexities. But for the global strategic affairs community, they have all been reduced to two terms that are expected to summon up the unthinking allegiance of all right-thinking folks.

Surely, there can be no more certain pathway to chaos, that could soon envelop India and the entire south Asian region.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The many dimensions of India's media crisis

A mid-year economic recovery has seen some of the gloom abate and the festive season may have imparted an added buoyancy. But the mood in the Indian media industry as it heads into the new year, remains sombre.

The industry faces serious questions today about the sustainability of the current upturn. Does it really have the momentum to overcome multiple adversities -- a global economy mired in debt, currencies prone to violent gyrations, a possible surge of inflation and a real erosion of living standards? Or will a recovery that has rather too hastily been proclaimed, prove all too illusory?

Early-2009, market forecasters were prepared to bet on a growth of advertising spending in the Indian economy of no more than 7.2 percent. This was well below half the growth rate registered through 2008 and considerably less than the trend figure of the last decade or so, which has been over 20 percent. Bottomline concerns were also sharpened by prices of newsprint, which were at historic highs till about September 2008.

This was the context in which the chief executive of Bennett Coleman and Co Ltd – India’s largest media group with interests in print, TV, radio, online and outdoor advertising – wrote to his staff in March 2009, indicating that the crisis was unlike anything he had “seen in his working life”. The chief editor and chief executive officer of the Indian Express, in a similar moment of revelation, described the slowdown as a crisis with no end in sight. Around the same time, HT Media, publishers of the second largest circulated English newspaper, the Hindustan Times, informed staffers that salaries would remain “unchanged” into the foreseeable future.

By mid-year, forecasts were even more downbeat. An international market research agency put the growth of advertising spending in the Indian economy at a fairly dismal 4.7 percent for the year. And as the harsh summer of 2009 wore on and the storied Indian monsoon remained elusive, drought conditions were declared in much of the country, engendering still more anxiety. The expected shrinkage of demand in the rural sector, it was rather dolefully said, could hit ad spending by consumer goods majors.

There is for the first time now, a prospect that ad revenue accruing to the print media could actually shrink. The print media has for long held its share in total ad spending, defying predictions that its fortunes would plummet as a consequence of the growth of cable and satellite TV and the internet. But now, perhaps for the first time since the boom in broadcasting began in the early-1990s, the print media faces an actual prospect that the bleakest of predictions about its future will come true.

The situation today indicates that the share of print in total ad-spending could fall below the 47 percent level it has been at for almost two decades. Print could soon be getting a steadily smaller share of a pie that is growing much slower than before.

Salary cuts and austerity have become the norm in the media industry. And most seriously for an industry that has always prided itself on a public appearance of fierce independence, four of the country’s most prominent newspaper editors and publishers in February went hat in hand to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, to plead for a special dispensation to avert the crisis they were facing. It did not pass notice that this happened just days before national elections were notified. And once that threshold was crossed, a model code of conduct would have become operative, prohibiting any policy change that could be construed as an undue favour to any particular lobby or business, particularly one such as the media, with the power to influence electoral outcomes.

The newspaper industry beat that deadline and secured concessions ranging from a waiver of import duties on newsprint and an increase in the rates paid for government ad placements.

Earlier petitions from the newspaper industry for elimination of the customs duty on newsprint had been partially met in April 2008, when the rate was cut from 5 to 3 percent. This was followed in September by an upward revision of 24 percent in the rates paid by the Government for its advertisements. The bargaining between the print media and the government had in other words, been going on for quite a while. But following the softening of newsprint prices that began in September 2008, the Ministry had been resisting further demands for an upward revision of ad rates, on the grounds that the softening of newsprint prices had taken a great deal of pressure off the newspaper industry.

Though devoid of immediate practical consequence or profit, it may be time to revisit some of the strategic choices the news industry made over the last two decades. For starters, the industry needs to ask whether it did the right thing by itself and its customers from about the mid-1990s, by increasingly tying its commercial success to advertising rather than circulation. To have bet on circulation as the growth option would have meant making a commitment to quality news and content. Attention spans were becoming shorter, in part because the growth of the fiercely competitive electronic media sector was creating a clutter of information that most news consumers did not have the patience to sort their way through.

The print media lost its status as primary news source for the majority of consumers, once 24-hour news channels began sprouting all over the country from about 1997. But circulation levels still kept increasing, because of rising literacy and social mobility. Again, the print media retained relevance as a source of information in depth. The 24-hour news channel, with its bite-sized coverage, only whetted the appetite. It took the unhurried study of the print media to fully satisfy the need to know.

In its rush to rake in the advertising by emulating the TV news-bite, the print media disregarded this inherent strength. The trend was set in 1994 by the country’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman – publishers of the Times of India (ToI) – when it slashed the price of its flagship paper in Delhi, forcing market leader Hindustan Times (HT) to follow suit.

With its near monopoly in the commercial metropolis of Mumbai, the ToI by 1994 was estimated to have an ad ratio, measured as the proportion of total printed area devoted to ads, of 55 percent. In comparison, the HT in Delhi and The Hindu in Chennai enjoyed much more modest ratios in the lower 40s. This was the initial advantage that endowed the ToI with the confidence that it could launch a price war and stay the course better than the competition.

In the event, HT was driven to the wall, suffering steadily dropping profits and going into a loss for two successive years, before it sued for peace. The ToI also took its price warfare strategy to the cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore, forcing the established newspapers in these cities into reluctant emulation. And the final frontier in the ToI’s assault on the English-language market was breached when it launched in Chennai in April 2008, again with an aggressively priced product that shook market-leader The Hindu out of its glacial, other-worldly attitude.

The newspaper industry would almost certainly not have embarked upon this trajectory if sales and imports of the most vital of its material inputs, newsprint, had not been totally decontrolled in 1995. Till then burdened by the requirement that they buy a fixed quota of their newsprint demand from domestic sources, newspapers after 1995 were at liberty to source their supplies from any vendor of choice. This allowed the bigger enterprises to build up inventories when prices were low to hedge against future uncertainties. It also permitted them greater leeway in pricing their final product, so that any price that was close enough to the resale value – as measured in the market for waste-paper – would be good commercial sense.

Content became a side-issue in other words, since there was no value on it from the point of view of the publisher. Expenditure in news gathering and quality content could be dispensed with. Competition, that much vaunted process of striving that is supposed in the free-market theology to ensure consumer sovereignty, would pivot around the sole parameter of selling price. For the rest, the challenge for the editorial content producers was nothing more or less than providing the best environment for advertisers to sell their wares.

Media content meanwhile has mutated to accommodate the concerns of the upper demographic strata, the prime segment for advertisers. TV news channels according to a recent survey, devoted close to a third of their air-time (exclusive of ads) to stories on crime. Sports was a distant second with just over 13 percent of total air-time, followed closely by politics and entertainment news. Bringing up the tail-end, though with a significant share, is astrology, with over 3 percent.

A roughly similar order priorities is evident in the print media, which in the days before the TV news channel, devoted perhaps 40 percent of front-page space to politics. That has come down to just under a quarter of the total for the English-language press. A close second is crime with 21 percent of front-page space. The economy, sports and entertainment, all figure in the middle-single digit range in terms of the proportion of front-page space claimed in the English language press.

With advertising spending now in recession, the media and in particular – the newspaper industry – faces the prospect of having to rethink its comfortable belief that the race to the bottom is the surest pathway to profit. Charging for content is an option that is talked about though few have ventured down that road yet. Objective circumstances indicate that consumers would perhaps pay for news content, if the quality of information obtained can bear the burden. Surveys in the west have shown -- and the situation in India is likely similar – that internet users are increasingly spending their time online browsing through news sites. Typically, the first site that this traffic passes through would be the news aggregators, such as Google. But they finally come to roost on the website of an old media company.

That would be an opportunity for any media company that chooses to prioritise quality of content. Unfortunately, that variety of thinking does not seem to have yet dawned.

An issue that has emerged in the foreground of discussions on media policy in the context of the recession, is that of foreign investment. After long having resisted the entry of the foreign investor on lofty grounds such as national sovereignty, the print media effected a dramatic switch in 2004. This was in part because the Hindustan Times, after standing firm in opposing foreign investment along with two other majors – ToI and The Hindu – switched loyalties after the beating it received in the price wars. But foreign investment was still confined to less than a 25 percent stake in news and current affairs publications.

Today there is a buzz in policy circles over raising the foreign ownership ceiling to 50 percent. And unlike in earlier junctures, when they were quick to mobilise and shoot down any hint of a change in policy, the industry lobbies seem strange quiescent. This is not surprising, since all the holdouts have in recent months shown greater receptivity towards foreign investment. Once the change of policy was effected in 2004, ToI was quick to spin off its magazines into a separate company and tie up a minority share sale with a major global media company. Even The Hindu, which had been the most obdurate in its resistance, has of late been in talks with foreign media groups for perhaps selling an equity stake of upto 24 percent.

Apart from the stories of competition in the media, there is a parallel narrative of collusion too. In March 2005, HT and the ToI entered into a compact, raising cover prices and ad rates. That was the formal truce and disengagement after the bitter price wars of the decade prior. Shortly afterwards, the two got into a phase of active engagement, launching a joint venture newspaper, Metro Now, targeted ostensibly at the youth demographic. The venture never reached anywhere near a viable level of circulation or ad support and was in 2009, converted into a weekly. As with other publications in the past, this is regarded as most likely, the precursor to imminent closure.

The Hindu’s decision to close down its freesheet, Ergo, launched in December 2007 and targeted at Chennai city’s large and growing community of information technology professionals, underlines yet again the fallibility of the of low-cost media model, driven by advertising rather than quality. It is also a measure of the depth of the crisis facing India’s media that a paper targeted towards a professional strata of high and growing purchasing power, failed to attract and hold advertiser interest in a major metropolitan centre such as Chennai.

What are the pathways that then lie open if the Indian media should choose to persist with its attitude of disregarding the quality imperative? Shifting the lines demarcating editorial and advertising is one possible option. In March 2003, the ToI announced a new initiative – “Medianet” -- that was professedly part of its effort to stay current with journalistic practices in rapidly changing times. “Medianet” was in the words of the ToI management, part of their “desire to drive the market, to constantly break new ground”.

The deficiency of traditional news-gathering, the ToI explained, was apparent especially in new areas of audience interest – such as “lifestyle, fashion, entertainment, events, product launches, social personalities and city happenings”. This was in part, because public relations agencies, which had a much more sensitive feel of the pulse in these areas, had always had a rather uneasy interface with journalism.

Subtlety aside, this was a reference to the pervasive journalistic practice of accepting and even actively soliciting, various forms of gratification for news and editorial coverage that might be of material benefit to particular individuals or entities. Through Medianet, the ToI professedly, was curbing this corruption of the trade by institutionalising it. Objectivity and integrity of editorial content would no longer be at risk from the susceptibility of individual journalists. The organisation itself would bear that onus of carrying content that was paid for, though only with explicit acknowledgment.

After making “infotainment” a staple of the media industry, the ToI now fostered a new hybrid entity called “advertorial”, which would allow sponsors to feature stories of special interest in its news columns. Needless to say, the early assurance that this new operational philosophy would respect traditional walls of distinction between advertisements and editorial, has not quite been fulfilled.

Two years later, the ToI introduced another innovation, called “private treaties”. And it involved the acquisition by the ToI group, of shares in enterprises in exchange for advertising space. When the concerned enterprise grew to a level where it could conceivably go public, the media company that had freely advertised its merits would cash in.

The ToI was the pathfinder and most media enterprises, including the broadcast companies, have eagerly followed. “Private treaties” is now accepted practice for numerous media groups.

Since the stock market boom of the 1980s, professional bodies have actively engaged themselves with the ethics of individual journalists reporting on corporate entities that they hold a stake in. That engagement has yielded much of value, including guidelines on disclosure and transparency, applicable on every journalist. The “private treaties” phenomenon again, displaces this ethical issue, taking it out of the domain of the individual journalist or his professional peer group. Conflicts of interest have now been institutionalised and the norms on corporate disclosure are even more lax. Peer pressure might have worked at the level of the individual journalist. But the shared complicity of media companies seemingly ensures that the public will remain in the dark about the many motivations that drive the tone and content of reporting on financial matters.

Part of the crisis of the media today is the severe loss of credibility of the readership and audience measurement process, which is in turn an outcome of the enormous pressures it has suffered from interested media groups. The National Readership Study (NRS), promoted by India’s main newspaper industry lobby, was discontinued in 2006 after serious discrepancies and inconsistencies in its findings. The Indian Readership Survey (IRS), a creation of the advertising industry, continues on an annual basis, though its findings leave ample room for interpretations of convenience.

A Broadcast Audience Research Council was set up late in 2007 as a joint venture of the industry and the advertising agencies. It is expected to begin its work soon, after a long and arduous process of negotiating appropriate methodologies. Few seem to have any regrets about the older system of TV ratings, always prone to erupt in unseemly controversies, fading away into history. But few again, have any hopes that the new venture will bring in a more accountable and transparent system.

With all these changes, the print media today faces a dearth of options. After the progressive devaluation of the editorial function and news gathering, quality of content does not justify charging a price for access. Paid content, which is the option currently being explored as a last-ditch survival bid by the global newspaper majors, does not seem a viable proposition for their Indian counterparts.

An alternative scenario, of a brutal bout of blood-letting and the survival only of the fittest, seems ever more likely. Diversity and consumer choice look the likely victims of the current downturn in media fortunes.