Malaysia Sdn Berhad: Book Review


August 11, 2017

Malaysia Sdn Berhad: Fox guarding the henhouse?

BOOK REVIEW | Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia. Edmund T Gomez et al. Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Kuala Lumpur.

by Prof. Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram

http://www.malaysiakini.com

In the late 1980s, the young Terence Gomez proved himself to be the worthy successor to a Malaysian research tradition begun by James Puthucheary in Singapore’s Changi Prison almost three decades earlier. Gomez single-handedly transformed our understanding of the role of politics in the ownership and control of the Malaysian corporate sector.

Employing novel methods as needed and appropriate, the auto-didact researcher showed how official policies and institutions had enabled an earlier generation of selected Malay business professionals to take over some commanding heights of the Malaysian economy.

Change and continuity

In their new book, Gomez and his team of researchers chart developments over the last three decades since he began his pioneering work, paying particular attention to developments following the 1997-1998 crisis. That crisis exposed the vulnerability of the earlier expansion closely associated with the Umno leadership then.

The corporate restructuring and refinancing institutions and processes that followed were not simply bailouts at the public expense, as alleged by some critics then. Instead, as the book shows, most major assets are now under new management, ultimately controlled by the current prime minister cum finance minister.

The authors focus on seven government-linked investment companies (GLICs), namely Khazanah Nasional, Permodalan Nasional (PNB), both under MoF Inc, Kumpulan Wang Simpanan Pekerja (KWSP or EPF), Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (KWAP), Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera (LTAT) and Tabung Haji.

Malaysians may be comforted to learn that of the seven, only Tabung Haji is run by politicians, and the others by professionals. But after all, 1MDB too has been run by professionals (Jho Low is a Wharton graduate) while Felda Global Venture’s previous boss claimed to have a doctorate. The not-so-magnificent seven covered do not include others, such as those in the Felda group, controlled directly by the PM since 2004.

Most bumiputera entrepreneurs who emerged in the dozen years or so before the 1997 crisis also had impressive professional credentials. The apparently better performance of the more recent crop of professional managers may have less to do with their qualifications, than the ethos, checks and balances of the new institutional arrangements introduced and enforced by some GLICs.

Government control

The range of activities undertaken by government-linked companies (GLCs) overseen by the GLICs includes familiar ones from the 1980s such as utilities, finance, plantations, property and construction. Media, previously controlled by the ruling party and its trustees, are now held by GLCs, while investments in hospitals and other services have also grown. With development finance institutions now under GLCs, their original objectives and rationales have been undermined by commercial considerations.

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The Gomez team has done Malaysians a great service by describing how things have changed, tracing the bewildering variety of new arrangements. However, how to interpret this variety remains moot, and some informed readers will have their own bones to pick with what is considered most significant in their analysis.

Protracted crisis

Two economic developments help us better understand the recent growing unrest, especially among informed Malays. First, the Saudi-initiated oil price collapse in late 2014 precipitated a more general commodity price collapse. Meanwhile, lacklustre growth in Malaysia since 1998 has been exacerbated by premature deindustrialisation unconvincingly presented as inevitable in achieving developed country status.

Second, despite heavy censorship, news has been leaking out of corporate abuses involving not only 1MDB, but also FGV and other corporations associated with the legendary ‘Malaysian Official 1’. Easy money from China may have helped the regime with its immediate financing problems, but a generation familiar with mounting personal debt senses that this is at the public’s, taxpayers’ and future generations’ expense.

This ‘double whammy’ has been reflected in the much-weakened ringgit and by other indicators. Meanwhile, there have been heightened concerns about the recent foreign investor resurgence, especially with official non-disclosure of ownership data since 2008. Recent erosion of public faith in the state and ruling coalition has been accelerated by unprecedented recent abuses for personal gain and nepotism.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Even if successfully challenged on some details, this important book should open an important new debate on how Malaysia is to progress. Gomez offers some proposals, apparently at odds with the book’s sponsor. Others, especially participants in and observers of Malaysia’s corporate sector and political economy, will promote their own alternative purported solutions. The ensuing debate can only benefit the nation, as Gomez’s first decade of publications shaped the earlier debate and reforms, even if most outcomes may have disappointed him.

While this regime is undoubtedly associated with unprecedented abuses, there is little in the study to support the publisher’s faith in leaving things to the market and simplistic insistence on government withdrawal from the economy as a universal panacea to the myriad problems the nation faces. In the face of the wide-ranging and complex issues involved, this would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Unsurprisingly, this publication on the regime’s role in ownership and control of contemporary corporate Malaysia is silent on the current political crisis as the nation approaches the next general election. Nevertheless, IDEAs must be congratulated for sponsoring and publishing this important work.

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JOMO KS received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

 

 

Buddhist Philosophy–Its Value for Humanity


August 7, 2017

by Antonio Damaso

http://www.nytimes.com–Book Review

Anyone writing (or reading) about Buddhism faces a critical question. What is Buddhism, really? A religion, complete with supernatural deities and reincarnation? A secular philosophy of life? A therapeutic practice? An ideology? All of the above? Robert Wright sketches an answer early in “Why Buddhism Is True.” He settles on a credible blend that one might call Western Buddhism, a largely secular approach to life and its problems but not devoid of a spiritual dimension. The centerpiece of the approach is the practice of mindful meditation.

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The goal of “Why Buddhism Is True” is ambitious: to demonstrate “that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” It is reasonable to claim that Buddhism, with its focus on suffering, addresses critical aspects of the human predicament. It is also reasonable to suggest that the prescription it offers may be applicable and useful to resolve that predicament.

To produce his demonstrations and to support the idea that Buddhism is “true,” Wright relies on science, especially on evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience.

This is a sensible approach, and in relation to Buddhism it is almost mainstream. Over the years, in a number of encounters, I have found the Dalai Lama and those around him to be keenly interested in science. Wright is up to the task: He’s a Buddhist who has written about religion and morality from a scientific perspective — he is most famous for his 1994 book, “The Moral Animal.”

My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows. First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time.

It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.

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Wright’s book is provocative, informative and, in many respects, deeply rewarding. A good example is Wright’s description of his first full entry into the realm of mindfulness. Arriving at this new mental state generated in him an intense emotive response and a memorable feeling that Wright evokes with suggestive but spare prose. It rings true. This scene lets the reader glimpse the power of mindful meditation and be intrigued, even seduced, by the transformative potential of the practice. I found myself not just agreeing but applauding the author, on a number of passages. A case in point is his unflinching embrace of the notion of feeling, which he understands as the mental experiences of physiological states, states imbued with a valence ranging from positive and pleasant to negative and unpleasant. He is referring to phenomena in the mind, private to each specific human being and not inspectable by others. He does not confuse feelings with emotions, which are public and can be inspected by others. Surprisingly, this distinction between feeling and emotion is often glossed over not just in popular accounts but also in the scientific literature. And yet, it is fundamental for the understanding of how living organisms with nervous systems can behave, develop conscious experiences and construct individual minds, sociality and cultures.

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Wright is not as persuasive when he attempts to establish the truth of Buddhism by considering the circumstances in which feelings arise. He readily admits the value of feelings as basic guides to the way we run our lives. For example, feelings can express states of our physiology by letting us experience thirst and hunger and satiety and pain and well-being. He designates such feelings as “true” because their experience is congruent with the organism’s state of need or lack thereof. But when, in modern life, emotions such as fear and anger are incorrectly and unnecessarily engaged — for example, road rage — Wright calls the respective feelings “false” or “illusory.” Such feelings, however, are no less true than the thirst, hunger or pain that Wright accepts and welcomes. When we feel road rage, the feeling faithfully depicts the disturbed state of our physiology brought about by anger. That feeling is just as true as the feeling of pain after we suffer a wound. Practical inadequacy is the issue, not lack of truth.

More often than not, we gain from subjecting the recommendations of any feelings to the scrutiny of reason. With some exceptions — situations of panic being an example — emotions and the feelings they engender need to be judged by reason, in the light of knowledge, before we let them guide our behavior. Even “good” feelings such as empathy, compassion and gratitude benefit from distance and discernment.

We can agree that mindful meditation promotes a distancing effect and thus may increase our chances of combining affect and reason advantageously. Meditation can help us glean the especially flawed and dislocated status of humans in modern societies, and help us see how social and political conflicts appear to provoke resentment and anger so easily. Over and above the personal benefits of meditation one can imagine that populations engaged in such practices would expand their awareness of the inadequacy and futility of some of our affective responses. In turn, that would contribute to creating healthier and less conflicted societies, one person at a time.

But there are important questions to be raised here. How does one scale up, from many single individuals to populations, in time to prevent the social catastrophes that seem to be looming? I also wonder if, for some individuals, the successful practice of meditation and the actual reduction of the anxieties of daily life is not more likely to induce equanimity regarding social crises than the desire to resolve those crises with inventive cultural solutions. Individual therapy and the salvation of society are not incompatible, of course, but I suspect they can be easily uncoupled.

Wright correctly defends the view that the self as director of operations and decider of one’s actions is an illusion. I could not agree more. But there is an important distinction to be made between the idea of self as mastermind and chief executive officer, and the process of subjectivity. The self appears fragmented, in daily life and in meditative states, but subjectivity does not break down. It never disappears, or we simply would be unable to observe the fragmentation in the first place.

I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?

Antonio Damasio directs the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. He is the author of a number of books, including “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.”

Farewell, Michiko, どうもありがとうございます, Doumo arigatou gozaimasu


August 2, 2017

Farewell, Michiko, どうもありがとうございます, Doumo arigatou gozaimasu

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Michiko Kakutani

Click on to read: Kakutani’s Book Reviews. Many of her fans including Yours truly will miss the Pulitzer Prize Book Critic’s biting reviews in the New York Times. I suppose after 38 years, she has rightly decided to move on. I have benefited from her reviews and used them to decide what books I should acquire and read.–Din Merican

A Bit of History–Rereading Albert Speer’s Inside The Third Reich


August 2, 2017

A Bit of History–Rereading Albert Speer’s Inside The Third Reich

by  Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

https://www.newyorker.com

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The book was a worn, thick burgundy paperback, spine splintered in three parts, tiny print crammed on its pages. I read it in the bedroom downstairs, our family dumping ground of books and newspapers, old clothes, forgotten things. I must have been about ten. On the University of Nigeria campus, where I grew up, books (and videocassettes) drifted in and out of homes, borrowed and returned, creased and torn, passed around. I read everything—thrillers, history, romance, classics—some in a cursory way, with passages skipped. But this book absorbed me. I remember certain lines, as words will sometimes float in memory long after a book is forgotten. A theory of ruins. I remember a mute dog named Blondi. I remember the photographs. Grainy, black-and-white images that spoke of European mysteriousness.

Almost thirty years later, I have just reread Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich.” To return to the books of my childhood is to yield to the strain of nostalgia that is curious about the self I once was. What could I, at the age of ten, have found so engaging in the memoir of a Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s de-facto No. 2 man?

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Perhaps it was the book’s narrative energy, its lucid tone and textured scenes, which create a kind of fluency. Speer’s affluent but unappealing childhood would have interested me—his sickliness, his distant parents, who employ maids in white aprons and fret about their social standing. So, too, the palace intrigues of Hitler’s petty court, unctuous men tiptoeing around him, swallowing words that might offend him, jostling for his praise. The characters are compelling, and might have seemed all the more piquant by being “real” people. They are flatly sketched from anecdote, but the unencumbered clarity of their portrayal has a peculiar appeal: the fat, self-indulgent Hermann Göring, drinking champagne and hoarding stolen art; the small-eyed soullessness of Heinrich Himmler. The uncomplicatedness of these sketches functions, too, as emotional directive: we are to feel disgust for Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, a gentle pity for Hitler’s partner, Eva Braun.

And then there is the character of Hitler himself. It might have amused me that a man whose “magic” Speer often refers to did not seem at all magical. In Speer’s telling, Hitler is duplicitous and vacuous, so intimidated by accomplished people that he surrounds himself with shallow hangers-on; he is humorless and only laughs at the expense of others; he tiresomely repeats himself and is delusional, even before the war, with what Speer describes as “fantastic misreadings” of reality. Yet Speer was devoted to him. Awed by him, loyal to him.

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In this litany of Hitler’s flaws, Speer demonstrates a slick honesty whose goal is to disarm. If it disarmed me as a child, it repels me as an adult. His rueful acknowledgment of his dedication to Hitler, and his philosophical puzzlement at his own complicity, seeks to cast a glaze of innocence over him. Margo Jefferson, in her memoir of African-American life, “Negroland,” writes that, when recounting unhappy memories, “You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.” She resists this, finding it dishonest. Not Speer; he, with calm canniness, assembles his follies in flattering light. His self-criticism has a too-smooth edge; it is as though he has considered all possible criticisms he might face and taken them on himself, and there is an egotistical undertone to this that is perverse.

He belittles the architectural work he did for Hitler, mocking the designs as “pretentious,” but what remains astonishingly true is that he believed in Hitler’s architectural jingoism. Hitler tells Speer that Berlin, compared with Paris and Vienna, is “nothing but an unregulated accumulation of buildings,” and here Speer’s nationalist insecurity aligns with his architectural ambition. He, too, wanted to assuage Germany’s wounded pride, to wipe off the humiliation of losing the First World War by erecting edifices. He toiled to make a reality of Hitler’s imperial megalomania—buildings that would last a thousand years, structures that reflected a Germany to which the rest of the world would bow—so much so that his disapproving architect father, on seeing his models, told him, “You’ve all gone completely crazy.”

As a child, I could not have seen this book as the silver-tongued project of exculpation that it is. Nor would I have recognized how much Speer’s class privilege makes this possible. Speer’s class sneer is always present, always subtle, in his references—to Hitler’s petit-bourgeois background, to the unrefined tastes of Hitler’s other henchmen. He detests Bormann, whom he calls “a peasant” with “no culture,” a feeling rooted more in class than in morality. He objects not so much to what Bormann does as to the crude nature with which he does it, as though Bormann’s murderousness would not be so offensive had he exhibited some finesse. The burning of the Berlin synagogues and the “smashed panes of shop windows” offend his “sense of middle-class order.” He asks the slave laborers in his armaments factory if they are satisfied with their treatment. Evil is tolerable if purged of coarseness.

In my graduate class at Yale, a classmate once said, while studying the war in Sierra Leone, “African violence is different.” In that word, “different,” was a repressed shudder. He meant that hacking people to death with machetes lacked something that might have made it more bearable. A cold-blooded elegance, an efficiency, a remove. I will always remember that student because he illuminated for me the Western idea that turpitude, when committed by a certain kind of person and in a certain kind of way, is worthy of being engaged with. Speer, with the cultured, reasonable, modest manner that is the easy inheritance of the privileged classes, represented a kind of Teutonic ideal. It made possible his memoir, a well-written act of image-making. It made possible his designation as the “good Nazi,” somehow better than the others, a man whose ruthlessly steady hand kept the German war machine churning, who denied that he knew of millions of Jews being murdered, who burst into tears on seeing a photo of Hitler after his death.

Did I sense the insecurity that pervades this memoir, and, by extension, the Third Reich itself? A collection of men-children with infantile fantasies. Dreams of victory parades. Great halls built to impress. Bigger as better. The ringing echo, in Hitler’s refrain of “We are not inferior,” of a man desperate to believe himself.

How do books read early in life shape us? Would I have an abiding interest in Nazi horrors if I had not read Speer at ten? Would I be so fascinated by European tribalism? It is interesting now, as Europe tries to find a sense of self, to read of Speer’s fleeting dream of an economically united Europe, with Germany as its leader. Or of Hitler’s belief that Islam was more compatible with Germans than Christianity. Or Speer’s suggestion that democracy is inherently not German and the Weimar Republic an aberration of Germanness because “tight public order was in our blood.” Right-wing populism is rising again around the world, and it is hard not to look for lessons here. Hitler rose to power because he exploited in Germans that sense of what Speer called “personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy,” which “was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims.” He turned history into a reservoir of resentments. And he spoke simply. Speaking simply, in this case, meant discarding complexity and disregarding truth.

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!


August 1, 2017

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!

https://www.newyorker.com

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani! On Thursday, the Times’ chief daily book critic announced that she would be leaving her regular reviewing post after thirty-eight years at the paper, marking the end of a literary era. Her assessments of novels and memoirs, works of history, biography, politics, and poetry have guided generations of American readers, and the prospect of getting a Kakutani review has been the hope and fear of more writers than could possibly be counted—a seriously big deal, or ordeal, as the case might be. A good review brought on elation. “It was like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” Mary Karr told NPR. A bad one incited rage, sometimes despair. Nicholson Baker compared getting a negative Kakutani review to undergoing surgery without anesthesia; Jonathan Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York.” (She had deemed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”) What made her scary to writers made her reliable to readers: you couldn’t easily predict where her favor would fall.

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Thank You. Michiko, for your Book Reviews in  the New York Times. You will be sorely missed. –Din Merican

More so than any critic working today, Kakutani has become synonymous with her profession. Her name long ago entered the lexicon as a verb (“to be Kakutanied”), a signifier of the ultimate cultural prestige. On “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw declared herself “terrified” of getting the Michiko treatment. A generation later, Hannah Horvath, on “Girls,” just wanted to “lock eyes” with her across a room—not an easy feat, considering Kakutani’s reputation for guarding her privacy. She turns down interviews, never does panels, and is rarely photographed. A head shot of Joan Didion is still, mysteriously, the first picture to appear on a Google search for Kakutani. Her Twitter avatar is an egg, though not one of the old default cartoon ones, beloved of trolls, but, rather, an attractive, hard-boiled number, luxuriating against a sea-green pillow.

Who is Michiko Kakutani? What is she like? One minuscule clue came in the much-discussed interview that she conducted with Barack Obama in January, days before his second term came to an end. When the President referred to his teen-age years, and his adolescent preference for “imbibing things that weren’t very healthy,” Kakutani responded, “I think all of us did.” Michiko Kakutani imbibed unhealthy substances in high school! I thought, with weird excitement. That she had couched this confession in a universal statement, thus disclosing absolutely nothing about herself, only added to her mystique.

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She is careful to hide herself on the page, too. “I” is a word that you will never read in a Kakutani review. She had no interest in the first person as a critical device, and that avoidance of the personal pronoun is part of what could make her negative reviews feel so lacerating. When she wrote, for instance, that Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis” was “a major dud, as lugubrious and heavy-handed as a bad Wim Wenders film, as dated as an old issue of Interview magazine,” the burn was all the sicker from being simultaneously so specific and so remote. (Note how this statement is actually three insults squeezed into one; what did Wim Wenders do to get so brutally Kakutanied along with DeLillo?)

Certain observers resented Kakutani for resisting “I,” a preference that became more noticeable as the chatty, confessional informality of Internet writing started to change the tone of criticism in the early aughts. Ben Yagoda, writing in Slate, accused Kakutani of having no humor, no wit, and no voice of her own. (He was, to this critic’s mind, overly aggrieved by the goofy reviews that Kakutani sometimes wrote in character. It’s a gruelling business, trying to find fresh ways to write about other people’s writing, let alone trying to do it multiple times a week. Let a critic have some fun.) Yagoda implored Kakutani to retire the old-fashioned epithet “the reader,” which she preferred to the personal pronoun. Then there’s the argument that the critic should use the first person to lay all her cards on the table, owning up to the particular experiences that shaped the taste that she’s bringing to bear on someone else’s work. But self-exposure wasn’t Kakutani’s style. What a critic needs most is independence, the ability to evaluate a work on her, and its, own terms. Some people find their independence through the first person, stressing the subjective nature of the whole critical enterprise. Kakutani found it by screening herself with the privacy afforded by the third. If she loved your book, or if she hated it, it wasn’t personal. “The reader” might always change her mind—next time.

Kakutani had deeper concerns about the possible pitfalls of relying too much on the first person. Writing in 2006 about the fraudulent memoirist James Frey, whose partially fabricated account of his struggles with addiction came to be seen as a high point of narcissism during the era’s memoir craze, she connected Frey’s slippery personal revisionism to broader cultural trends eroding the value of objectivity and truth. It was surprising, to say the least, to find, in a piece about one guy’s lies, references to Holocaust historiography, Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, and the Bush White House’s manipulative cynicism regarding the invasion of Iraq. But Kakutani’s argument—that postmodernism and deconstruction had ushered in a view of the world in which “all meaning is relative, all truth elusive,” easily manipulated by people in power—proved perceptive and darkly prescient.

“We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics,” she wrote. “This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.” Kakutani has said that she’ll take advantage of her retirement as a regular critic to write longer pieces about politics and culture, and that’s a good thing. For all the uproar that any given rave or take down of hers could incite, she kept her eye on the bigger picture.

Hagiography instead of history


July 31, 2017

Hagiography instead of history

by Krishnan Srinivasan

http://www.thestatesman.com/books-education/hagiography-instead-of-history-1501369837.html

Image result for the great game in afghanistan General Zia, Rajib

Kallol Bhattacherjee’s book is a specimen of breathless modern history told by someone who thinks he is scooping the world. His heroes are obvious — former US ambassador to India John Gunther Dean, Rajiv Gandhi, and former Indian ambassador Ranendra Sen to whom he invariably refers by his nickname, “Ronen”.

Through his contacts with Dean and to a far less extent, Sen, Bhattacherjee unfolds his version of Gandhi’s initiatives to stabilise the postconflict Afghan situation after the Soviet withdrawal, which never in fact added up to much and eventually collapsed.

The same narrative could be portrayed as another example of Gandhi’s naiveté as a novice in international diplomacy. It is unwise to rewrite history on the basis of hero-worship. The records used to justify Bhattacherjee’s thesis are from the US and Dean’s personal collection and as usual not from Indian archives, whose unnecessary closure defy efforts to arrive at an authentic version of India’s position.

The author posits Sen in the role of intelligence-cum-diplomatic vizier to Gandhi — though it is unlikely that Sen himself subscribes to this view —and astonishingly never cites any contact with MK Narayanan, who then occupied the key intelligence role, or MS Aiyyar, who was privy to Gandhi’s thinking on world affairs.

The closeness of Sen, Narayanan and Aiyyar to Sonia Gandhi as a result of their work with her husband brought them later appointments under successive Congress governments but that is another story.

The core argument is that Gandhi “connected all sides (USSR, US, Pakistan, the Aghan leadership) creating the contours of a political consensus” namely a non-aligned broad-based Afghan administration guaranteed by the major interested powers.

Despite the flaunted friendship between Gandhi and Reagan and Bush, the US let Gandhi down on the “bargain that they had made” on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s nuclear status, which meant that the “peace effort” was doomed.

The fall of Najibullah was another failure of Gandhi’s making. Rajiv Gandhi’s other diplomatic initiatives — disarmament, environment, third world economic cooperation —like his Afghan proposals came to nothing because they did not take into account that the world was changing to a US-dominated sphere.

What the author regards as Gandhi’s “talent for diplomacy” was in reality negligible. India was in no position politically or economically to play in the big league and being consulted by the US did not imply dining at the high table. It is fanciful to think that the US and USSR needed a go-between or “secret Indian channel” between the White House and Kremlin, and such claims suggest that the author’s informants sought to magnify their role.

The quid pro quo of India’s help to resolve the Afghan issue was the US reducing its arms supply to Pakistan, which has been a naïve Indian assumption of Indo-US amity ever since the 1950s.

As could have been foreseen, US arms to Pakistan continued even as the Soviet pullout was imminent, making Indian assumptions ridiculous. The author sadly concludes the “mujahideen were not willing to play by the rules” and the Americans “preferred the Pakistani leaders to India’s.” Bhattacherjee gives too much importance to backstairs intrigues and off the record talks and indulges in gross exaggerations.

He describes Sen and Dean “often coordinating on issues of interest on a daily basis” which is ridiculous to anyone who has worked at high levels in the government. He writes that Pakistan president Zia’s death/murder in an air crash could spark a nuclear war between India and Pakistan —more than a decade before India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons. He is fond of the word paranoia, used thrice on the same page.

He claims “it was obvious to Rajiv and his team that the USSR was not going to last long”, which would be news to everyone including the US and Gorbachev. The text is not free of absurdities; “As an ex-intelligence officer, he knew that news is often the best tool for private investigation.”

The author writes that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stopped over for an hour at Bombay airport in 1984 due to the murder of the UK top diplomat in that city, and the Maharashtra home secretary was “surprised” she did not mention the matter — which he regarded as sinister. Senator Charles Percy was Gandhi’s “secret lobbyist in Washington DC.” At another place, it is said that Zia “wanted to delay history.”

The editors at HarperCollins are generous with cli-chés, including the Great Game of the title and eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. They also do not know the difference between “defuse” and “diffuse”. In sum, this is an unconvincing book and a waste of considerable research that should have been put to better use. Also about Pakistan/Afghanistan but of a very different nature is Nate Rabe’s racy, fast paced novel,The Shah of Chicago, about a shambolic effort to enter the illegal narcotics trade.

The anti hero is an unattractive jive-talking American junkie of Pakistani origin who returns to his country of birth to get rich quickly. He is a criminal ex-convict murderer but a lover of ghazal and Bollywood.

While his narcotics enterprise bombs, a totally improbable love life with a high-society Pakistani woman flowers.

This whole text is so full of outlandish stereotypes that it strains credibility, as indeed does the strange name of the author. But it makes for easy reading as a spoof compared to Bhattacherjee’s distorted presentation of the Great Game.

(The reviewer is India’s former foreign secretary)