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EDITORIALS

A destabilisation game
Pak hand behind attempt to unsettle Hasina
L
AST week’s mutiny by men of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) has been brought to an end. However, the threat to the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government that it posed remains as real as it was.

Navy in-charge
Mumbai attack spurs the decision
T
HE government’s decision to restructure the country’s coastal security by assigning the Navy the sole responsibility of overall maritime security is a step in the right direction.

Sops before polls
Punjab measure to please hotel owners
W
HEN asked recently if the Punjab government would cut the value added tax (VAT) and the high rate of tax on petrol to help people and industry cope with the financial crisis, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal ruled out such concessions, pointing to the state’s depleted treasury.



EARLIER STORIES

Zardari courts trouble
March 2, 2009
In quest of a new identity
March 1, 2009
Perfect 10
February 28, 2009
Zardari vs Nawaz Sharif
February 27, 2009
Just three years?
February 26, 2009
Terrorism is un-Islamic
February 25, 2009
‘Jai Ho’, ‘Jai Ho’
February 24, 2009
Modi’s claim nailed
February 23, 2009
A question of EC’s credibility
February 22, 2009
Habitual offenders
February 21, 2009


ARTICLE

Political divorce
Power struggle that Pakistan can ill-afford
by Sushant Sareen
A
bitter divorce between the unlikely political bed-fellows — the supposedly left-of-centre, liberal Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and the right-of-centre, conservative Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by Mr Nawaz Sharif — was always on the cards.

MIDDLE

The written word
by Nonika Singh
W
ITHOUT batting an eyelid, the boss grants permission to write for a brochure. Impeccable reasoning backs his immediate approval, “Of course, you can go ahead. No one is going to pay you for it”. Indeed, rightly, alas, he has hit the bull’s eye.

OPED

Boosting defence
Time to make the Army lean and mean
by Premvir Das
F
OR many years, several defence analysts have been bemoaning the poor allocations made by the government for maintaining armed power consistent with the nation’s needs and responsibilities.

No bailout for Eastern Europe
by Craig Whitlock
European leaders on Sunday rejected a Hungarian plea for a $240 billion bailout of struggling Eastern European countries, as divisions continued to fester over how to prevent economic ills from spreading across the continent.

Delhi Durbar
The pursuit of power
O
UR politicians have truly mastered the art of changing loyalties. Remember Ranjan Prasad Yadav, once the working president of the RJD, who tried in vain to replace Patna RJD MP Ram Kirpal Yadav to enter the Lok Sabha.





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A destabilisation game
Pak hand behind attempt to unsettle Hasina

LAST week’s mutiny by men of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) has been brought to an end. However, the threat to the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government that it posed remains as real as it was. The investigation that her government has launched will hopefully lead to the identification of the people who planned and executed what led to the killing of over 72 uniformed personnel, mostly Bangladesh Army officers. The role of people like Salauddin Qadeer Chowdhury, close to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has already gained considerable exposure. But the whole world is curiously waiting to know more about the vast network the ISI has created for itself and its role in last Wednesday’s gory events. It is almost certain that BDR jawans did not go berserk simply because of the resentment in their ranks against poor salary and perks and the army allegedly blocking their promotion avenues. What happened could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Soon after Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League came to power after the keenly contested December elections the elements opposed to her policies and programmes began working to find some pretext to destabilise her government. The unrest in the BDR fitted in well with their scheme of things. That she is an acknowledged pro-India leader must have helped her detractors to provoke the BDR personnel to do what they did. The BDR has been infiltrated by supporters of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, which along with Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP can go to any extent to see that the Awami League does get settled in the government.

The Hasina government has done well to quickly revise its earlier announcement for amnesty for those mutineers who do not face a murder charge. Now it will launch prosecution proceedings against all the mutineers so that the situation that arose out of the blue does not recur again. India, which shares a long border with Bangladesh, is bound to feel concerned about the deep penetration of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency in the various wings of the Bangladesh government. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will have to cleanse the system of the ISI-linked elements for the survival of her government. Last week’s mutiny in Dhaka and other places may not be the first move to destabilise the Sheikh Hasina government.

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Navy in-charge
Mumbai attack spurs the decision

THE government’s decision to restructure the country’s coastal security by assigning the Navy the sole responsibility of overall maritime security is a step in the right direction. This measure has been necessitated following the surreptitious landing of terrorists in rubber dinghies from Pakistan in the heart of Mumbai’s busy waterfront, which went completely undetected by both the Navy and the Coast Guard and resulted in the 26/11 massacre. This measure follows the tabling of a Parliamentary Standing Committee report rightly criticising the government for lack of coordination between the Navy and the Coast Guard that led to the national tragedy.

The Navy has been declared the “designated authority” responsible for overall maritime security with both coastal and offshore security under its control. The Coast Guard has been placed under the overall command of the Navy. The state maritime police forces and other Central and state agencies for the nation’s coastal defence will also be expected to assist the Navy in its task all along the coast. The three heads of the Western, Eastern and Southern commands will also be designated commanders-in-chief of coastal defence of their respective jurisdiction. The restructuring will also involve placing the entire assets of the Coast Guard under the Navy, establishing a national command, control, communication and intelligence network by linking the operations rooms of the two services, and augmenting their force levels and surveillance capabilities.

In the past, piece-meal measures have not helped. Following the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, the Navy embarked on a major surveillance and patrolling exercise named Operation Swan. Yet, in November last year, this ongoing operation did not stop terrorists from entering Mumbai from the sea-front and that too within a short distance of India’s naval base which accounts for most of India’s top-of-the-line naval assets and not far from nuclear establishments. Welcome as it is, this decision alone may not be sufficient. Despite India’s long history of security threats and engagements, inter-agency coordination has been a major problem whether in fighting insurgency or in intelligence sharing. The government needs to also consider establishing an agency to coordinate with Central government organisations such as the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the departments of shipping and fisheries to guard the security of a daunting 7,516-km coastline, a 2.01 million sq km exclusive economic zone and two major archipelagos comprising 1,200 islands.

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Sops before polls
Punjab measure to please hotel owners

WHEN asked recently if the Punjab government would cut the value added tax (VAT) and the high rate of tax on petrol to help people and industry cope with the financial crisis, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal ruled out such concessions, pointing to the state’s depleted treasury. Now his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal has announced tax cuts — not to help people or industry in general — but to benefit the owners of hotels and marriage palaces. Hotels might be facing a little heat of the slowdown but none is known to be in serious trouble to warrant such a largesse in Punjab. Marriage palaces are doing brisk business as Punjabis are known to spend abundantly on ostentatious marriages and other social functions.

Luxury resorts, hotels and liquor vends can be good sources of revenue provided the government sets its priorities right, raises the taxes to reasonable levels and ensures their foolproof collection. The luxury tax reduction from 10-8 per cent to 4 per cent will bring down the state’s income from this sector from Rs 100 crore a year to Rs 40 crore. If the senior Badal has farmers’ interest close to his heart, having extended them the generosity of free power despite opposition from sane quarters, the junior is promoting the cause of hotel and luxury resort owners. They are a big lobby in the state after all.

Changes in taxes are usually announced in a budget but the Punjab Finance Minister has opted to go in for a vote-on-account instead of a regular budget. He has explained in detail reasons for doing so in The Tribune. If shortly before the Lok Sabha elections the Deputy Chief Minister is to announce such concessions having large financial implications, where does this leave the Finance Minister’s assiduous exercise of budget management? It is the duty of a government to use the taxpayers’ money judiciously and responsibly in a planned way keeping the broader public interest in view. The Punjab government should have raised money rather than given away sops to those who don’t deserve it. Apparently, election time logic seems to be at work.

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Thought for the Day

I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

— Oscar Wilde

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Corrections and clarifications

  • Infrastructure has not been privatised as the headline "Infrastructure privatisation disastrous: Ex-minister" (March 01) suggests. It is the private participation in infrastructure building that, according to the ex-minister, will have disastrous consequences. The heading, therefore, should be "Private participation in infrastructure disastrous". Infrastructure does not have a plural. The "ex-minister" becomes "minister" later in the report. This was avoidable.
  • The headline "Govt assures probe into funds spent on migrant shelters" (February 28) should read as "Probe assured into funds spent on migrant shelters" or "Govt assures House probe into funds…"
  • In the issue dated February 28 the headline should read as "Scribes discuss media ethics" (not "hold talk on"). It should be the media and not just media. Again, the correct expression is "the rise (not rising) of the media".
  • The correct name of Oscar-winning short documentary is "Smile Pinky" and not "Pinky Smiles" (February 24). It is A.R. Rahman and not "Rehman".

Despite our earnest endeavour to keep The Tribune error-free, some errors do creep in at times. We are always eager to correct them.

We request our readers to write or e-mail to us whenever they find any error. We will carry corrections and clarifications, wherever necessary, every Tuesday.

Readers in such cases can write to Mr Amar Chandel, Deputy Editor, The Tribune, Chandigarh, with the word “Corrections” on the envelope. His e-mail ID is amarchandel@tribunemail.com.

H.K. Dua
Editor-in-Chief

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Political divorce
Power struggle that Pakistan can ill-afford
by Sushant Sareen

A bitter divorce between the unlikely political bed-fellows — the supposedly left-of-centre, liberal Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and the right-of-centre, conservative Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by Mr Nawaz Sharif — was always on the cards. But the manner and timing of the final parting of ways doesn’t seem to make much sense. At a time when the Pakistani state is finding it difficult to maintain effective control over more than half of the country, anarchy, chaos and unrest in Punjab is the last thing Pakistan needed. However, the Machiavellian manipulations of Mr Asif Zardari, coupled with the politically motivated moral rigidity of Mr Nawaz Sharif, seem to have pushed Pakistan further in the direction of state failure.

With the crucial Senate elections out of the way, the political air was pregnant with the possibility of some major changes in the power structure of the country. Reports were doing the rounds for quite some time of moves being made and deals being struck to effect regime change in Pakistan’s political powerhouse, Punjab. Lending credence to these reports were the provocative actions and utterances of the Punjab Governor, Mr Salman Taseer, who kept the PML(N)-led provincial government unsettled by taking pot-shots at it on every conceivable occasion.

And yet, many believed that political brinkmanship would not push things over the edge at this point in time since it would only give a fillip to the lawyers’ Long March and sit-in (dharna) for the restoration of ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Until the ouster of the PML(N) government in Punjab, the lawyers had received only a somewhat cautious and lukewarm backing from the party. Without the PML(N) support, the lawyers would never have got anywhere, and in all likelihood their march in mid-March would have ended in a whimper. But now, with nothing to lose, nothing at stake, and nursing a deep sense of betrayal, there will be little to restrain Mr Nawaz Sharif from going whole hog to make life difficult, if not impossible, for the PPP-led coalition.

With an open, unrestrained and headlong confrontation between the two biggest political parties of Pakistan now inevitable, the current government is bound to be buffeted by political storms. To protect its flanks, the PPP will be forced to seek the support of the military establishment on one side and the quintessential establishment political party, the PML(Q), on the other. The end result of this could be the dislodging of the PPP-led coalition and/or another derailment of the democratic process. At the very least, the military will once again start playing a pivotal role in deciding the course of Pakistani politics.

On its part, the PPP will be banking upon the public fatigue with agitational politics to ride out the political storm. The rising levels of economic distress will also make it difficult to sustain the momentum of any agitation for a prolonged period. According to the PPP calculation, the bulk of Mr Nawaz Sharif’s support comes from Punjabi urban middle class and traders, not exactly the sort of people who are known for their street fighting skills. Moreover, the PPP sees the PML(N) as a “GT Road Party”, a party that is centred only in the Raiwind-Rawalpindi (central Punjab) area. Therefore, the PML(N)’s influence and ability to put unbearable pressure on the government is limited. Of course, what the PPP ignores at its own peril is the fact that Mr Nawaz Sharif’s bastion is also the centre of gravity of Pakistan’s politics. Any upheaval in this belt is enough to destabilise the government in both Lahore and Islamabad.

For Mr Nawaz Sharif, Mr Zardari’s cleverness and slipperiness are a god-send opportunity. On the one hand, he has acquired the halo of a victimised hero. On the other hand, his political space is no longer constrained by the need for maintaining a friendly relationship with his biggest political rival, the PPP. Although Mr Nawaz Sharif never tires of pointing out that he is practising the politics of principles (especially on the issue of judges), the fact is that this was a very convenient posture for him to adopt. Like every ambitious politician, he, too, desires power. But this he could not get in the present set-up. He expects to win, and win big, in the next elections, and the sooner these take place the better it is for him. His entire effort now will be to bring down the PPP coalition by forcing fresh elections through the use of street power and political manoeuvres.

Mr Nawaz Sharif’s success or otherwise in attaining his objective will, of course, depend not only on his ability to bring his supporters out, but also on the response of the other parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Tehrik-i-Insaf. Equally important will be the political calculation of other Muslim League factions, particularly the PML(Q), which will have to decide whether to use this opportunity to settle their differences with Mr Sharif or push him into a corner.

Interestingly, Mr Sharif’s success on the street could easily be a double-edged sword. It could push his political rivals into the waiting arms of Mr Zardari. What is worse, it could also spook the army, which is in any case not very comfortable with the prospect of seeing him back in power, even less so as an enormously popular and powerful Prime Minister.

The Pakistan Army fears that Mr Sharif will almost certainly try and clip its wings by not tolerating any interference by the armed forces in politics. The more radical an agenda Mr Sharif pushes, the more he prevents the army from taking any action against Mr Zardari. So much so that even if the army is unhappy with Mr Zardari, it will see him as a more pliable, malleable and a lesser evil than Mr Sharif who promises to shake things up not only on civil-military relations but also in the war on terror, the relations with the US and on the issue of Islamisation.

To his credit, one major reason why Mr Sharif has been hesitant in pushing things with Mr Zardari beyond the point of no return is his political and personal aversion to riding back into power on the back of the army. But despite his own reluctance to look towards the GHQ in Rawalpindi for succour, and notwithstanding the army’s reservations, if the situation deteriorates to a point where the PPP government’s continuation becomes untenable, and the army finds itself in no position to assume direct control, it might eat humble pie and bring Mr Sharif back to power.

The army is, however, not the only factor which can help Mr Sharif dislodge the PPP’s government. If he is able to strike a deal with his erstwhile colleagues who are now in the PML(Q), it could devastate the PPP’s political calculations. But as things stand, the chances of this happening are negligible, because it will involve a compromise that Mr Sharif will find unacceptable. This is something that suits the PPP just fine because not only does it divide the Muslim League vote in Punjab, it also provides the PPP-PML(Q) alliance the glue of Mr Sharif’s hostility.

Clearly, Pakistan has entered a phase of political confrontation and competition between the PPP and PML(N) which it can ill-afford. Under normal political conditions and a stable state such a power game would have been understandable, even expected. But with the spectre of instability and turmoil looming large over the country, the power struggle getting underway could easily end up pushing Pakistan over the brink.

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The written word
by Nonika Singh

WITHOUT batting an eyelid, the boss grants permission to write for a brochure. Impeccable reasoning backs his immediate approval, “Of course, you can go ahead. No one is going to pay you for it”. Indeed, rightly, alas, he has hit the bull’s eye. Whoever, least of all a dear friend who has prevailed upon me to do the “honours” in lieu of her forthcoming exhibition, would ever think of paying for a few hundred words. Or for that matter for a few thousands?

Sure enough, the burgeoning websites on the Net would have me believe that I can turn a millionaire simply by jotting a few lines. But by now after having penned even forewords of books for free, not to mention several brochures, Press notes, etc, for “near and dear” ones, I am wise enough to know which way the cookie crumbles.

Actually in India people would pay for all services from plumbing to electrical works to sweeping, but paying a writer? Goodness, what for? Writing involves no sweat. No skill either. Writing, most believe, is as simple as talking through the hat. Though many are willing to pay for jabbering as well. Look at the huge sums the radio jockeys make. I have received payments for compeering a function to the worst of my ability. But writing even to the best of my prowess has always drawn a blank (alas, not a blank cheque).

I really don’t know where out of the 16 kalas writing in our ancient tradition is placed. But in modern-day world, thank God for journalism, perhaps writers would have died penniless. Strangely in this day and age, while even artists have begun to rake in the moolah, writers remain exactly where they were, out of favour with Goddess Lakshmi. All they can do is seek solace in the good old saying —Goddess Sarswati, the deity of knowledge and Goddess Lakshmi of wealth cannot co-exist and pride themselves as knowledgeable beings.

Indeed, I too got (not anymore) as excited as anybody else when headlines screamed of exorbitant sums being paid as signature amounts to say a Vikram Seth or a Chetan Bhagat. But at the ground level the reality is that even in the commerce-driven filmdom, writers are least paid. In the Punjabi sahitya jagat it is an open secret that but for a handful of writers, most pay from their own pockets if they desire to see their labour of love in print. Yet the number of writers in the Punjabi literary galaxy continues to equal, if not outnumber, that of the readers.

So, what keeps the tribe of writers going? My dear husband, who often attributes my mood swings to the byline hangover, would say that it’s the byline syndrome— the thrill of seeing your name in print. Perhaps, and also judging by the over-enthusiasm of our faithful letter writers, there is more than a grain of truth in his assertion.

Irrespective of whether we the ever- increasing clan of writers are paid or not, nothing can take away our pen from us. Of course, we more than anybody else know that the pen is not mightier than the sword. Actually, the pen can at best move a few hearts. A tear and a smile are all it can evoke. So, the big secret must lie in the fact that the written word is the ordinary mortal’s only tryst (even if fleeting) with fame.

So, pay us not dear “free-word” seekers… we know that you will prevail on us, cajoling us to work gratis.

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Boosting defence
Time to make the Army lean and mean
by Premvir Das

FOR many years, several defence analysts have been bemoaning the poor allocations made by the government for maintaining armed power consistent with the nation’s needs and responsibilities. There has been a vociferous demand for providing at least 3 per cent of the GDP for defence, not a great improvement over the trend visible over the last several years of figures hovering around 2 per cent but still something better than the amount presently being allocated.

There are many arguments in support of this contention; none have carried weight with the decision-makers, possibly because other compulsions are more important.

Reduction, if not elimination of poverty, enhancing education, health care, housing and infrastructure, subsidies for weaker sections of society must also be weighing heavily, correctly so, on the minds of those who are charged with the destiny of the country.

What needs to be debated is why we are unable to do what we want with the money that is made available; the question of getting more can arise only thereafter.

For the year about to end, 2008-09, the Finance Minister, in his budget presented in February 2008, provided Rs 100,000 crore for defence, Rs 52,000 crore for maintenance or revenue expenditure and Rs 48,000 crore for modernisation or capital expenditure, promising more for the latter, if the need arose.

As the year draws to a close, we find that the total figure has come to Rs 114,000 crore but alas, expenditure on revenue (non-productive) is up by nearly Rs 22,000 crore while capital is down by Rs 7,000 crore.

Therefore, from 48 per cent of the allocation originally made for the purpose, expenditure on modernisation is down to 36 per cent.

This is clearly unacceptable because if revenue expenditure continues to consume the bulk of allocations, the required military power can never be created.

All hopes generated by the budget allocations made a year ago have, thus, been eaten up, literally. Arguments that several schemes estimated to be finalised during the year have not materialised or got delayed must be unacceptable. There must be accountability, both of civil and military officials, for the amount lapsing, rather than the lame reiteration of ‘systemic failure’.

The defence allocations made by Mr Pranab Mukherjee for 2009-10 arouse little enthusiasm. As a percentage of GDP, they continue to hover around 2 per cent but more important, the capital grant, at Rs 58,700 crore in a total budget of Rs 142,000 crore, amounts to 41 per cent and if we take away from it Rs 7,000 crore lapsed from the previous year, being carried forward, the real share is again, you guessed it 36 per cent.

With this kind of sharing between revenue and capital, the armed forces can never be modernised adequately because new additions will continuously be overwhelmed by deletions of platforms and equipment that have become obsolete.

So even as there is demand for a greater share of the allocation, something unlikely to be met by this government or any other of whatever hue, given the huge challenges posed by other segments, it is essential that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and this includes all its wings — Armed Forces Headquarters, Finance, Production and Research and Development — gets its act together.

Numerous committees have looked at the entirety of issues in every sector in depth over the last few years and made recommendations that are so obvious and reasonable that they need not even have been made, but all have failed to move the elephantine behemoth that goes by the name of MOD, of which the armed forces are an integral part, at least in name.

The reasons given are all too familiar, projects geting delayed over which MOD has no control, procurement is a sensitive issue and with Vigilance people around, nobody wants to risk his or her neck out, political “interest” in high-value acquisitions for which negotiations take their own time, changing requirements of the Services; the list can go on and on.

But the bottomline is that all lapses of funds must merit an immediate critical inquiry and the great majority of them must result in disciplinary action at a reasonably high level, at least of Joint Secretary or equivalent.

In fact, a committee consisting of former senior officials, civil and military, should be constituted which will be able to analyse each case of delay impartially and objectively. This may appear harsh but we have been soft for too long and this, more than inadequate allocation of funds, has resulted in the continuing degradation of military preparedness.

An equally important aspect relates to the proportion in which funds are allocated among the three wings of the armed forces. Only the most naïve will be satisfied with the shape of our Army, which continues to operate as a World War II relic, complete with its commands, corps, divisions, et al.

There has been little effort to restructure this monstrous entity into smaller, more coherent and more mobile entities. This is the need of modern war fighting and all credible armies are making this transformation. Unless this is done, our Army can never become the powerful weapon that it needs to be.

Concurrently, the Air and Naval components need to be strengthened; they are the wings which will facilitate our involvement in the extended neighbourhood, the zone of our strategic interest. These two Services, between them, need to get half of the Defence allocation which means that the Army has to be “rightsized” to become lean and mean. The integration of the three wings under a common superior, call him Chairman, Joint Chiefs or whatever, is a pre-requisite for optimum development and configuration of the armed forces—living in a military mode that is seven decades old — is not going to help either the military itself or the country.

So, if our defence preparedness is in distress, it is not just because enough resources are not being made available. It is a combination of many elements and no time must be lost in getting the weaknesses put right.

A strong leadership, especially at the political level, is needed to bring in change. Otherwise, the continuing degradation of the nation’s military capability can only compromise one of the most crucial constituents of national power.

The writer is a former Director General, Defence Planning Staff.

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No bailout for Eastern Europe
by Craig Whitlock

European leaders on Sunday rejected a Hungarian plea for a $240 billion bailout of struggling Eastern European countries, as divisions continued to fester over how to prevent economic ills from spreading across the continent.

Germany, Europe's largest economy, led opposition to the Hungarian proposal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said a broad, regional rescue plan was ill-conceived, though she did not offer specific alternatives.

"Saying that the situation is the same for all Central and Eastern European states, I don't see that," she said Sunday after a European Union summit in Brussels. "You cannot compare Slovenia or Slovakia with Hungary."

Several Eastern European countries have been slammed by currency devaluations and other economic ailments in recent months, as global investors have warned that the region is ripe for a financial meltdown.

Hungary and Latvia have already received bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, and Romania has said it may ask for one. The E.U., as well as the World Bank and other financial institutions, has also approved aid, but national leaders say much more is needed.

The 27-member E.U., hamstrung by political infighting, has been unable to agree on how to respond. The E.U. was created as a common economic market; its members spent a generation easing border restrictions, coordinating regulations and harmonizing fiscal policies.

But faced with the worst global economic crisis since World War II, members are accusing each other of protectionist impulses and national rivalries.

Hungary's prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, had proposed the massive rescue fund for Eastern Europe last week. On Sunday, he warned that old conflicts could reemerge and that "large-scale defaults" would result if the E.U. did not come to the aid of its newest members, who have spent the past two decades trying to recover from communism.

"We should not allow a new Iron Curtain to be set up and divide Europe into two parts," Gyurcsany told reporters in Brussels, prior to the start of the summit. "This is the biggest challenge for Europe in the last 20 years."

Disagreements are so widespread that E.U. leaders actually held two separate summits on Sunday.

In the first, elected officials from Eastern European countries, which were granted admission to the E.U. starting in 2004, gathered in Brussels to discuss how to give their region more of a voice in deliberations that have historically been dominated by the continent's economic powers: Germany, France, Britain and Italy.

Eastern European officials said they were frustrated that few of them have been included in talks with the United States, China, Japan and Western European countries over how to respond to the global economic crisis.

"None of those people around the table are actually from a country that is in the catching-up period in the E.U.," Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland's European affairs minister, said Sunday, referring to the time since the collapse of communism two decades ago. "You have lots of old member states. There is certainly an issue here."

Several Eastern European countries also want the E.U. to make it easier for them to replace their unstable currencies — such as the Polish zloty and the Hungarian forint — with the euro. Germany, France and other Western countries have insisted the new members follow a strict, gradual path into the euro club that limits deficit spending. The recession, however, has made the rules more painful to follow.

At the same time, Eastern European leaders have been squabbling among themselves, with officials from relatively healthy economies taking pains to distance themselves from their weaker neighbors.

Poland and the Czech Republic, for instance, also frowned on the Hungarian bailout proposal, saying they did not need to be rescued and did not appreciate being lumped together. "When it comes to any specific plans for Eastern Europe, we don't need those plans," Dowgielewicz told reporters.

"We do not want any new dividing lines," added Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country sponsored the summit and holds the rotating E.U. presidency until July. "We do not want a Europe divided along a north-south or an east-west line."

Asian summit

Tim Johnston adds: Southeast Asian leaders concluded a two-day meeting on Sunday that was dominated by the search for a coordinated response to the economic crisis but fell short of coming up with specific remedies.

In a statement, the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed on the "necessity of proactive and decisive policy actions to restore market confidence and ensure continued financial stability." But beyond recommitting themselves to better-coordinated economic stimulus programs and condemning trade protectionism, the leaders offered few detailed proposals.

The region's impressive growth over the past 10 years has been largely driven by exports, and ASEAN nations have been hit hard by the slowdown in demand in their main markets in the United States and Europe. Key members such as Singapore and Thailand registered significant contractions in gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of last year, and the situation is expected to worsen before it starts to improve.

The meeting in the Thai resort of Hua Hin was billed as the dawn of a new era for ASEAN: It was the group's first gathering since the members signed a charter that incorporated the body as a legal entity. The members hope to create an ASEAN economic community — a free-trade zone with a coordinated security policy — by 2015.

At the meeting, the leaders also signed a free-trade pact with Australia and New Zealand, but they did little else to allay criticism that the group is ineffective.

One of the key elements of the new charter was the establishment of an independent human rights body. But the drive toward a more socially inclusive ASEAN hit a rocky patch Saturday when Burma and Cambodia threatened to walk out of a meeting on human rights if activists from their countries were included.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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Delhi Durbar
The pursuit of power

OUR politicians have truly mastered the art of changing loyalties. Remember Ranjan Prasad Yadav, once the working president of the RJD, who tried in vain to replace Patna RJD MP Ram Kirpal Yadav to enter the Lok Sabha.

When that didn’t work, Ranjan deserted the RJD, abused Lalu Prasad and joined hands with Ram Vilas Paswan in the hope that this time round he could get elected to the Lok Sabha on the strength of Paswan’s Dalit vote and tacit support of Nitish Kumar. He was confident that Paswan would never rejoin hands with Lalu Prasad.

But now with the prospect of Lalu-Paswan fighting the next general election together, Ranjan Prasad Yadav has rebelled against Paswan and has jumped on to Nitish Kumar’s bandwagon. But sadly for him, it is not clear whether Nitish Kumar will be in a position to offer the Patna seat to Ranjan Prasad Yadav.

After all, that seat was originally in the BJP quota and former Union Minister C.P. Thakur used to contest from there. Now that it has been bifurcated into Patna Saheb and Patliputra, there are even more claimants in the BJP for that seat.

Punjabis welcome in Caribbeans

Ever heard of a country called Dominican Republic? Well it’s in the Caribbean and has a full-fledged embassy in India. The tiny republic is out to woo investments from India in a big way, particularly in the hospitality, software and BPO sectors.

Dominican Republic is organising road shows in Delhi, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and southern cities this week to attract Indian investors.

Its ambassador, Dannenberg Castellanos, who is all praise for India for the rapid strides this country has made in the economic field, is particularly interested in investments from Punjab in what he says the highly profitable hospitality industry in his tiny nation. Is anyone in Punjab interested?

Artists and the meltdown

The global meltdown has not only hit industry and other fields hard but it has had a major reverberating impact on artists too.

While galleries around the country have been witnessing a major fall in sales, some of them have even folded up. However, artists have probably come out with the best way of dealing with the meltdown and survive in these cruel times.

The grapevine has it that some of the senior artists in the city, unable to sell their works, have come out with the idea of “buy-one-get-one-free” offer, which has caught even buyers by surprise.

Indeed a novel way to beat the recession in the art market!

Contributed by Faraz Ahmad, Ashok Tuteja, Gira S. Kaura

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