Sunday, November 30, 2008

What good PR looks like

Watching This Week with George Stephanopolous and they had the Ambassador of Pakistan Hussain Haqqani. Haqqani is a very intelligent scholar and diplomat and an excellent choice for Ambassador in my opinion. I heard him speak once at the Council of World Affairs in San Francisco a few years ago and came away extremely impressed.

He showed how such situations should be handled: hit all the Pakistan talking points (Pakistan is a democracy, also a victim of terrorism, we feel India's pain, acknowledges the Pakistani roots of the problem but blames it on non-state actors).

At the same time he acknowledged that there is a problem with Pakistan and Afghanistan being the locus of 'Jihad central'. He also did not make any pejorative claims or arguments against India.

He also made the very important point that these attacks should not be viewed in the usual India-Pakistan prism.

Throughout he was calm, progressive in thinking and articulate.

Good PR and diplomacy 101.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Immediate Thoughts on Bombay

It is still too early to say anything meaningful about Bombay, while the bodies are still being counted, but here a few thoughts:

Someone held up this placard on NDTV today:

Mr. Terrorist I am alive. What can you do?
Mr. Politician I am alive despite of you
I am a Mumbaikar

Yes, there is a real, palpable anger in Bombay right now. And it is directed not just at the terrorists responsible for what happened but against politicians of all hues and the political system in general. The reaction of Bombayites and Indians all over the world is one of anger- but mostly directed against the political class. Farookh Sheikh (one of my favorite actors of the 70's and 80's and now a respected public commentator) pointed out the stark contrast between the sense of duty displayed by people like Taj GM Kang who continued to direct operations at Taj even though his wife and children had been killed by the terrorists on the one hand and the absolutely self-serving attitude of politicians on the scene.

There is much to be angry about. From politicians like Modi who tried to garner political points even as the operations were continuing, to the growing accusation that the NSG, who were thoroughly professional in their operations, were unsupported and tied up in protecting security for politicians - the disgust with the political system is apparent.

Why? Lets just take 2 examples:
This from the Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patel who spoke of the attacks (translated from Hindi) in the following way: "such small incidents keep happening everywhere. It could have been much worse so there was no intelligence failure"

What do you even say to that?

Narendra Modi (about whom the less one can say the better) standing in front of the Trident as operations were still continuing, taking up valuable resources that were no doubt employed to ensure his security and announcing 1 crore rupees to the family of the slain ATS chief Hemant Karkare. This when Modi and his goons placed enormous political pressure and threatened Karkare for his investigation of possible Hindu militants involvement in the Malegoan attacks. And he had the gall to offer a crore to the Karkare family? How crass can you get? The widow of Karkare revealed her strong but dignified revulsion by refusing the money outright.

And the Thackrey's? They and the MNS who deserve whatever is coming to them - they actually blamed the attacks on 'overcrowding of the city' no doubt referring to N. Indian migrants. This when the core of the NSG, army and people who gave up their lives in Bombay were from all over India. Scum is too kind a word.

Scum is too kind a word.

Yes, there is anger. And I feel it only too strongly, sitting thousands of miles away.

Vir Sanghvi has an op-ed in todays Hindustan Times in which he notes that there are only three countries with repeated terrorist attacks today- Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. I could add iraq too but he has a point. For all their faults, the Bush administration has ensured that no major terrorist act has occurred in the US. Bali, London and Madrid were also all turning points for their countries which have not occurred again. In contrast India has suffered more attacks in the last month than Iraq, according to a startling statistic.

And yet nothing concrete changes. Something's got to give. It just did and it is time for big changes.

If that sounds vague, let me offer 6 concrete, doable things that can change:

1. Their must be a review and reform of the security of important public places. That terrorists walked into the VT station, the Taj and other such obvious symbols and centers of Mumbai is mind-boggling. Bags should be checked, metal detectors need to be places at the entrances of such areas, security personnel need to be present. At all entrances. Not just the front. This is a given - it feels stupid to even write this.

At the very minimum, politicians, celebrities etc. they should not be allowed access to such areas and in crisis situations like this unless absolutely necessary. They should definitely not be allowed to conduct mini-press conferences, touting their own party platforms when a situation like this in progress. Also free up resources be reviewing the 'z' level security provided to VIPs.

2. On a larger scale, this was obviously a colossal intelligence failure. How did 10-15 people create all this chaos? This has to have been planned for months at the very least. They came by boats, they brought bags of ammunition, they had booked hotel rooms at the Taj where they set up control rooms and stored ammunition, they knew the hotels inside out...
The most galling thing is that RAW had apparently received intercepts that talked about a possible attack on Bombay around Nov. 18 where the route would be via sea. We hear this and you wonder- and? What are we supposed to do with that?
Regardless, this is a huge wake up call for Indian intelligence-obviously there needs to be a massive investigation into the missed signals and intercepts, there needs to be greater coordination between the different agencies, more material support and infrastructure for core groups like the NSG ( a dedicated plane seems to be a minimal starting point, so is better equipment) and much more support for basic policing and law and order.
Unburden the NSG from being tied up in protecting VIP's- there must be cuts that can be made.

3. Fire/ get rid of incompetent leaders and officers. Start with Shivraj Patil who is an unmitigated disaster.
ETA 11/30/08 He quit. And P Chidamabaram is the new home minister. Good

4. We must identify and be clear about what we mean by 'elements in Pakistan'. Does this mean the government? the ISI? non-state groups? Surely not the common people? By repeating age-old rhetoric about the 'foreign hand' we fail to acknowledge the paradigm shift of events such as the Mumbai acts, we hamper cooperation between the two countries on counter-terrorism which is imperative, we create more anger among diverse groups and we fail to focus on the groups and targets we need to combat. Words and concepts matter- they should be used widely.

5. Linked to this: Reassess political rhetoric. Be more circumspect and cautious when giving public and official statements. The entire Indian political class needs a lesson in PR - words are crucially important and this entire episode has seen irresponsible, self-aggrandizing and age-old tropes in the official reactions to the crisis.

Contrast this to the simple, effective and professional conduct of the people actually in the midst of the situation with the most to lose- the NSG commandos, policemen, fire fighters, hostages, tourists, Taj staff and ordinary civilians. They were quiet, matter of fact and humane. There is a lesson there.

6. The media needs to seriously introspect about their own ethics and professionalism. I've posted about this before so I won't belabor the point but if the Indian blogosphere is any indication, they will hear the disdain of many people and should think about it.

These 6 things are not small things but they are doable - they would go a considerable way in what is to follow.

I end this post feeling what so many Bombayites must feel right now- deeply sad, angry and disgusted at the way our politicians have responded to this crisis and immensely proud heartened and touched by the stories of bravery, kindness and (lets say it) heroism (trite as that may sound) from so many nameless people.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Day 3

And still this nightmare goes on...
There has been nothing like this- total urban warfare. I can't wrap my head around the idea that this is now 3 days in and Bombay is still bleeding.

And what can one do but keep a virtual vigil?

And hope and pray for everyone there, and for all.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Taj as I will remember it

The Taj of Mumbai
Originally uploaded by betta design

Taj Mahal Hotel
Originally uploaded by reidmix

I remember how stunning the Taj looked on a bright day in 2002 when I wandered around the Marine drive.
The sheer scale combined with the intricacy of carving on the facade is just beautiful. The Heritage Wing, which was just gorgeous has been destroyed in the last few days. Pictures can be found here
Pictures courtesy Flickr

Watching Bombay Unfold

It's way too early but from what I see there are a few outright stories of bravery already emerging from the mayhem in Mumbai/Bombay:

First, the Taj Hotel Staff has come in for unified praise by guests who were trapped inside the hotel and made it outside. By all accounts, they appear to have been calm, clear in instructions and with a clear plan for what the guests should do. I can't imagine how people can stay professional and calm in such terrifying circumstances. Amazing.

Second, the NSG, Army, police and firemen who despite crumbling infrastructure and rampant chaos have persevered for more than 34 hours now, despite losing some very important figureheads.

Third, stories of heroism from Bombayites and from foreign visitors who focused on the task at hand and displayed an unnatural calm. This is the least surprising given what one knows about Mumbai/Bombay but remarkable nonetheless.

I will not single anyone out for criticism but I'll just say how appalled I am by the Indian news media's coverage of this whole situation- initially they were hysterical and breathless which is perhaps understandable but as time has gone by two things have really disgusted me 1. the insensitivity towards waiting relatives and 2. the absolute lack of restraint and respect for the requests of security personnel not to reveal details of the operations that are going on. They keep parroting how they've been asked not to reveal anything but then happily reveal all sorts of information that even to my untrained eye are patently sensitive.

There is a lot of growing up that clearly needs to occur but perhaps this is the turning point for how the media handles situations such as these. This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a Professor of PR at the Newhouse school about the lessons the US media leaned from the terrible mistakes made during covering the Lockerbie bombings. There must be a lot of introspection later about the language, tactics and thrust of the way the media has covered this event.

Can someone please shut Barkha Dutt up? She might as well be directing the terrorists with a GPS system and don't even get me started on her interrogation (there is no other word) of relatives and victims.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


What can one possibly say? This is just sad beyond belief. 
Be strong Bombay...

Fox news has a live stream from NDTV

Monday, November 24, 2008

Parrots and Prawns...

Today is quite the day for animals, first Yang Yang the assertive Panda and now Alex the African gray parrot.

I just finished reading this NYT review of a book about Alex the Parrot. I've really been drawn to the story of Alex who seemed to have been an intelligent, loving bird with a really colorful personality.

By the way, this is what gives me pause about being non-vegetarian (although I rarely eat meat). I would totally become vegetarian except for two things- my mom's cooking and shrimp (and don't even get me started on my mom's shrimp)...

As P.G. Wodehouse knew, there is just something about prawns that is a persons undoing. Wodehouse fans should immediately get this reference. For others, go read Wodehouse for the 'story of the prawns'! But before that read the magical, heartwarming story of Alex the parrot.

Kung Fu Panda?

WTF story of the day: Some genius in China got bitten by Yang Yang, a not-so-cuddly Panda recently because he thought that the Panda was cute and thus would be amenable to a hug. So he promptly decided to jump into the Panda enclosure at the zoo. The panda, of course, did not appreciate this interest and responded to the friendly overtures by biting the poor idiot, who made it out safely...

What I love about this story is the following line:

"Yang Yang, who was flown to Guilin last year from Sichuan province, was behaving normally on Saturday and did not seem to suffer any negative psychological effects.."

Of course Yang Yang is fine. S/he has the satisfaction of having much the higher IQ here.

This story reminded me of the San Francisco Zoo incident last year (curiously also around this time) when three drunken louts enraged a female tiger so much that she miraculously jumped 30 feet and mauled them. Most public opinion was firmly on the side of the tiger on that occasion too...

Moral of the story: Let sleeping Tigers/Pandas/what have you lie...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The importance of enemies: Al Qaeda's statement on Obama

Its been a while since I posted something (you know how it is, life intervened) so it's fitting that I should write about something close to my mind, if not my heart- yes, my area of academic interest: the discourse of political-violence.
ETA: Not writing for a while really shows. Sorry for the clunky text that follows (though it is International Relations so how exciting could it have been anyway?)

Al Qaeda released its first statement after the election of Barack Obama and it is not pretty. Most of the media reports have been focusing on the use of racial epiteths against Obama in the statement. I think the real story is in the way AQ has wasted little time in signaling that it is business as usual for them. Those, such as Andrew Sullivan for instance, who thought that the Obama era would make it more difficult for radical groups to rail against the USA, the statement puts an end to that sort of thinking. It shows that all that will happen is that al Qaeda and other groups will adapt their rhetoric in the service of the same position against America and try to undermine the positive feeling in the US and elsewhere.

The trope that the media has focused on is that Obama is simply a stooge of 'whites' and of the establishment. This is mildly interesting to me. I don't think being politically correct is particularly important to groups like these. What is more interesting (and alarming) to me is that the statement actively states that Obama's polices are a continuation of previous policies and that there will be no let up in the 'Islamic' movement against the US. Basically, there's no trial waiting period here folks...the statement seems designed to address voices that said that having a US President with the middle name of Hussein would seriously stymie fundamentalists. Bosh.

This should not surprise those of us who take theories of identity about the fundamental self/other relationship seriously. Simply put, actors (states, groups, people) become attached and entrenched in adversarial relationships because it is a source of fundamental stability and sense of purpose to juxtapose oneself against an 'other'. In the realm of the political, the key distinction is the 'friend/enemy' distinction as Carl Schmitt told us writing in 1927. Having a stable enemy, despite the many costs it ay bring, gives actors a better and more coherent sense of self in the political arena and this is why there was never any way that there would be any active reconsidering of the US by Al Qaeda and vice's just interesting to see it all play out so starkly. It doesn't fundamentally matter who the President is, the rhetoric would have adapted but stayed the same. So if we had had Hilary Clinton, the tropes would have been undeniably sexist and violent, if it had been McCain, the trope would have been more triumphalist and Bush-centric....but the essential stance will not change.
For those who place a premium on theories of leadership, this kind of episode once again highlights my fundamental unease with theories that place too much explanatory power on leaders. It's just a lot more complex than that.

OK IR musings done... apologies to Carl Schmitt for massacring his theory, though he was a Nazi figurehead which makes me considerably less sorry.

In the end, the only comfort this statement brings me is that it makes those people that pushed the 'pals around with terrorists' argument look pretty darn stupid...once again. But oh wait, they probably don't read the papers. Or maybe they read them all but can't name a single one.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Movie Review: 'The Visitor'

I just watched the best film I've seen all year. 'The Visitor' is an uncommonly intelligent movie about complex issues (immigration, belonging, loss, multiculturalism) facing interesting, realistic characters.

In a nutshell, the movie is about a disillusioned, slightly sad Connecticut College Professor who goes to New York for a conference on 'Economies in the Developing World'. He is intending to stay in his small, unused New York City apartment (one of the more unbelievable elements in the story- wouldn't he have rented it out?). He's shocked to find a couple (illegal aliens from Senegal and Syria) squatting in the apartment. Some strange combination of curiosity, kindness, rebellion perhaps, makes him agree to let the couple stay on for a few days till they find a new place. A fledgling friendship starts between the three of them...One day Tarek (the Syrian guy) is arrested in the subway and is placed in a detention facility once his illegal status is revealed.

What follows next is believable, human and moving. At no point is the story cliched, though it easily could have been. The professor, Walter (Richard Jenkins, I give you my own personal oscar now) is curious, eager to step into multi-cultural absolution but is too intelligent and nuanced to become a politically correct caricature. Tarek is friendly, warm and unguarded but Zaneb is quieter- more hardened by her circumstances, more withdrawn. Tarek's mother, who enters later in the film and is played beautifully by Hiam Abass is intelligent, cautious but compassionate. Their interactions with each other and each other's worlds ring true and are full of small illuminations, little moments where I found myself smiling in recognition of a situation, coming from my own strangely apt experience as a foreigner in the US academic space.

Other moments are heart breaking, only because they are so plausible. The everyday indignities inflicted on Tarek and Zaneb, and the way they cope with them, sometimes with laughter, other times with anger, were difficult to watch. Walter's discomfort and helplessness mirrors the viewers own.

It is clear where its agenda and loyalties lie- this is a film with a liberal agenda on immigration, no apologies made about it. But in contrast to other such movies, it does so in a very small scale, true to life way. And I think it succeeds greatly over something like 'Lions for Lambs' which was too self conscious of its own agenda and which I wanted to love but just couldn't. The ending is perhaps a little contrived but even though it pulls at our heart strings, I don't think it is implausible that very likeable, vibrant people all over the world have very unjust things happen to them under the hand of the 'law'. Not implausible at all.

Another notable thing- this movie gets Professors, and academic life in general, right. Movie portrayals of professors and university life are often terrible cliches. Professor's in Hollywood are either impossibly handsome and inspiring (Robert Redford in 'Lions for Lambs'), cool, contrarian and 'with it' (Robin Williams in any role) a uniform of tweed blazers and khakis surrounded by students who spout off smart one liners apathetically....OR they are stuffy, pompous and boring (and thus obviously plump, with glasses and a bald head) or sleazy and lecherous (think Legally Blonde). And of course, they all have beautiful offices with carefully placed piles of books and fabulous views of green lawns full of laughing students throwing frisbees. The students they interact with are always supposedly bright hipsters who are too lazy to care about the world until the end of the film, when its too late. Yawn.

The 'Visitor' is different. There are so many 'that's so true' moments- the insular world of professors working on similar jargony papers, the things people say that academics secretly both revel in and cringe at ( 'you have four books you must be really intelligent'), the big-buffet like atmosphere of academic conferences with the mass exodus of people from convention hotels wearing their nametags like a veritable badge, the unwillingness to talk about work when its going badly, the excuses we make to ourselves when we know we're not doing anything, the excuses made by students...all those vignettes were refesrhingly honest and bang on.

5 stars, two thumbs up...whatever rating you prefer, consider it made.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


11:03 The networks are calling Obama the winner.



ETA: Gwen Ifill just said "We know now that Barack Obama will be the next President" and I got goosebumps...

P.S. I was wrong on all my predictions except the last one, the most important one. I've never been happier to be wrong... so much for pessimism....a new day has come.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On the eve of election '08

I'm going to stick my neck out and make a few predictions:

1. It's going to be closer than people have been saying.

2. The polls will have exaggerated things.

3. There will be massive logistical problems

(wow, cheerful stuff eh?)


4. Obama will win

The last one is wishful thinking, not much more. I'm not at all one to be complacent about these polls etc- I don't trust them at all and they have been wrong so far. I think complacency opposed by zeal is the thing to be scared tomorrow.

So till we know for sure...I guess there's nothing to do but to hope for the best and vote for the best.

Is it wrong that I am more nervous about this election than any other one before this? This is just so important and historic and will impact all of us. I have to laugh at the thought that I'm turning into one of those fledgling NRI's who Jhumpa Lahiri writes about- in the Namesake she has this great line about how Indians in the US debate US politics with such passion and heat, even though they will never vote (I'm not doing it justice at all, but even as I read it in India, I knew exactly what she was talking about and now I am totally living that cliche... but it has just been such a ride. And I do political science, so this is my life...

This brings me to a huge, compelling question: what in the world am I going to do once this election is over? So much of the last few months, certainly weeks has been wrapped up in talking about, reading, thinking about and yes, writing about election '08. Now I'm going to have to find something to do.....hmm, perhaps my work?

It's going to be a big day tomorrow- we're having an election party in the department. What better way to watch the elections than with a bunch of liberal political scientists? I remember how crushing the same party was in 2004, hopefully tomorrow the US will elect Barack Obama...and this chapter will end differently and happily, for now at least.

Fingers crossed.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

D- List: October 2008

In keeping with the monthly list tradition, here are my picks of the month:

Best New Discovery: Three discoveries here- 1. The music of Erik Satie (1866- 1925), a French composer. Discovered it on NPR's 'All songs considered' podcast. It was haunting, spare, sad and beautiful. 2. World cat- thanks to 'Iowa-Syr-D.C.girl' 3. I like blogging

Best TV/Movie moment (behold, new category): I'm not going to go the obvious SNL route...I found the Letterman/McCain feud pretty funny. But really, there were no stand outs. What this should be about is how I have successfully cut down on TV watching. I can feel my brain cells growing back slowly but youtube keeps killing them...

Podcast of the month: Slate's cultural gabfest. Experts sit around and come up with surprisingly insightful takes on everything from Sarah Palin to Microsoft ads to whether the economic depression will make for better movies....good stuff.

Blog of the Month: Lulu loves Bombay. 'Lulu' also had previous blogs about Manhattan and London- these are great food blogs with recipes, reviews and nice pictures too. Lulu seems cool too, very cosmopolitan and an inventive cook.

Best Book: I went back to Salman Rushdie's 'Shame' this month, after reading a thought provoking essay on him by Amitava Kumar. I wanted to see again, does Rushdie over write? Are his characters thin metaphors? Is he ultimately just a talented expat writer who exoticizes South Asia? Upon reading Shame, I think not. It's still as powerful to me as it was the first time I read it. That doesn't mean his last few books weren't disappointing but Rushdie at his best is formidable.
Next week I will finally read 'White Tiger' so I'll blog about that hopefully.

Best Song: Rather than a song, I'm liking Ray LaMontagne's album Gossip in the Grain. Great lyrics, interesting textured voice...(I bet you're just happy I didn't make a JM reference. Oh... too late!)

Best Article: This was a great month for articles, so I'll present two: First, Andrew Sullivan's essay on why he blogs. Apart from being of interest to anyone who writes or reads blogs, it's a nice look at the emotions and dynamics of this relatively new (but perhaps no more) but rapidly flourishing medium.
The second one was a New Yorker piece on Leonard Trilling, the Columbia University professor of English who was a famous literary critic. That's the beauty of the New Yorker, to take something that screams snoozefest and then write about it so you're sad when it ends.

Best Academic Article: "The naming and shaming" article in IO. Scarily close to my dissertation - being 'scooped' is the grad student's ultimate fear but useful over all.

Best meal: 2nd story's Ham, brie, fig jam and onion sandwich...I love it so much I even took a picture of it.

It's the kind of sandwich that makes you understand Joey's love for sandwiches on Friends. It probably means I'll never eat anything else at 2nd story (it's a book store on the second storey, get it?) though the entire menu looks good. It looks fairly easy to make too and even if you're vegetarian- the idea of melted brie and fig jam (or any kind of textured jam that's not too sweet) works very well. Oh god... now I want one.

Best Moment: Realizing that I get an extra hour...starting right now. So this is an hour of my life that I will get back...

Picture of the month: My African Violets are blooming again, for the third year in a row...My name is not Dr. Green Thumb (bonus points to anyone who catches the reference) so this is quite an achievement. Thanks to 'tulip' for the gift, which was a house warming present.

Challenge of the Month: Articulating

Lesson of the month: Good things (papers, ideas, minds, friendships, bonds, art) get better with time... if they don't, they're not good things.

Overheard in the 'Cuse

Halloween Night 2008

" I say that to all the girls, even if they're ugly, makes them feel good..."- Indian guy talking to his friend after shouting "what's up cutie" to a sluttily dressed girl across the street.

See, chivalry is not dead...

"From the back I thought he was Jesus" - my friend spying a guy dressed as the 'Dude' from Big Lebowski

' Look!! Look!! Slutty Cop/Nurse/School girl/Devil/fairy/cat/bunny/referee/maid....!!" - Me every 5 minutes...

Such are the small pleasures in life....

ETA: The title of this post comes from the insanely funny 'Overheard in New York" website.