Friday, December 19, 2008

india's new wave

A community of Krishna devotees combines surfing and spirituality on the shores of Karnataka

By Jason Overdorf/Mulky, India
DESTINASIAN (December 2008)

ON A STEAMY AFTERNOON IN SOUTHERN KARNATAKA, Jack Hebner—a.k.a. Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha, a.k.a. Swamiji, a.k.a. Guru Maharaj (“Great Teacher”)—steps off a Mangalore jetty onto the rocks that form the pier’s foundation. He slides his Pope surfboard into the chocolate brown waters of the Arabian Sea for the epic paddle out to India’s busiest surf break, which sees maybe a handful of surfers a couple of times a month.

Hebner’s 61-year-old muscles aren’t all they used to be. “A couple years ago, I got down to do some pushups, and I couldn’t get one. That’s when I told myself, ‘The Swami’s life is too sedentary.’ ” So instead of fighting the white water, Hebner paddles out through the harbor and around the jetty to get outside the break. It’s a one kilometer slog, and by the time he’s made it, three of his disciples —among the first Indians to take up surfing—have already dropped in on a bunch of waves. Since there’s no lineup anywhere along India’s 7,500-kilometer coastline, that’s easy to do. It takes Hebner 15 minutes or so to recover his breath. Then he knee-paddles into a curling two-meter swell, drops in, and rides it as majestically as anybody known as the Great Teacher could be expected to do.

A guest at Hebner’s Ashram Surf Retreat in the nearby town of Mulky, I watch for a few more minutes before paddling out myself. I’d stumbled across Hebner and his crew online a few months earlier back home in Delhi. Even though I’d never caught a wave in my life, I’d seen enough clips from movies like Endless Summer to convince myself that one day I had to learn. When I read about Hebner and the Mantra Surf Club he cofounded two years ago, it was like, well, karma.

Jack Hebner, who took the name Swami Narasingha in 1976, isn’t your typical surfer. For one thing, the sun-burnished native of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, doesn’t drink, and he has kept a vow of celibacy for three decades. For another, he’s a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna. But it’s that eccentric combination of passions that brought him in the early 1990s to India’s southwestern coast, where he’s now working to develop a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor, and wakes up every morning at 4:30 to pray. Led by Hebner and Rick Perry (another American follower of Krishna, who goes by the name Baba), they call themselves “the Surfing Swamis.” According to Hebner, a recognized Hindu guru with almost 200 local disciples, “Surfing isn’t just about getting in the water and catching a few waves, it’s about something much deeper than that. It’s about a spiritual experience.”

The spiritual experience offered by his Ashram Surf Retreat—which, at US$60 a night, can seem a little too monastic at times—isn’t for everybody. That’s probably why this bizarre hybrid of commune, temple, and hotel has only two guest rooms. The resident devotees—who include Hebner, Perry, a California couple, and five young Indian brahmacharyas (novice monks)—all chip in to keep the place running, shopping for food, cleaning, teaching guests to surf, and so on. Every morning they hold a prayer service that involves blowing a conch shell, ringing cymbals, singing, chanting, and just about everything else that inspired the invention of the Do Not Disturb sign. Although the food is satisfying enough after a few hours in the pounding waves, it is strictly vegetarian. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, and guests are requested to abstain from sex. Those caveats aside, however, I can tell you that I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I also lost four kilograms and kicked the gout that had been troubling me for weeks. And, yes, after three days of long paddles, lungfuls of water, nosedives, and brutal wipeouts, I learned to surf.

INDIA’S COASTLINE INCLUDES at least 200 surfable river mouths and countless bays, coves, and points, all of which hint at the presence of secret waves. It’s completely uncharted territory for surfers, and every break is deserted; in India, almost nobody knows how to swim, let alone surf. But it won’t always be so. According to India Today magazine, the subcontinent’s adventure-tourism business—including trekking, climbing, caving, diving, and paragliding—is growing at more than 35 percent a year, and has the potential to attract half a million foreign tourists annually. Surf safaris could be just over the horizon, considering that many of India’s known surf spots boast awe-inspiring cultural attractions, such as the ancient Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu and the dramatic Juggernaut Festival at Puri in Orissa. Indeed, the buzz has already started. Last year, one of Hebner’s
team led a group of professional surfers and photographers for Surfing Magazine on a two-week photo tour of southern India. The legendary French surf explorer Anthony “Yep” Colas has included India in the latest volume of his World Stormrider Guides, while filmmaker Taylor Steel is said to be featuring the country in his next surfing documentary. And with the Surfing Swamis spreading the word locally, India’s undiscovered breaks won’t be deserted for long.

The best place for beginners is the Ashram Surf Retreat’s home break in Mulky, a sleepy hamlet near Mangalore (about 360 kilometers from Karnataka’s state capital, Bangalore, offically Bengaluru) on India’s southwestern coast. The retreat itself is nestled in a grove of palm and banana trees at the mouth of the Shambhavi River, so you don’t even have to load up the jeep to hit the water. It’s a long paddle out to the local beach breaks—named, in good surfer tradition, Baba’s Left, Tree Line, Swami’s,
and Water Tank—but if you time it right, you can ride the river current out and catch the tide coming in when you call it quits, a big energy saver after two or three hours of surfing. The jetty in Mangalore, which provides a more predictable wave than the river mouth, is about an hour’s drive away. There are also some interesting day trips available to the local Jain and Hindu temples, and the ashram has a boat for wakeboarding and snorkeling trips to nearby islands. That’s good news for would-be learners,
because, believe me, you may not be up to surfing every day.

On my first day at the ashram, I woke at 6 a.m. as instructed by Govardhan, the Californian charged with getting me up on a board. By the time I’d fixed myself a cup of coffee, I could hear the trumpet of the conch shell announcing the beginning of prayers, and then the muted beat of the drum, the tinkle of finger cymbals, and the familiar chant: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Unlike the temple worshippers that I have cursed soundly from ill-positioned hotel rooms in Indian cities from Ahmedabad to Lucknow, the Surfing Swamis don’t feel compelled to shout the house down to express their spirituality. So the service offered a pleasant, if somewhat surreal, soundtrack as I finished the novel I’d brought with me (there are no TVs or phones in the rooms). At 7 a.m. we hit the beach.

Looking back at my notes, I see that I’ve written “Baptism by fire this morning.” It was grim. The wash was murky from the churn, a light rain was falling, and the waves were breaking almost on top of each other, in some places crashing vertically into foam instead of rolling gradually toward shore. Again and again, Govardhan helped me drag the board—a giant learner model as unwieldy as a canoe—out into the surf, and again and again I was pummeled, swept under, and pulled into shore by the leash securing the board to my ankle. This must be what water torture feels like, I thought. I took it in 30-minute intervals, between which I stood gasping on the beach with a few fishermen, who evidently looked upon Govardhan as some kind of freakish water god. Even most of India’s fishermen, it seems, can’t swim; for them, the ocean is a fearsome place to earn a living, or to die trying. And here was a bunch of guys playing on it like it was a roller coaster. Even I earned some grudging respect for my apparent willingness to undergo a painfully slow form of drowning. Bottom line: don’t believe the “flat as a pancake” stories you hear from ravers back from a New Year’s trip to Goa, when the Arabian Sea is as calm as Buddha himself. India’s southwest coast is not only for beginners. It gets some big waves—up to six-meter breakers during the October–December post-monsoon season.

After breakfast, I slept most of the day. That night I had an audience with Hebner, whom I’d come to call Swamiji in his official capacity as guru of the Sri Narasingha Chaitanya Math (his 200-member ashram in Mysore) and the Ashram Surf Retreat. Like most people, I knew a bit about the so-called Hare Krishna movement, which is perhaps most renowned for its widely criticized (and now banned) fundraising efforts in American airports. But I didn’t know that the radical social movement had made a gradual transformation to something more like a conventional church since the death of its founder, Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. And I certainly didn’t know that many of Prabhupada’s followers, like Hebner, had been repelled by the growing commercialism of the movement and distanced themselves from the official “church”—the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON. Frankly, I’d half expected to find a throwback society of brainwashed freaks, though my morning on the water with the Surfing Swamis had already disabused me of that notion. Now, I was treated to the full story of Jack Hebner’s metamorphosis into Swami Narasingha, a humorous yarn that ventured as far and wide as the famous Morningstar Commune in California, Mama Papauna’s hellfire-and-brimstone Huelo Door of Faith Church on Maui, and some of the less religiously tolerant countries of Africa. By the end of the tale, at least in the context of India, Hebner’s beliefs struck me as eminently normal. He, too, was an easily recognized character. Citing the military careers of his father and brother, he told me, “I’m the saffron sheep of the family. The orange sheep.” Semi-employed, penniless, and free-thinking, I could relate—at least for a week.

Two days later, when the guys convinced me to paddle out beyond the break and I finally dropped in on a two-meter wave that I rode all the way into shore, I began to understand a little of the whole surfing-spirituality connection. Okay, my performance was more like that of Sandra Dee in Gidget than surf celeb Kelly Slater in Step Into Liquid. But even a guy who’d once bailed from the Osho International Meditation Resort in Pune because they wanted me to buy an orange robe could feel the vibe. For days, I’d been fighting the ocean—this omnipotent, amorphous, drowning thing—and now I was at once surrendering to and mastering its blind energy. It wasn’t hard to see how you could find a metaphor in that.

For more information about India’s nascent surfing scene and Jack Hebner’s Ashram Surfing Retreat, visit the Mantra Surf Club at

surfin' swamis: catching waves, and spirituality, in india

By Jason Overdorf -- for GlobalPost in The Huffington Post

NEW DELHI -- Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasingha paddles hard and drops into a 6-foot wave off the coast of Mangalore in South India.

As the 61-year-old surfer cuts left and races down the face of the wave spiralling toward the wastewater treatment plant up the beach, half a dozen local fishermen look on with bemused fascination at the aging white dude, who also goes by his given name of Jack Hebner.

Though India has 4,500 miles of coastline and gets 20-foot waves during the monsoon season, fear of the ocean and beaches that double as toilets have prevented surfing from catching on. But Hebner and his followers -- who call themselves "the Surfin' Swamis" -- are seeking to change all that with India's first surf ashram, or religious community.

"Surfing isn't just about getting in the water and catching a few waves," Hebner says. "It's about something much deeper than that. It's about a spiritual experience."

Hebner -- a Hindu monk from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, who doesn't drink or smoke and took a vow of celibacy 30 years ago -- isn't exactly what you picture when you think of a surfer.

But it's that weird combination that in 1991 brought Jack to India's southwestern coast, where he's working to start a surfing community that reveres the ocean, helps the poor and wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to chant "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna."

Hebner has been a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna since the early 1970s, when he became a disciple of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the controversial Hare Krishna movement in America.

However, like many Krishna devotees, he severed his association with the official inheritors of Prabhupada's American movement, the International Society for Kriskna Consciousness (ISKCON), not long after the guru's death in 1977.

He didn't give up his beliefs, though. He went to India, where the worship of Krishna, or Vaishnavism, goes back thousands of years.

With more than 200 Indian disciples in Mangalore and Mysore, Hebner has shown that Krishna consciousness can still find an audience among lifelong Hindus. "I'm like the saffron sheep of the family -- the orange sheep," says Hebner, whose brother and brother-in-law were already career U.S. military men when he began to float around Krishna communes.

One of the keys to respectability has been self-sufficiency. The American Hare Krishnas, best remembered for the bald devotees in orange robes who chanted "Hare Rama, Hare Krishna" in airports and bus stations to raise money for their communes, were condemned for their unconventional fundraising tactics.

But Hebner's ashram doesn't beg, they earn. In addition to renting rooms (and boards) to surfers, the monks do web design work contracted through a San Francisco company called Alian Design, and they run a Bangalore-based art gallery and a local bottled water company.

"We don't go out and ask for any money," says 21-year-old Kunjabihari, one of Hebner's Indian disciples. "To support the ashram, we start businesses. That's where the surfing comes in." Residents donate all their earnings from the ashram businesses to the commune.

By teaching India to surf alongside ancient monuments like the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram and the pilgrimage city of Dwarka, where according to Hindu mythology Lord Krishna is believed to have set up the capital of his empire 2,500 years ago, Hebner may also introduce the world to its last undiscovered breaks.

So far, Hebner and the Surfin' Swamis have taught about a dozen locals to surf, and they have already made a big dent in the perception that India's waters are flat as a pancake.

Last year, one of Hebner's disciples led pro surfers Justin Quirk, Warren Smith and Jesse Columbo as well as photographers for Surfing Magazine on a two-week photo tour of South India. This year the Surfin' Swamis will host another set of pros sponsored by Surfer Magazine. Anthony "Yep" Colas is featuring India in the next edition of World Stormrider Guide, known as "the surfer's bible." And surf filmmakers Taylor Steel and Dustin Humphrey are including India in their next movie.

Global financial crisis aside, the Surfing Swamis' timing looks to be right. McKinsey & Co. predicts that by 2025 the Indian middle class will grow tenfold to 500 million people. As Indians get richer, they're getting braver, too.

According to India Today magazine, the adventure tourism business -- including trekking, climbing, caving, diving and paragliding -- is growing at more than 35 percent a year, with the potential to attract another half a million foreign tourists.

Two of Hebner's Indian disciples -- Kunjabihari and Kirtanananda -- have already floated a company called Surf Adventure Enterprises that offers surf tours and lessons and sells gear online. The 20-something Indian youths consider working for Krishna the opportunity of a lifetime.

"My dream is to promote surfing in India," says Kunjabihari. launches January 12, 2009.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

buying peace of mind

India turns to the private sector for security New Delhi can't provide.

Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Dec 22, 2008

India's private-security industry has exploded in recent years, thanks to the country's longstanding terrorism problem and its inept police forces. Now business is likely to grow even faster in the wake of the Mumbai killings.

Just ask Vikram Singh, India's best-known private detective. Singh, who favors natty clothes and a Hercule Poirot mustache, has had a career that embodies the meteoric growth of his profession. Now chairman of the Central Association of the Private Security Industry (CAPSI), the 60-year-old former intelligence officer bet on the security business 30 years ago, when the Indian industry had no major players and security meant hiring an untrained guard with a club and a whistle. But Singh saw potential, and in 1995, he talked George Wackenhut, founder of the U.S.-based Wackenhut Corp., into forming a joint venture. Six years later, Singh sold his stake to focus on his own investigation agency, Lancers, which is now India's top-rated risk-consulting firm.

Now others are trying to get into the world's hottest market for private security, valued at $2 billion to $3 billion and employing 5.5 million personnel. Even before the Nov. 26 Mumbai attacks, the Indian industry was growing at an astounding clip of 35 percent. This year alone saw the founding of 200 new companies, and the sector expects to add 1 million new employees in 2009, which would make it India's largest employer. And that figure dates from before the attacks. Six international companies from Israel and Germany have also approached CAPSI about providing antiterrorism training, and surveillance-equipment companies are flocking in.

The reason is simple, says terrorism expert Ajai Sahni. India's police are dramatically understaffed, ill equipped and overburdened. "Our public systems are collapsing because there has for decades been insufficient investment in agencies meant to protect civilians," Sahni says. India has 1.45 police for every 1,000 citizens, less than half the global average, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor, sectarian tensions and external terrorist threats have all intensified, driving demand for protection. India's crime rate is rising, and incidents like the recent lynching of a multinational's CEO have stoked fears. Then there are the more than 4,000 terrorist attacks India suffered between 1970 and 2004.

The government's failure to respond has left the field open for private operators. But that's raised its own problems. The quality of many firms is questionable; around 200 Indian firms approach international standards, at least on paper, but 15,000 more operate under the radar without much training or background checks for personnel. Poorly enforced regulations mean that most guards earn less than the legal minimum wage. "It's by and large an exploitative industry, with poorly qualified, poorly trained recruits being flogged out by largely mercenary security agencies," said Sahni. The rent-a-cops are also barred by law from carrying guns, which can make them poor substitutes for the real deal.

Post-Mumbai, many Indian companies are demanding more sophisticated protection and better-trained, better-educated guards. Consumers are also migrating to globally recognized brands. "In the U.S. or Europe, security professionals get paid $25,000 to $60,000 a year," Arjun Wallia, chairman of Walsons-Securitas, said. "Whereas in the security industry here you get $100 a month. You pay peanuts, and you get monkeys."

The central government has also finally stepped in and, and after 10 years of lobbying by CAPSI, introduced legislation that requires firms to get a license and set norms for training and compensation. Among other things, the new law requires companies to give their guards a minimum of 160 hours of training. CAPSI is also making improvements voluntarily. It has formed agreements with three state governments to organize job fairs in rural areas and provide training facilities, and it is in talks with four other states.

In the meantime, business is booming. Singh says that about 25 percent of the work done by India's police could be outsourced. Already New Delhi is considering entrusting CAPSI with access control for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and high-ranking police officers are keen to farm out grunt work. The Army chief of staff estimates that 80,000 troops currently work as security guards and is considering outsourcing some of those jobs at noncritical locations, says Singh.

If these programs succeed, private security firms, rather than the beleaguered public sector, could soon become the country's first line of defense. In many ways, they already are.

© 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008

india's obama?

How the "Dalit Queen" is changing India, and slapping foes with sandals

By Jason Overdorf -- GlobalPost
December 12, 2008

NEW DELHI, India — As her lavish birthday celebration approaches, Mayawati Kumari, a powerful politician known for fiery speeches and a diva's temperament, has once again run into controversy. This time, it's not the size of her cake or her diamond necklace that has her in trouble with India's muckraking press, but the alleged murder of an engineer from the state's public works department by one of her party workers.

There's a thin line between politicians and gangsters in India, with as many as a third of the politicians forming the government of various Indian states facing criminal charges. But when a member of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — a party dedicated to uplifting India's oppressed Dalits — runs afoul of the law, it gets special attention.

This time around, the Indian press immediately jumped to the conclusion that the accused — a BSP member of the legislative assembly in Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati is chief minister — committed the alleged murder in the course of extorting money for Mayawati's annual birthday bash on Jan. 15. But now the police say there was no basis for the extortion motive reports.

Because she is a Dalit herself, Mayawati's birthday party has always been controversial. But due to her rising political power, the desire among her rivals to take her down a peg is today stronger than ever.

For centuries India's Dalits, the outcasts once called untouchables, were considered subhuman. Upper-caste Hindus forced them to do society's most humiliating jobs — like cleaning filth from toilets and sewers — and if they resisted, they were beaten, raped, dismembered or murdered.

Atrocities like these still occasionally take place. But today Mayawati is giving these long-persecuted people hope that soon they may win truly equal status in this obsessively hierarchical society. As parliamentary elections approach this spring, she has emerged as a likely kingmaker and a dark horse possibility for the prime minister's office.

The daughter of a clerk in the government's telecommunications department and his illiterate wife, the pugnacious leader — known for her fiery speeches and diva's temperament — is sometimes called "the Dalit queen" and sometimes simply "Behenji," or "older sister."

A graduate of Kalindi College in Delhi, she holds bachelor's degrees in law and education, and worked as a teacher until joining politics in 1984, when she was instrumental in forming the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with her mentor, Kanshi Ram, who was at that time India's most prominent Dalit politician.

Eclipsing her mentor, Mayawati rose to prominence as a Dalit leader through strident rhetoric — frequently calling upon her people to beat the Brahmins with shoes.
But in a move that prompted some observers to call her India's Obama, she has radically reinvented herself in her bid for the nation's highest office.
Last year, Mayawati led the BSP to a stunning victory in her home state of Uttar Pradesh, becoming chief minister through a seemingly impossible alliance with the high-caste Brahmins she once threatened to slap with her sandal.

That was in itself an enormous achievement, as no leader has been able to win an outright majority in Uttar Pradesh — India's largest state — for a decade and a half.
But because Uttar Pradesh is a bellwether state with 114 million voters, and neither the Congress Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been able to achieve an outright majority in national polls since the early 1990s, it also means that Mayawati could very well determine who will be India's next national leader.

In a bid to make that happen, Mayawati is pushing the regional BSP nationwide. In state elections held in November, the BSP contested more seats in Delhi, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh than ever before, and in each of the four states the party increased the number of its representatives in the assembly and won a higher portion of the votes than ever before.

"This is the first time a Dalit leader has attained such stature, as head of a vast social coalition consisting of haves and have nots," said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan. "She's the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which has more people in it than Pakistan or Bangladesh. It's a state with 190 million citizens."

That's an impressive feat for any politician. But for a Dalit, it means even more.
"It is a really big achievement," said Chandrabhan Prasad, one of India's few Dalit journalists. "She has made Dalits visible and respectable. Earlier, people hated her or disliked her. Now they fear her."

no fanning the flames

India avoids lashing out at Pakistan and its own Muslims after the Mumbai attacks.

Jason Overdorf and Sudip Mazumdar
From the magazine issue dated Dec 15, 2008

Most people probably expected the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks on Mumbai to lead to another showdown between India and Pakistan. After all, the last time Islamic militants carried out such a major attack, on Delhi in 2001, the Indian government massed troops on the Pakistani border. Now as then, evidence suggests that the militants were trained and equipped by groups operating in Pakistan. And to dampen the flames, Washington has so far done little more than suggest that Islamabad cooperate with the Indian investigation and crack down on suspects.

Last week, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the region, thousands of Indians did take to the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and other cities to protest. Yet while there were a few scattered chants of "Death to Pakistan," the marchers, who carried roses, candles and posters, directed most of the ire not at India's perennial enemy, the terrorists, or the ruling Congress party. Their anger was reserved for India's politicians in general. The protesters' slogan: "Enough is enough."

The marchers had plenty to be mad about. According to the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database, India has suffered more than 4,000 terrorist attacks since 1970, with an average of about one killing per day. But India's leaders have taken little action to protect the population, even while ensuring themselves heavy security. The government also appeared clueless in the face of the Mumbai attacks and took hours to respond.

Yet there's been remarkably little jingoism in the overall reaction. India's leaders, its media and its population—even the far right—have largely rejected the kind of anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim rhetoric the terrorists must have hoped for. This forbearance won't last forever, especially if Pakistan fails to cooperate with India's demand for a crackdown on militants. But for the time being, India is surprising many Western observers—and even some Indian ones—by maintaining a resolute calm and refusing to rattle its saber.

Despite comparisons in the Indian media, the nation's reaction so far to "26/11" has differed profoundly from America's response to 9/11, Spain's to 3/11 or London's to 7/7. Indians have neither rallied round their leader and demanded he pull up the drawbridges, as Americans did to George W. Bush, nor rushed to throw out a bungling government, as the Spanish did to José María Aznar after he misled voters about the involvement of Basque separatists.

There have been no clashes between Indian Hindus and Muslims. Nor has there been a swing to embrace Hindu nationalism. Indeed, opposition politicians who have sought to capitalize on the mayhem have been roundly punished for it. For example, Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister of Gujarat, rushed to Mumbai after the attacks to lionize the slain head of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad. But Mumbai denizens greeted Modi with boos and accused him of political opportunism.

The official response, meanwhile, has been studiously measured. India's home minister and both the chief minister of Maharashtra and his deputy have resigned. A review of India's intelligence system has begun and New Delhi has called on Pakistan to extradite 20 suspects. Pranab Mukherjee, India's foreign minister, has sent mixed messages in recent speeches, first ruling out military action against Pakistan and then, during Rice's visit, reversing tack and warning that India will use "all the means at [its] disposal." But overall, the government's behavior has been anything but warlike.

The reason, says Mahesh Rangarajan of Delhi University, is that "India has learned that a hysterical response does not serve any purpose." Experience shows that rash action only makes things worse. Congress party sources point out that massing troops on the border, as the BJP-led government did following terror attack on India's Parliament in December 2001, accomplished nothing—except to ensure that the BJP was roundly criticized for raising tensions. Senior government sources also admit that India can't behave like America did after 9/11 because India is "not a superpower and does not have that kind of capability," says a senior government official.

Out of necessity, then, New Delhi has turned to realpolitik. That's taken the form of "maintaining the pressure, getting the U.S. and other allies to put equal pressure on Pakistan without actually ratcheting up tension and weakening [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari's position too much," says a top official who asked to remain nameless because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press.

In eschewing militarism, India is placing tremendous faith in the United States and the international community. Pundits, for example, have called on India to make its case against Pakistan at the U.N. Security Council. But this strategy is risky, for India will feel betrayed if the international or U.S. response remains tepid. And so far, the signals from Washington haven't been promising. Rice, on her visit to New Delhi, said that "there has to be direct and tough action," but she seemed—at least to Indians—to water down that message when she visited Islamabad.

Indians are already frustrated with Pakistan's behavior and its rejection of India's call to extradite the suspects. "What is disquieting is that the Pakistanis are resorting to a technical response by saying, 'Give us evidence and we will respond'," says former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. "They're resorting to the old, stock responses, and that is sending a negative message and raising demands on the Indian side to hurt Pakistan."

Should this continue, domestic pressure will mount from the public, as well as the BJP and the radical Hindu nationalist right—especially with a national vote looming next year. The BJP will begin hammering Congress for its failure to stop terror, and if there is no action in Pakistan that, too, will come into play. "The BJP pitches its whole propaganda on that terrain," says Delhi-based political analyst Praful Bidwai.

For the time being, though, Indians are watching and waiting. The details of Rice's visit remain unclear. But unless she asked for and received quiet assurances that Islamabad intends to take some immediate, concrete steps, conditions could worsen for all parties, America included—after all, the terrorists who strike at India also work on Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan. As for India, if it feels that its forbearance has yielded nothing, this sense of betrayal could cause events to spiral out of control, bringing India and Pakistan—nuclear-armed nemeses—back to the brink once more.


Friday, December 05, 2008

a jolt to the middle classes

Rage over the Mumbai attacks is changing the nation's politics.

Jason Overdorf

When Adlai Stevenson remarked that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve, he could have been talking about India. This country's middle class is reknowned for its apathy at the polls. By ceding the electoral process to the uneducated, poverty-stricken masses, they have allowed opportunistic politicians—many of whom face criminal charges—to thrive by encouraging riots and distributing booze. The crisis in Mumbai may have jolted middle-class voters out of their torpor. As Condoleezza Rice made a lightning trip to the subcontinent this week to keep tensions between India and Pakistan from spiraling out of control, thousands of middle-class Indians in Mumbai, Delhi and other major Indian cities took to the streets to protest against India's politicians, regardless of the party they belong to or whether they were in or out of power. The movement was spontaneous and amorphous, but the anger was palpable. Milind Deora, who at 32 years old is among the youngest members of the Indian Parliament, was the only politician who dared show his face among the throng. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jason Overdorf about how the middle class anger against politicians—which included calls to vote "none of the above" in the next election and to stop paying taxes—could become a real force for change. Excerpts:

Newsweek: What do you think about the protests in Mumbai and other Indian cities against the country's politicians?

Milind Deora: In Mumbai, at least, it was a welcome step to see India's urban middle class out on the street protesting and demanding accountability from the government. I, too, took part in the protests at the Gateway of India. I went there as someone who has lived in the city, who was born in the city, and not as a member of Parliament or a politician. I think that anger and frustration and perhaps that feeling of being violated and let down by the government is definitely justified. But there has to be some solutions in place, and people have to be much more constructive. The kind of messages going around, which were all politicians are bad, and governments are bad, won't do anything to help the situation. If this is not channeled in the right way, we'll lose an opportunity.

Did the people there perceive you as the enemy, because you are a politician, or were you spared because of your youth?

There were some people who were saying, "You are a politician, and you guys have failed us." There was this anti-politician rage, for sure. But the majority of people were happy to see me. They were shaking my hand and saying, "Milind, get us out of this."

At some level, there are many things that only the government can do, and the government, by nature is made up of politicians. How do you think the protesters can take their enthusiasm for action and make it matter?

The solution is to have more powers given to local governances; a devolution of powers from the state government to Mumbai. This is an opportune moment to demand that. If there's one thing that people should demand of the government, it's that, because tomorrow this anger could be about a collapse in terms of civic infrastructure, not a terrorist attack necessarily. We need to fix the governance system and use this as an opportunity to do that.

Some politicians tried to use the attacks to gain political mileage, but they were greeted with disgust by the people. Is it possible that a politician who focuses on these administrative issues you're talking about could capitalize on this anger?

I think they could, and I'm trying to do that. But it is unfortunate. If people were disgusted by [the blatant political opportunism] then they should give these politicians and their parties a befitting reply in elections. The sad thing is, I think that once this is over and the dust settles, not only will politicians get back to their politics, but so will the electorate.

The kind of action that needs to be taken to improve security is complex, so it's difficult to sell as an election platform. Has there been talk about how to boil these complex reforms down into a campaign message?

Right now the focus is not on our communications strategy. Right now the aim is to focus on what the government is trying to do—to overhaul the entire system. The political communication part of this will come much, much later.

Your party, the Congress, sacked the home minister, as well as the chief minister and deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. Does that kind of action send a message that politicians will be held accountable, or is it just a game of musical chairs?

I think that removing chief ministers and home ministers who failed to reassure the people and failed to lead from the front can help. But 90 percent of the difference will come from re-looking at the security establishment, and that means much more than just the home minister. That means the entire bureaucracy, the intelligence agencies, the policing capability, all of that needs to be looked at and realigned.

Were you encouraged that this protest was directed at all politicians, rather than the ruling Congress party?

I didn't go there and think of it as what is the political mileage for the Congress and what is the political mileage for me. I still haven't got down to thinking of it in that sense. Even if I had not been an MP, I would have been there. I felt it was my duty to be there and show solidarity with what is happening. For me it was encouraging to see the middle class out on the street protesting, but it was also saddening to see their blind rage against politicians and the government.