Thursday, July 31, 2014

Israel Palestine Conflict: Is the general reaction towards Israel's offensive a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome?

Disclaimer at the beginning: My article is no way in support of the Israeli offensive against Palestinian people. But at the same time, it's not harmful to have a different perspective to the whole thing.

India and Israel were born almost at the same time - India on 15th August, 1947 and Israel on 14th May 1948. And interestingly, both were born out of partition plans made by none other than the British. India was partitioned on the basis of religion to carve out an Islamic Pakistan. A similar plan was used to carve out Zionist Israel and Arab-Muslim Palestine. Coincidences don't stop here. Like the Muslim Pakistan comprising two appendages in the east and west, the Arab-Muslim Palestine too comprised the Gaza strip in the west and West Bank in the east (Yes, it's like West Bengal in the east of India) of the newly created Israel. But, over the next six decades, the affairs between India and Pakistan haven't come to the state as they are now between Palestine and Israel. Of course, India never struck against Pakistan like Israel has always done, though state and non-state sponsored terrorism in (P)alestine and (P)akistan have constantly targeted (I)srael and (I)ndia in similar ways. Indian being  a soft power with lofty ideals has failed miserably to tackle Pakistani terrorism. There's no guarantee that incidents like 26/11, where terrorist attacks at various parts of Bombay were planned and executed by Pakistan, will not occur in future. But similar incident can't ever occur in Israel, come what may, and the reason is very simple - Israel's offensive against anything that's Palestinian.

A close study of the history of the various events in that area leads me to the thought that Israel has been always in the retaliation mode since its creation in 1948 and retaliation is always manifold stronger than its cause. Interestingly, history has been always sympathetic to the cause and illogically harsh to the retaliation, perhaps which leads to my reference of the Stockholm syndrome. The USA is always condemned for the nuclear strikes against Japan. But is Japan condemned in the same way for its attack on Pearl Harbor? Had there been no Pearl Harbor there wouldn't be any Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I just gave one example, but history has many such instances where retaliation has been very horrific. I find no reason why it shouldn't be. Just see the impact of the nuclear attack on Japan. The World War II came to an end in no time, the holocaust too ended. But still the USA have to bear the ignominy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for ever. Aren't we excessively sympathetic to Japan and illogically harsh to the USA? They just retaliated and that's what Israel has been doing always. Let us go back to the history a bit before pointing all our guns against Israel.

The Ottoman Empire has been degenerating fast. The last nail in their coffin is their aligning with the Germans in the World War I. 

  1. 11 November 1914: The Ottomans become German ally
  2. 24 October 1915: The British High Commission at Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, sends a letter to the Sherif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. He assures that if the Arabs fight against the Ottoman, then the British Government would "recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca", with the exception of certain areas, which don't explicitly mention Palestine, but would later be claimed to have included it through the ambiguous reference to "portions of Syria lying to the west of the vilayets (districts) of Damascus". The Sherif doesn't raise any concern with the wordings of the correspondence. By the way, this British High Commission is the same McMahon who, just a few years ago, was instrumental in creating the McMahon line which still serves as the boundary between India and Tibet - more India connection.
  3. 5 June 1916: The Arabs, under Faisal, a son of Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, start fighting against the Ottomans. T E Lawrence, popularly known as the Lawrence of Arabia, immortalized by David Lean's eponymous movie, plays a great role in convincing the Arabs to support the British forces against the Ottomans. 
  4. 2 November, 1917: James Balfour, Foreign Secretary of the UK, declares that UK favors the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". One of the main proponents of the Jewish Homeland is Chaim Weizmann, a leading spokesperson in the UK for Zionism and an acclaimed chemist whose inventions in explosives are much needed by the British to counter the Germans. The declaration is also seen as an attempt to please the US president Woodrow Wilson two of whose closest advisers are avid Zionists and who hasn't yet joined the World War. 
  5. 23 November, 1917: Just after the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks expose an agreement, known as Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed between UK, France and Russia on 16 May, 1916, which divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian peninsula into future regions of British and French control. Balfour Declaration along with Sykes-Picot Agreement contradict with what McMahon had assured to Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, earlier about the recognition of the independence of the Arabs. Even then, various officials of the British government manage to convince Faisal, Hussein's son and Hussein that they are still committed towards Arab's independence. It's argued that the Jewish Homeland mentioned in the Balfour Declaration is not same as a Jewish State in Palestine. UK sticks to its interpretation of McMahon-Hussein correspondence that Palestine was excluded from the areas of Arab independence and that it's in sync with both Balfour Declaration and Sykes-Picot Agreement.
  6. 18 January, 1919: Paris Peace conference starts following the decisive end of World War I. More than one and a half year later Treaty of Sevres, which finally decides the fate of Palestine, is signed on 10 August 1920. Palestine and Iraq are placed under British Mandate and Syria and Lebanon under French. The Palestine Mandate consists of two regions, one to the west of Jordan River, known as Palestine, and the other to the east, known as Transjordan, an autonomous region placed under the Hashemite family of Hijaz. The erstwhile Hijaz vilayet or province under the Ottoman Empire included Mecca and Medina. Hijaz is presently under Hussein bin Ali, the Sherif of Mecca who was assured of Arab independence by Sir Henry McMahon in 1915 and who has recently claimed Hijaz as a part of that assurance. Iraq would be soon placed under Faisal, a son of Hussein of Hijaz.
  7. 1 July, 1920: Civilian government starts in Palestine Mandate under British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel. The Treaty of Sevres had acknowledged clause of Jewish Homeland in Palestine as per the Balfour Declaration, but had also mentioned that the interests of the other people wouldn't be hampered. The British Mandate for Palestine is opposed by the Arabs, whose interpretation of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence included Palestine as a part of the region which would be independent under them. Nevertheless, initially the relation between the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine is cordial.
  8. Over the next few years a hard line Palestinian Arab Nationalist movement gains momentum under Amin al-Husseini. Massive anti Jewish riots erupt in many places leading to heavy casualties to the Jewish people. This heralds the beginning of the Jewish retaliation with the founding of several underground militia groups and Jewish paramilitary force. The violence continues with Arabs pouring in from the neighboring Syria to boost the fight against the Jewish people in the thirties. Over the next eighteen years, during which the World War II begins and ends, it becomes very clear that the Arab Muslims and the Jews can't stay together in Palestine and that a partition, with Gaza strip and West Bank going to the Arabs and the rest of the British Mandate going to the Jews, is imminent.
  9. 29 November, 1947: General Assembly of the newly formed UN recommends the partition of Palestine. Expectedly, the Jews accepts the recommendation but the Arabs oppose, resulting in another series of violent clashes between the two, with the Muslims supported by the Arab League . Here also, the Jewish stand at the beginning is defensive and occasionally retaliative. But things change gradually, with more Jewish veterans of the World Wars joining the struggle. The Jewish offensive is strengthened by the underground militias which were formed in the previous decade during the early stages of the Arab-Jewish violence. By the spring of 1948 the Arab forces are a total collapse. 
  10. 14 May, 1948: The State of Israel is born a day before the British Mandate for Palestine would come to an end. The Arab League intervenes on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs. Thus begins the Arab-Israel War. Jordan occupies and later annexes West Bank and Egypt takes over the Gaza Strip.
  11. 22 September, 1948: All Palestine Government is declared by the Arab League in Gaza. Through the 50s Egypt and Jordan keep on supporting militant activities against Israel, who is left with no option than to carry on reprisal operations, which continue till date.
Without any prejudice anyone can infer that the Zionists, from the beginning, wanted to create a Jewish Homeland through dialogues and negotiations. If the Arabs can claim their nativity in the Palestine, the Jews can also do the same on same land which was part of the much older Israel Kingdom. After the holocaust and the outcome of the World War II, it was very logical for the homeless Jews to think of returning to their historical homeland, which presently was placed under a British Mandate and no longer a part of the Ottoman Empire to which the Arabs could claim their sole ownership. The World Wars created many new countries, mostly impacting the losing parties, of which the Ottoman Empire was perhaps the biggest loser. It's expected that they would be impacted the most. The erstwhile Islamic Ottoman Empire having collapsed, the idea of the Islamic states at all its erstwhile regions was out of question. Nevertheless, major parts of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire emerged as Islamic States (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Hijaz etc.) The relatively smaller area of Palestine not being recognized as an independent Arab State shouldn't have been a big issue for the Arab League who were suffering from the shock of the demise the Ottoman Caliphate and the loss of Arab control over Middle East. But that was an eventuality which they had no other option than to accept. Had the Ottoman Empire sided with England and France, then things would have been totally different, but then that's just a wishful thinking. 

When the partition of Palestine between the Jews and the Muslims was imminent, there was no reason for the Arab League to oppose that. Had they not done so, there wouldn't be the present state of affairs between Israel and Palestine. The first violence between the Jews and the Palestinian Muslims was triggered not by the Jews, but Arab nationalists from outside Palestine, when Palestine was still under a British Mandate. With the formation of Israel, the external forces kept on instigating offensives against them and the outcome is of course the present sad state in that region. 

To bring back my India-Israel analogy, let us consider a scenario where India has rejected the plan for the Partition of the Indian subcontinent as proposed by the outgoing British government and all the neighbors of India - Russia, China, Thailand and Malaysia - join hands with India against Pakistan. What do you think Pakistan would do? Would they keep quiet and allow India along with its neighbors bully him? Of course not. They would do exactly what Israel has been doing for the past six decades. It's altogether a different thing that Pakistan anyway has been striking against India in as many was as possible without any provocation from the Indian side. India has been mostly acting like a matured big brother, not retaliating against Pakistan time and again. But has that stand improved the situation? Has the safety of our country been guaranteed by the soft stand taken against Pakistan? No. But, just think about it, would you ever see anything like 26/11 in Israel? No. Never. 

Now coming back to the original point of the reaction towards Israel's offensive. Yes, it's horrific, condemnable in all standards. But without this ultra strong stand, would Israel exist in that region? Would you  all be fine if the Israel State were annexed into an Islamic State of Palestine? If you're fine with that, aren't you actually showing symptoms of Stockholm syndrome because the first aggressor was not Israel? It's sad that the first aggressor in this case was neither Palestine - it was the Arab League.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The rise and fall of [corporate] empires

In school there would be this cliched "last but not the least" point we had to always mention at the end of the long answer to the questions like "what are causes of downfall of XXX Empire" [XXX can be replaced by either Mauryan or Gupta or the Mughal]: No empire or civilization can exist forever no matter how big of strong it is. Whatever be the reasons we may talk about, the main reason is this cycle of time - the rise and fall - which no empire or civilization can ever evade. So the Mauryan Empire had to finally come to and end.

That was how our history teacher had explained to us in a very philosophic manner. Even at times few of us would quote a few lines from the Bengali poet Madhusudan Dutta: Janmile marite habe, amar ke kotha kabe, chira stheer kabe neer hay re jiban nade (If you're born, you've to die - who has ever been immortal? When has been the water still in this river called life?)

So when we saw that a company like Nokia, which even a few years back had almost 80% market share in mobile phones globally and was almost synonymous to mobile phone, suddenly vanished (almost) from the mobile space, or a company like Kodak, without which we could never preserve any moment of happiness or togetherness for more than a hundred years, shut down, or a phenomenon called Blackberry, which was at a time synonymous to another new phenomenon called Obama, suddenly lost steam, I remembered that cliched last point.

Yes, it's true that anything that rises has to fall. But it's not necessary that it should fall so soon. General Electric, the company founded by the most prolific inventor of all times, Thomas Alva Adison, has been operational for more than hundred years. IBM has been also in business for a very very long time. So has been HP, Disney and many other companies. So when something dies so soon, there has to be some good reasons apart from that natural cycle of time.

For Nokia & Blackberry (and many other semiconductor companies), the reason for their fall has been very similar. Let us look little deep into it.

Nokia has been a pioneer in mobile technology. They were the first to introduce lot of new things. They were the first to introduce games in mobiles. They were the first to bring out smart phones in a big way. Lot more. They were ahead of their competition in technology, innovation and sales. They were proud to work on cutting edge technologies. So were we all, people working in semiconductor industry. We wanted to always work on the latest technology, the most cutting edge technology, the most challenging things..., the list goes on. And in doing so, we forgot something that Tagore had said long time back: Sahaj katha bolte amay bolo je? Sahaj katha jay na bala sahaje (You ask me to say simple things, but simple things can't be said so simply.) Nokia failed to develop a simple phone which could be used by an auto-wala, a farmer, a fisherman, the bai at my home, the security guard of my apartment... That's when, one fine morning, they woke up to see that more than 50% phones sold in India were not even branded - they were all powered by Taiwanese and Chinese hardware. 

It's speculated that by 2015 close to 80% phones sold in India would be unbranded (none of Samsung or LG or Apple, forget Nokia). India sells around 15 million phones every month and 80% of that is not a joke. Interestingly, most of these 15 million phones are very low end, costing around INR 1000 (less than $20). You do your math and you can see that any company would be well off just selling these low end phones. The remaining 20% market share would be fiercely fought for by the likes of Samsung and Apple. 

So what happened actually? A very simple thing. Nokia, the leader few years back, failed to realize the importance of the bottom of the pyramid - my bai, my driver, my security guards. Or in other words Nokia failed to see the need of really cost effective products against the high end niche (elite??) stuff.

So what happened to Blackberry? Same thing. Their hi-tech solution was only for the niche corporate folks, not for my bai, my driver, my security guard. So one fine day, they too were kicked out. As Prahlad Kakkar, the ad guru, has been shouting for quite some time that as long as you don't serve the bottom of the pyramid, you would be out of business. Proctor & Gamble, ITC, Unilever discovered this long back in late 80s and early 90s. P&G started making 1 rupee cachets of shampoos and flooded even the smallest kirana shops in the most interior part of India with those. Had they sold only to the shops in cities, they would have been out of market too, very much like Nokia or Blackberry.

Not only Nokia or Blackberry, most of the semiconductor industry (the likes of Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm, Broadcom) is now bleeding under the pressure and competition from the Chinese and Taiwanese companies, because they neither can compete with the later in pricing nor can they stop selling at dirt cheap levels because otherwise they would miss on the bulk of the market (remember, 80% phones in India will be powered by Chinese and Taiwanese hardware).

Another trend that I see is that the software companies are gradually buying the hardware companies: Oracle bought Sun, Google bought Motorola, Microsoft bought Nokia. So in future the entire hardware industry may be owned by software giants.

So, what's the mantra to survive if you have to stay in business? (Apple is an exception, which I'm not talking about here)

  1. You've to look down, not up (not only high end phones, like what Nokia concentrated more on)
  1. You've to innovate (use technology wisely) to bring down the cost so that more and more people would be tempted to buy (what the Chinese and Taiwanese companies did)
Since the past two years, ever since I've started seeing the publishing industry closely, I saw a very similar thing there too. Let me bring in some analogy to explain what I'm seeing there.

The conventional publishing industry is struggling, very much like the semiconductor industry. It's bleeding, under the pressure exerted by just only one company - Amazon. But why it's so? The reasons are also very similar to what we've seen earlier.

Companies like Penguin, Random House (both of which have merged), Harper Collins, Hachette, Macmillan etc (few big international names seen in India), have been traditionally very elitist, thinking that books are not meant for all, forget the bottom of the pyramid. In doing so, they were engrossed more with the elitist authors, whose books need some good level of knowledge and awareness in English language and literature to appreciate. Thus, they ignored a large population of readers in India (and also elsewhere). 

The prices of the books were high and readers in cities, their main customers, were becoming more and more cost conscious. The urban readers were also finding it difficult to go to book stores and buy books. But the publishers were complacent to the problems of their customers. They felt that they were fine with dedicated book lovers, would would still travel the seven seas and the thirteen rivers (the mythological shaat samundra tero nadi) and still come to the book stores, forgetting their work and other commitments which kept on growing with time.

Then came Amazon and solved both the problems. They first started delivering books at door-step at prices never heard of. They could do so because they didn't have to maintain the inventories like the book stores and most importantly, they very wisely used technology to optimize the cost, which the publishers had never given a damn about. Next they invented e-book, which could be just downloaded in laptops of even phones at even lower price as the entire production cost of a physical book can be done away with. Then finally they invented something called kindle, which even got away with the psychological shock of not holding a book in the hands and reading an e-book in laptop. So finally 20% of all books sold in the US are kindle titles and Amazon accounts for almost a third of the sales of all books for any publisher in the US. Amazon's revenue from book sales is $5.25 billion. Just compare with this: Hachette’s parent company, Lagardère Group, a publisher, broadcaster and retailer whose magazine titles include French Elle and Paris Match, recorded $7.37 billion in net sales in 2012.

Next Amazon addressed a major problem faced by a huge number of authors who couldn't get their books published because most publishers rejected them as they didn't fall in the category of elite or niche writers. Amazon allowed anyone to publish her book and make it available online either as e-book or paperback anywhere in the world where Amazon operates. This opened up a floodgate and in a day thousands of authors started publishing and selling their books through Amazon. Amazon started paying authors hefty royalties. On an average each of these authors sells not more than 50 copies each, but even 100000 authors selling 50 copies each makes 5 million copies (e-books). Even at a meager price of $2.99 per book and Amazon passing 90% of it to the authors, it accounts for a $1.5 million profit (as there's practically no cost involved). This could be their monthly affair and annually the same math could give $15-18 million profit, which is around 5.5 - 6.5% of Amazon's annual profit. That's not a small number.

So how does Amazon change the publishing industry? 

With Amazon controlling more and more pie in the total book sales, the conventional publishers will be bled more and more by Amazon's bullying tactics. I won't be surprised if Amazon bought a few big publishers (like Microsoft bought a bleeding Nokia). Even Amazon can do hostile take over, as I'm sure the shareholders will always prefer Amazon controlling a Penguin or a Harper Collins. With more and more shift to e-books, the revenues of the conventional publishers would fall, making them more vulnerable to be acquired by someone (Amazon itself or even Google or a Microsoft)

The authors may be also allured to move to Amazon slowly if they get better money from Amazon.

Amazon may directly reach out to newer readers, like my bai, my driver or my security guard, who were never in the radars of the conventional publishers. It may be a laughable proposition, but then remember, no body thought even 10 years back that 60% of India would have cell phone. Reaching out to the bottom of the pyramid is not an easy thing for publishers. People may argue, books and shampoos and mobile phones are not same. But then, no one thought in the past that a shampoo or a mobile phone could ever reach a village in Andaman or Ladakh. That's called innovation and I feel Amazon could do that too - take books to my bai. 

I would still say: 
Whether it's a tampon or a tablet or a tale
Business is business, it's all the same hell

So what went wrong with the publishing industry?

They failed to innovate, understand their customers' needs. A product like kindle or the e-books should have come from publishing houses, not from Amazon. It's very much like Nokia or Blackberry (or even Sony) failing to understand the pulse of the customers.

They failed to tap the bottom of the pyramid. There's still a huge untapped market in India in the villages.

What they can do now?

Very simple. What P&G and ITC and Unilever did long time back. Think about selling cachets of shampoos in villages, rather then selling costly bottles in cities. You may ask, how can Penguin sell something in a village? Well, that's not my job to find out. It's for the CEOs of the publishing houses to think. But I do know, there can be surely a way to reach out. Why not start publishing in vernaculars? Why not publish Mastram books that sell so well in villages? You will say, come on, Penguin selling Mastram? Well, that's business. Didn't I say if you're elitist you'll die?