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EDITORIALS

Combating the Taliban
Pak Army needs to go all out
A
fter much internal and external pressure on Islamabad the Pakistan Army has acted against the Taliban marauders in Dir and Buner districts in the NWFP. The Pakistan government claims to have cleared the two areas of militants. It is, however, difficult to believe the official version. To hide its insincerity in fighting the Taliban, it has never presented a correct picture.

Swine flu pandemic
Threat is for real and serious
The worst fears are coming true. Swine flu is threatening to turn into a full-blown pandemic. Earlier confined to Mexico and the US, now the flu is spreading fast. The WHO has raised the alert level to Phase Five, the second highest level, meaning the pandemic is imminent. While confusion surrounds reports of an NRI from Texas with flu symptoms quarantined in Hyderabad, like the rest of the world, India, too, cannot afford to take the outbreak lightly.




EARLIER STORIES

Mr Q. again
April
30, 2009
Modi remains in the dock
April
29, 2009
Guns fall silent in Lanka
April
28, 2009
Advance of the Taliban
April
27, 2009
Qualification for MPs
April
26, 2009
Pakistan worries US
April
25, 2009
The electoral odyssey
April
24, 2009
Saving Tamil refugees
April
23, 2009
Eye in the sky
April
22, 2009
Threat to Kashmir voters
April
21, 2009


Rising hopes
Not out of the woods yet
Rising stock markets in Asia, Europe and the US may give one the impression that the worst is over on the world economic front. There are positive and negative bits of economic information and it all depends on individual perception. Those driving up stock markets latch on to positive news, ignoring dark areas. For instance, the US reported a 6.1 per cent decrease in its GDP in the first quarter on Wednesday while experts had expected only a 4.7 per cent fall.

ARTICLE

Can we learn from South Africa?
The contrast between two polls
by Inder Malhotra
E
VERY election in this country becomes a poll too prolonged. Unfortunately, to an extent this has become unavoidable because of the curious political culture we have allowed to develop in the name of its immense diversity, empowerment of the numerous disadvantaged identities, dynamics of social change, utter opportunism, criminality as a short-cut to winning, and what not.

MIDDLE

Politically correct
by Uttam Sengupta
T
HIS boy has a bright future in politics, I say,” said the wife without looking up from the newspaper she was reading. I looked quizzically at her, anticipating more to come. And sure enough, after a pregnant pause, she continued, “Varun Gandhi will go places”.

OPED

Doctor in jail
Binayak in need of medical help
by Kuldip Nayar
T
ALKING about human rights violations during elections is like raising one’s voice in a hall where the entire audience is shouting without pause. Even otherwise, elections in India are a noisy tamasha.

Pakistanis fret over image
by Mark Magnier
C
ollege student Amena Omer inhaled tobacco from a hookah, the octopus arms of the hubbly-bubbly wrapped around a table leg, and summed up the state of her country: “Worse than zero.”

Where to find good coffee
by Sebastian Rotella
T
he nonchalant artists behind the counter serve up one mini-masterpiece after another. But you won’t find Il Caffe in any Milan guidebooks.


Top








EDITORIALS

Combating the Taliban
Pak Army needs to go all out

After much internal and external pressure on Islamabad the Pakistan Army has acted against the Taliban marauders in Dir and Buner districts in the NWFP. The Pakistan government claims to have cleared the two areas of militants. It is, however, difficult to believe the official version. To hide its insincerity in fighting the Taliban, it has never presented a correct picture. Soon after Taliban fighters were virtually allowed to run over Buner district, 100 km from Islamabad, in the first week of April, the government claimed that the militants had withdrawn from the area and gone back to the Swat valley. Then why did the army launch the current operation in Buner? This naturally fuels doubts.

It is no longer possible for the Pakistan government to fool the world when people in cities like Lahore have begun to openly condemn the Taliban by taking out rallies. The people’s ire will turn against the government if it does not launch a major and decisive army drive against the militants. What has been done is too little, too late. There is no credible anti-militancy strategy in Pakistan. The military operation should have come much earlier, at least when Taliban activists refused to surrender their arms and ammunition after the Swat deal and started denouncing the entire system of governance and justice delivery in Pakistan. This is the time to eliminate the Taliban militants in Malakand division also, which they are controlling after the flawed “peace” deal.

The earlier the Taliban is dispossessed of the 11 per cent of Pakistan’s territory over which it has established its sway, the better it will be for Pakistan and the rest of the world. The militant movement has its allies in the terrorist outfits based in Occupied Kashmir and Punjab like the Lashkar-e-Toiyaba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. The Taliban can be eliminated only if its associates, which have been targeting mainly India, are also finished off. These outfits have been providing strength to Al-Qaida too. The international community, particularly the US, must take note of this.

Top

Swine flu pandemic
Threat is for real and serious

The worst fears are coming true. Swine flu is threatening to turn into a full-blown pandemic. Earlier confined to Mexico and the US, now the flu is spreading fast. The WHO has raised the alert level to Phase Five, the second highest level, meaning the pandemic is imminent. While confusion surrounds reports of an NRI from Texas with flu symptoms quarantined in Hyderabad, like the rest of the world, India, too, cannot afford to take the outbreak lightly.

H1N1 virus or swine flu is being viewed as a major risk reminiscent of H5N1 avian flu that re-emerged in 2003 and claimed as many as 257 lives across 15 countries. In 1968 “Hong Kong” flu pandemic and 1957 Asian flu pandemic killed about a million and two million people respectively. Even seasonal flu kills 250,000 to 500,000 people in a normal year, including healthy children in rich countries. With the danger of swine flu symptoms being mistaken for an ordinary flu, there is an increasing need to spread public awareness about precautionary steps and who stands at a greater risk of being infected. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has already advised nations to step up preparedness. Besides issuing a travel advisory, India has announced screening of every single passenger entering its international airports. The Centre has decided to stock three million doses of Tamiflu drug known to be effective against the virus. People seemed to have paid heed to the travel guidelines, perhaps even over-reacted, as travel business has been affected.

With economic meltdown staring at the world, the outbreak of the deadly virus couldn’t have come at a worse time. Dr Chan’s assertion, “The world is better prepared for an influenza pandemic than at any time in history,” however, is reassuring. But it will have meaning only if the world gears up to meet the impending challenge. While there is no reason to whip up hysteria, complacency could expose the public to a potential health risk. Screening procedures at airports have to be comprehensive as well as prompt. The WHO may not have recommended travel restrictions as yet but India could consider a travel ban to the affected countries.

Top

Rising hopes
Not out of the woods yet

Rising stock markets in Asia, Europe and the US may give one the impression that the worst is over on the world economic front. There are positive and negative bits of economic information and it all depends on individual perception. Those driving up stock markets latch on to positive news, ignoring dark areas. For instance, the US reported a 6.1 per cent decrease in its GDP in the first quarter on Wednesday while experts had expected only a 4.7 per cent fall. Yet the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose more than 2 per cent because consumer spending had gone up by 2.2 per cent. If Dow Jones rises, stock indices in the rest of the world follow.

Some analysts dismiss the latest stock upsurge as “a bear-market bounce”, others believe economic turnaround has begun and data will show it later. How fragile the current rally is is clear from the way stocks fell the world over on Tuesday after reports that Citigroup and Bank of America may need more capital. There is no doubt recession has so far been effectively handled with various governments coming out with bailout and stimulus packages. The G-20 summit in London did improve liquidity, investor confidence and business sentiment. But the celebrations may be premature.

In India sectors like automobiles, cement, steel, capital goods and port traffic have shown a pick-up. Foreign investment inflows have turned positive. However, the core sector grew only 2.7 per cent in March compared to 5.9 per cent in the same period last year. While the Prime Minister expects a 7 per cent GDP growth this fiscal, the RBI has lowered its target to 6 per cent. The IMF and the World Bank do not believe India can grow above 5 per cent. Two factors will decide the future growth momentum: how stable the new government at the Centre is and how even the monsoon spread is.

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Thought for the Day

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ What feats he did that day. — William Shakespeare

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Corrections and clarifications

n In the front page report on the Batala councillor ( April 27), the word has been spelt as councillor in the headline but with a single ‘l’ in the text. The British spelling with double ‘l’ is the acceptable version.

n In the same edition on the same day Ravneet Singh Bittu has been described in the same sentence ( Page 3 ) as the “first ever elected President of Punjab Youth Congress, handpicked by AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi.” He cannot be both ‘elected’ and ‘hand-picked’ at the same time.

n In the late city edition of April 28 ( India Votes, Page 6 ), one of the headlines related to the Faridkot constituency read, “ With nearly 50 pc of voters, the dist to play decisive role”. Substituting “the dist ( district)” with Moga would have made it clearer.

n In the report ( Page 11, April 27) about an election meeting at Barwala, it should have been ‘cast’ and not ‘caste’.

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 & Friday.

Readers in such cases can write to Mr Uttam Sengupta, Associate Editor, The Tribune, Chandigarh, with the word “Corrections” on the envelope. His e-mail ID is uttamsengupta@tribunemail.com.

H.K. Dua
Editor-in-Chief

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ARTICLE

Can we learn from South Africa?
The contrast between two polls
by Inder Malhotra

EVERY election in this country becomes a poll too prolonged. Unfortunately, to an extent this has become unavoidable because of the curious political culture we have allowed to develop in the name of its immense diversity, empowerment of the numerous disadvantaged identities, dynamics of social change, utter opportunism, criminality as a short-cut to winning, and what not. Future generations would find it impossible to believe that there was a time when Chief Election Commissioners were credibly confident that a single-day voting in this vast land, too, was feasible.

Moreover, while there is logic in separating parliamentary and assembly elections and holding them at different times, this sound idea has been vitiated because all assembly polls cannot take place simultaneously but are usually staggered over the whole year. Consequently, the Model Code of Conduct, in force over long periods, impedes governance such as it is.

As became evident during the first two of the five-phase Lok Sabha elections, Naxalite desperadoes could kill no fewer than 29 security and polling personnel in their brazen attempt to disrupt the poll. A day before the second round they had struck at five different places and had even hijacked a train. They could get away with this. Why? For the simple reason that even though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been crying hoarse that the Naxals are the greatest internal security threat India faces, nobody seems able to curb them, leave alone crush them. A former Union Home Minister had made it his business virtually to contradict the Prime Minister every time the good doctor spoke of the Naxalite menace.

The tragedy, however, is that the Naxalites or other ethnic insurgents such as ULFA in Assam and various militant groups in the north-eastern states are not the only ones to create lawlessness at election time. There are also the gangs of toughs of various political formations whether based on caste, parochial pursuits or any other. And then there are what can only be called honest-to-goodness criminals that seem dear to almost all political parties, judging by their number in successive Parliaments in recent decades. Some have indeed adorned ministerial chairs.

The reason why these monsters are able to flourish under any dispensation is simple. Political parties need them - money power must be supplemented by muscle power - and the country’s judicial system is a source of comfort to them. The charges against them — multiple murders, rape, kidnapping, abduction and extortion — may be heinous, but the cases against them go on and on for years, even decades. And whatever other constitutional and legal norms we might trample under foot, we are sticklers for the doctrine: “innocent until proven guilty”. In the rare case where a mafia don - called bahubali in Hindi or Robin Hood by his political patrons — is convicted at long last, his wife or moll can always take his place in the electoral battle.

Under these circumstances, is it any surprise that Indian elections have become more a military or para-military operation than a democratic exercise? And there seems no escape from this ugly state of affairs. For, the rival political parties, while berating each other for appointing “tainted” ministers, never agree to a simple amendment to the law to provide that anyone against whom a court of law has framed serious criminal charges would be ineligible.

One often wonders why we Indians cannot elect our governments peacefully even 62 years after Independence while former communist countries where democracy has been introduced only recently can hold theirs without disruption or disorder. This feeling is accentuated by the sharp contrast in our election and that just concluded in South Africa, a country where democracy arrived only in 1995 when the scourge of apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela, happily still with us, ushered in a brave new era.

In a matter of days the elections were conducted in an exemplary manner and the results declared without any delay or dispute. It is perhaps revealing that the Indian media, print or electronic, hardly took notice of the South African poll while the rest of world took a keen interest in it.

Of the hash all political parties — especially the ones that have shared loaves and fishes of office under the banner of the United Progressive Alliance over the last five years — have made of the alliance system in the coalition era, the less said the better.

In a Lok Sabha election that is really an aggregate of 28 state-specific polls, Tamil Nadu’s is a case apart. This is so because the issue of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict always arouses deep emotion there. Evidently, the Tamil sentiment has now risen to a fever pitch because of the worsening state of the luckless Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan Army and the virtually vanquished LTTE that is cruel enough to treat the civilians in the war zone as human shields. Even when the two rival Dravidian leaders seem to be engaged in theatrics — J. Jayalalithaa suddenly supporting Tamil eelam in Lanka and M. Karunanidhi going on a six-hour fast — they are obviously responding to pubic anger and despair over the plight of their Tamil brethren across the Palk Straits.

Whether the suspension of combat operations by the Sri Lankan government would come to the rescue of the beleaguered Tamil civilians remains to be seen. So does the impact of this issue on the bitter fight between the DMK and the AIADMK.

While these lines were being written came the news — perhaps the most sensational during the current election campaign — of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, together with his senior officials and cohorts, being called to account for the horrendous riots in his state seven years ago.

The Supreme Court has directed the Special Investigation Team to inquire, within three months, into Modi’s personal role in those horrific events. For Modi and the BJP this could not have come at a worse moment. Modi was not only seen as the saffron party’s most effective campaigner but he was also being projected as the country’s future Prime Minister. Some observers saw this as an attempt to deflate the party’s official prime ministerial candidate, L. K. Advani. But the BJP’s calculation was different.

It thought that the “Modi factor” would enhance Advani’s appeal. This stratagem has now been delivered a shattering blow, and that too by the apex court.

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MIDDLE

Politically correct
by Uttam Sengupta

THIS boy has a bright future in politics, I say,” said the wife without looking up from the newspaper she was reading. I looked quizzically at her, anticipating more to come. And sure enough, after a pregnant pause, she continued, “Varun Gandhi will go places”.

I had learnt to take her seriously but this was a bit too much for me to swallow. “Are you nuts?” I blurted out before I could check myself. She looked coldly at me and pushed the newspaper she was reading to my corner of the table.

There was a report on one or two public meetings addressed by the brat, sorry the brash poster boy of the BJP, in Kanpur and in Fatehpur. And he had said all that he was expected to say. So, what was the big deal? I was about to put down the newspaper with a frown when the last paragraph caught my attention.

Varun Gandhi apparently spoke at length about the time he spent in jail after spewing communal venom. There was a sympathetic deputy jailor at the Etah central jail, who had asked him to visit his home in Kanpur, Gandhi junior told his rapturous audience in the industrial town, explaining why he had felt compelled to campaign in Kanpur. But when he was addressing a meeting at Fatehpur, the reporter noted wryly, he told the crowd of the sympathetic jailor from Fatehpur who had requested him to, well, visit his home in Fatehpur.

It is possible for Etah jail to have more than two deputy jailors who were sympathetic to Varun, you know, I tried to tell the wife. But she had retreated into the kitchen, leaving me to nod in agreement. The young man is certainly a fast learner.

I was reminded of a chief minister who was a fine orator. Like all Indian politicians, he never prepared his speech. He spoke extempore and spoke eloquently and with great degree of passion. On one of his whirlwind election campaigns, a young reporter faithfully noted down everything that he spoke at every meeting. But at the end of the day, when the reporter sat down to file his report, he was nonplussed. All the figures that the CM had rattled, about land distributed to the landless, irrigation capacity created, the length of roads laid, etc, were different at each meeting. Slowly, the reporter realised that the figures fluctuated with the size of the crowd. Larger the size of the crowd, higher the figure. Like all good reporters, our young man took the middle path and quoted the mean.

Politicians, I guess, do not have to learn these things.

Yet another chief minister once signed such a strong letter of recommendation for admission of a colleague’s son to the director of an engineering university, that the minister was sanguine about sonny getting in. It came to him as a shock, therefore, when sonny’s name did not figure even in the third list. The angry minister stomped into the director’s room and demanded an explanation. How dare he defy the recommendation of the chief minister?

The penny dropped only when the director brought out several envelopes and showed scores of similar recommendations signed by the CM. “The instruction is that we send him a list of people for whom he had signed the recommendation. He then marks the ones he would like us to take in,” explained the director. The minister took one look at the list and left quietly.

Varun Gandhi is certainly on that track.

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OPED

Doctor in jail
Binayak in need of medical help
by Kuldip Nayar

Dr. Binayak Sen
Dr. Binayak Sen

TALKING about human rights violations during elections is like raising one’s voice in a hall where the entire audience is shouting without pause. Even otherwise, elections in India are a noisy tamasha.

Still I would like to draw attention to the case of Dr Binayak Sen, a prisoner of conscience, languishing for years in a jail in Chhattisgarh, a state ruled by the BJP.

Why I have brought in the BJP is because the party leaders have said from many rostrums that India has lost its soul since it has stopped bothering about morals and values. I find them no less wanting.

I do not want to introduce in my argument the demolition of the Babri Masjid nor the carnage in Gujarat. They may sidetrack the specific issue I have raised.

My plea is confined to Binayak’s case lest the party should use other incidents as an alibi to cover up the detention of Binayak under the Public Safety Act or of those who uphold India’s ethos of pluralism. Principles have no meaning for the BJP if it is not willing to follow them.

Somehow, I felt that my letter to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh will help Binayak get better medical attention. I wrote to him because I had come to believe that Raman Singh had a human side despite his personal venom against the Naxalites.

In my letter, I did not argue the merits or the demerits of Binayak’s case. Nor did I ask for his release. I would have done so but I feared that in the midst of such requests, the immediate medical help required for Binayak might be delayed.

I was wrong about the Chief Minister. He did not even respond to the three-line request to transfer Binayak to Vellore hospital for better medical attention. I am disappointed for not getting any response because mine is a non-political voice by a human rights activist.

I can understand that Raman Singh is a busy man because he personally supervises action against the people he considers Naxalites. Since he had again won the assembly elections, I had imagined that he must be having a popular touch for returning to power.

Since I have never visited Chhattisgarh over which he presides I cannot make any value judgement about the state’s administration. But there is something called basic courtesy, sending an acknowledgment which is a routine work of a well-run office.

Maybe, Raman Singh is not an exception. Such courtesies are archaic, something of the days gone by. When he has taken no action on the appeal of 20 Nobel Prize winners to release Binayak, his slight for my letter is understandable.

Yet by not replying, Raman Singh cannot shut his eyes to the unending sufferings of Binayak or the outcry against his detention.

I know that the Chief Minister’s pet child is the Salwa Judum, a force he has constituted to let people “defend” themselves against “violence” by Naxalites. This force is above the law and it indulges in all types of activities, including violence, against Naxalites or those the government regards as Naxalites.

What the Chief Minister has really done is to put Adivasis against Adivasis, changing a land of peace into a land of murder with the authorities playing a negative role.

Binayak is said to have written against the Salwa Judum. So what? Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution. The Chief Minister may have not liked what Binayak wrote.

But then the democratic structure that India proudly sustains allows dissent. I am sure that his party agrees with me on this point, although it has to support what Raman Singh does.

The BJP stock would rise if it were to pull up persons like Raman Singh because they give the impression of being autocratic.

The party should realise that Binayak’s detention has become an all-India issue. Or for that matter, a world issue. There is a satyagraha going on at Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh.

And the ‘Free Binayak’ movement is spreading beyond even the Hindi-speaking states. The question is not whether dissent pays, but whether there is any space left for it. The illegitimate use of force is making people desperate.

Binayak and the Naxalites are not synonymous. The ideology of egalitarianism may be common. But the methods are different. There is nothing wrong in aspiring for a society which knows no poverty, no inequality and no oppression.

Binayak is said to have carried a letter to the Naxalites. Even if it is true and even if the letter contained something which the authorities did not like, how could Binayak become guilty of a crime which is punished by endless detention?

He is not part of the Naxalites’ policy of violence to eliminate those who are considered part of vested interests. Binayak has been secretary-general of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) which the Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan had founded. Binayak is a human rights activist who has been touched by the poverty he has seen from close quarters.

The killings which the Naxalites carryout — and they have been at their worst during the elections — is the main difference which persons like Binayak have with them. He is a doctor who sustains life, doesn’t snap it.

He has worked among the Adivasis for years to help them overcome their illness. He is a bare-foot doctor but has felt the helplessness of the poor.

Binayak’s case causes concern because it shows how a doctor believing that medicine alone cannot give health to society can be put behind bars on trumped-up charges.

It is all the more alarming because the state high court and the Supreme Court have refused him bail without telling people the reasons for it. Hopefully, his case, coming again before the Supreme Court, will see him free.

What is happening to Binayak is a symptom of the disease which is spreading in India. The disease is the government’s authority to suppress those who challenge the system.

Even fake encounters are arranged to kill those who are considered ‘dangerous’. The entire apparatus of administration reeks of intolerance. The remedy lies in overhauling the system, not in detaining those who point out: the king is naked!

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Pakistanis fret over image
by Mark Magnier

College student Amena Omer inhaled tobacco from a hookah, the octopus arms of the hubbly-bubbly wrapped around a table leg, and summed up the state of her country: “Worse than zero.”

Having foreigners refer to their home as a failed state naturally puts Pakistanis on the defensive, she said. But when the 19-year-old looks around at the creeping fundamentalism, increased terrorist attacks, squabbling politicians and large swaths of the nation beyond government control, part of her thinks they might have a point.

“This country’s situation is getting worse,” Omer said as she hung out with several college friends at a cafe in Lahore. “Honestly, Pakistan is going in the wrong direction. Sometimes you wonder if it’s going to exist in another 20 years.”

In the narrow alleys of the Aabpara Market in Islamabad, fabric seller Akhlaq Abbas scoffs at a young person’s dire predictions. Pakistan is not a failed state, the 61-year-old says. Sure, it has problems, although he doesn’t think that’s exactly accidental.

“Groups of people from abroad are working to destabilize Pakistan,” he said, as others in the bazaar nodded in agreement. “Outsiders — from India, Israel, America and Britain — are meddling. They send drones over our heads and kill people. Our troubles happen because outside forces want to hold Pakistan back.”

As Pakistanis grapple with growing problems at home, many are keenly aware of their nation’s eroding reputation. They’re outraged at implicit comparisons with Somalia or Afghanistan, and fearful that as more foreign commentators chime in, the view that their country is fundamentally flawed will become contagious, taking on a life of its own.

Many also recognize, however, that the country has deep-seated flaws. Sharia, or Islamic law, was recently imposed in the Swat Valley as part of a peace deal with militants, further sapping the power of a government that only nominally controls large parts of its tribal and frontier territories.

Taliban militants declared the peace deal “worthless” after a Pakistani military offensive against insurgent hideouts in Dir, near the border with Afghanistan. Paramilitary forces using helicopters and artillery killed 20 suspected militants Monday and a total of at least 46 in recent days, according to a statement by the army.

The nation’s shaky democracy is headed by a weak leader in President Asif Ali Zardari, whose main qualification is being the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who many believe was assassinated by Islamic militants. The government struggles to rise above corruption and insularity even as the nation’s economy is on life support. And Pakistan’s intelligence community may or may not be doing everything it can to fight rising militancy.

That said, the idea that Pakistan is falling apart is hardly new, analysts here said. For decades, foreign pundits have been predicting the imminent collapse of their country, although in recent months the cry has intensified.

“Every time I go to America, I hear that Pakistan is going to break up in the next few years,” said I.M. Mohsin, Pakistan’s former interior secretary, who travels abroad periodically to visit relatives.

“Sure, there are problems, and we stumble ourselves,” he added. “But the relationship with your country is like the relationship with your family. There are strains, but you work through them.”

The way some here see it, the country needs more political leaders and officials who care about the country as a whole, rather than about building their own ego or fiefdom.

“I can’t say it’s a failed state,” said Rizwan Majeed, who runs a general store in Lahore. “But it’s got lots of administrative problems. Also, our very different local traditions make it difficult to govern with a single set of rules.”

The parade of statements made recently by foreign leaders and experts on the risk of a Pakistani meltdown only fans nationalistic fears, some said. A map published recently in Armed Forces Journal, a U.S. publication, drew howls after it detailed how Pakistan might break apart — leaving it about half its current size, with huge chunks absorbed by Afghanistan and a new “Free Baluchistan” state to the south.

“There’s a huge conspiracy mind-set in certain pockets and these ... assessments are taken as evidence that foreigners are planning something,” said Fasi Zaka, an academic, television host and music critic based in Islamabad. “Unfortunately, that spurs national pride, kills self-reflection and prevents the country from taking action against its own domestic groups and problems.”

Pakistan’s nascent democracy can be a bit shaky, said Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, but that doesn’t mean its institutions, law enforcement arms and nuclear command-and-control systems aren’t functioning.

“Pakistan can’t be compared to a Somalia or Afghanistan,” Ahmad said. “What’s generally perceived outside doesn’t match the reality on the ground.”

Justified or not, the country’s eroding international reputation exacts a toll, several said. Foreigners start believing that everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist, making it difficult to travel, study abroad, even finalize import and export deals.

“No one supports Pakistan anymore. Just mentioning our name generates fear,” said Hadia Azam, 19, a ceramics major at the National College of the Arts in Lahore. “Lahore, with its beautiful architecture, is called the heart of Pakistan. Now no one wants to come see our heart anymore.”

Omer took another puff of tobacco and made room for a friend on a bench, her words coursing out of her mouth faster than the scented smoke. Leadership is indeed a problem, she said, and it’s up to the younger generation to break the cycle of cynicism, self-interest and corruption that has beset Pakistan for decades.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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Where to find good coffee
by Sebastian Rotella

The nonchalant artists behind the counter serve up one mini-masterpiece after another. But you won’t find Il Caffe in any Milan guidebooks.

Not many tourists wander down this side street by the block-long concrete hulk of the Palace of Justice. A dozen tables, the smell of pastry, an air of caffeinated intrigue. Flocks of prosecutors, cops, defendants, lawyers, journalists and bureaucrats drink espresso standing at the counter, Italian-style, all day. Banter mixes with the hiss of steam and clatter of cups.

And the coffee, not surprisingly, is great. You know it as soon as you see the golden froth on top. Not too hot, not too bitter, not too sweet. The cup is appropriately small. The jolt lingers and invites another.

There are countless Il Caffes across Italy. You find good coffee even in the dingiest gas station. The real quest begins when a globe-trotting espresso addict leaves Italy and ventures out into the world.

As far as the immediate neighborhood is concerned, the quality declines only a bit in Spain. Plus you discover fun variations. On winter mornings in the countryside, laborers and gray-mustached veterans of the paramilitary Guardia Civil gather in noisy bars (is there a quiet bar in Spain?) to fortify themselves with a carajillo: coffee with a shot of cognac.

North of the Pyrenees, French wine and cuisine deserve their fame. But the coffee? Ask an Italian cop whose years of pursuing desperadoes — all-night stakeouts, marathon interrogations — across Europe have been fueled by vats of the stuff.

He’s an avid Francophile who visits every chance he gets. But he grimaces elegantly. “Puagh. The French don’t know how to make coffee. Acqua sporca (dirty water).”

In the spirit of comparison and contrast, here’s a modest, impressionistic and unscientific review of some coffee-related places and experiences.

London: Perhaps it’s a result of the gulf between Anglo-Saxon free-marketeers and French protectionists that you hear about these days. Perhaps it’s because the British lack an ingrained coffee tradition of their own. The fact is that the tea-swigging British have thrown open their borders to Italian-style coffee and the chains that purvey it. Wherever you turn, there’s a Caffe Nero, Costa Coffee, etc.

Ashkelon, Israel: Israelis make it and drink it with verve and determination. During the intifada in 2002, sentries with automatic rifles guarded the hip sidewalk cafes of Jerusalem. Civilian customers sipped with pistols jammed in their belts. During this winter’s war in Gaza, Hamas unleashed missiles on the beachfront city of Ashkelon a few miles north. Most shops in the two local malls closed because a direct hit on a glass roof wounded several people. But on the first floor of the downtown mall, Cup O’ Joe, part of a nationwide chain, kept serving excellent espresso.

Rio de Janeiro: It’s apparently Brazilian law that you must charm guests with cafezinho, whether in a government ministry or a bullet-scarred shacktown. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Times had a bureau in a big old house with a stunning view of the Christ statue atop Corcovado Mountain across the bay. Bureau employees thought it was their solemn duty to ensure that visiting correspondents had a steaming cup on their desk at all times.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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