Sunday, February 27, 2005

Effect & Cause

Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi

Byline by M.J. Akbar:Effect & Cause

One of the most familiar words in the English language is ‘because’, because events are generally ruled by the relationship between cause and effect. If there is a cause there must be an effect. This makes issues, trivial and important, understandable. Examples from mass culture will prove the point. Why do music channels keep showing Adnan Sami songs endlessly? Because that is a reasonably popular way to spend seven minutes of television time without paying a rupee. Why are new songs shifting to Punjabi-soul after years of only Bhangra-pop? They are herding into the Bulle Shah train driven by Rabbi Shergill. Why do murderers get trapped by brilliant detectives in crime thrillers? Because they have a motive. Why does the bikini issue of the American magazine Sports Illustrated (it’s heavily illustrated with a different kind of sport) get thicker each year (224 pages, according to the copy on my table)? Because, despite an inflated price, it sells out faster than bikinis. Why should the editor of this page get tempted to use one of those pictures from the bikini issue as an illustration for this column? Because that damn picture would get an ogle even out of an Edit or Op-Ed page. So why doesn’t that illustration get used? Because there are strict orders on the limits to which an Edit-page culture can go. You get the idea of cause-and-effect. The effect may be obvious but it is the cause that is the real story.

In mass politics, strangely, the sequence so often gets reversed. It is not the cause, but the effect that is the real story. Effect often reshapes and fundamentally alters the starting point. Clearly, this proposition needs some explanation.

This column is being written on the eve of the declaration of results of the Bihar and Jharkhand Assembly elections, hardly the best moment to pontificate on a dicey subject. Elections are also taking place in Haryana, but since the results in this state seem to be a foregone conclusion, we will leave them alone.

What is the situation in Bihar, where Lalu Prasad Yadav has been in power for 15 years? We can leave the scientific business of getting the results wrong to the opinion pollsters. Let us stick to the indisputable. The fact is that every political force, barring a section of the Left, has done everything in its power to defeat Lalu. I say a section of the Left because the most important Leftist group in Bihar are the Naxalites, and they were as determined to end Lalu-Raj as anyone else. The Janata Dal (United) and the BJP were natural opponents, so their mobilisation was on expected lines. In all fairness, the cracks in the Delhi-centric UPA were not unexpected. The logic that keeps partners together in Delhi does not extend to Patna.

If Delhi is the head, and therefore heady, then Patna is the base, and therefore basic. Ram Vilas Paswan cannot sustain his party by telling his followers that the doors of expansion are shut. Neither can the Congress. And in Lalu Yadav’s scheme of things, both Ram Vilas and the Congress were marginal factors, necessary to ensure his victory, but unnecessary in the exercise of power. It was an ideal situation for him, and precisely for that reason could not be sustained. This was a primary cause for the scatter of the Delhi alliance in Bihar. An equally important cause was that every political party overestimates its strength on the eve of an election. After all, elections are a human business. There cannot be precise markers. It is a fluid sum game. It is only in retrospect that the mind clears up. The BJP is still wondering (privately of course) what the tallies might have been if it had given the AGP an extra seat in Assam, Shibu Soren an extra seat in Jharkhand, and stayed with Om Prakash Chautala in Haryana rather than spurning him. If Lalu had felt that the arc of public opinion would steadily move away from him, he might have offered the fifteen extra seats that would have kept the Congress by his side. There was no way in which he could have retained the support of Ram Vilas, since the bitterness between the two is personal. But, in broad terms, when it comes to an analysis of causes, everyone has a story to tell.

No one, including Lalu, knows what the results will be, but the body language of the Lalu camp is edgy. Lalu Yadav himself does not believe in body language. He believes in language. Whether in victory or defeat Lalu Yadav is irrepressible. He has been using a few epithets about senior Congress leaders (apart from Sonia Gandhi) that will never be quoted in their authorised biographies.

There is only one realistic measurement of effect: when topsy and turvy have finished their game, who is in power? No one is getting a majority from the people; power will go to those who can cobble one in the Assembly. Lalu’s problem is that power has only one meaning for him: his wife becomes chief minister again. An ally as chief minister could be as problematic as an opponent in that chair, and a nominee from his own party perhaps the worst of all options. This is a peculiarity of all personality-driven parties. In Lalu’s case there is an added dimension of vengeance. He cannot afford to be out of power.

If Rabri Devi remains chief minister Lalu Yadav will have a vested interest in the status quo. If the dice throws up different numbers, and Ram Vilas, with 25-odd MLAs, can persuade the JD(U) to join his government, rope in independents and get non-participatory support of the BJP then the cracks at the base will turn heads in Delhi.

One nuance has already been established. Alliance in Delhi is no guarantee for a similar equation in the states. In Jharkhand, the Congress and Shibu Soren’s JMM first nudged the third partner, Lalu Yadav, out, and then set about poaching from each other. The aim was not merely to defeat the BJP-JD(U) but also to become the dominant partner of the alliance. This is also acknowledgement of the individual power of a chief minister. That single office outweighs the collective power of a bunch of ministers. This is partly because of the nature of the office, and partly because a chief minister, unlike a Prime Minister, does not have heavyweights as colleagues. This was why the Congress demanded, and got, this chair in Maharashtra, although Sharad Pawar had the larger number of MLAs. The rules were changed because the Congress could use its Delhi muscle.

The Delhi muscle did not work in Chennai. DMK chief M. Karunanidhi took pre-emptive action when E.V.K.S. Elangovan, the Congress Union minister, dared to dream of his party’s return to partial power in Tamil Nadu. The DMK was ready to go as far as to withdraw its ministers from the Central government. It was only a minor coincidence that Karunanidhi called for a meeting of his party on this for Sunday the 27th. This is the Sunday on which the results of Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana will be announced. The difference between Karunanidhi and Sharad Pawar is but this: the DMK’s departure from the UPA rattles the coalition; Pawar’s departure raises a sigh, but nothing more.

Point of order: Guess who was beside Lalu Yadav in Central Hall, enjoying the wit in his customarily restrained fashion, while Lalu rewrote the profiles of senior Congress leaders? Sharad Pawar. This by itself means nothing. Power has very little to do with friendship and absolutely nothing to do with banter. Self-interest is the primary motive; and a brother’s interest is protected a long way later, if at all.

Point to note: If Lalu Yadav defeats his opponents and his friends, not to mention pollsters, crosses the 100-seat mark, reduces the Congress to 15-odd seats, emerges as the largest single party/group and dictates the shape of the next government, then what? That too will have its consequences in Delhi, because he will demand a larger share of power in Delhi. Could he extend his grasp to Ram Vilas Paswan’s portfolio? Logic suggests that he could. There has been no reshuffle of the Manmohan Singh government since it was sworn in, and these results could set the scene for a fresh check on equations.

When effect impacts on cause, there is but naturally an after-effect.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Compulsions of Peace

Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar:Compulsions of Peace

India and Pakistan, having fought over Kashmir for so long, have at long last found time for the Kashmiri.

War breeds vested interests that will not easily surrender their lucrative space. Peace must build its own vested interests. Natwar Singh has placed us on a bus that could create such interests: some at the emotional level, others at the economic level, for he has also opened up tourism in the valley to Pakistan.

Here is a thought for the war lobby that must have surely begun planning how to sabotage the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus link scheduled to start from 7 April. In the third week of October 1947 war began between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The conflict has lasted 58 years. In the first week of January 2004 Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf signed the Islamabad declaration that has served as the basis of the current rapprochement. Peace will have lasted 58 weeks by the time the first bus leaves Srinagar for Muzaffarabad.

In 58 years of conflict uncounted thousands of young lives have been lost and not a single square inch of land has changed hands. In 58 weeks of peace, yesterday’s heresies have become today’s facts, and what was unthinkable five years ago will become a reality six weeks later. Fireworks in Srinagar welcomed the promise that Natwar Singh and Khurshid Kasuri offered in Islamabad.

India-Pakistan relations are an exercise in the art of the possible. Occasionally, as happened this week during external affairs minister Natwar Singh’s visit to Islamabad and Lahore, this is elevated to a fine art. While credit must always be evenly shared, a particular word of appreciation is necessary for the statesmanship of Natwar Singh. He did not let politics interfere with national interest. The Islamabad declaration was made by a bitter political foe, but instead of being petty and finding fault he built on that understanding and delivered far beyond conventional expectations. The declaration was a foundation, a statement of intent: nothing more, and indeed nothing less. The hard work still had to be done.

It says something about the state of the BJP that it has responded to the Kashmir bus like a crab with ulcers. If the BJP is searching for much-needed comfort in traditional anti-Pakistan postures, then I have some news for the party. Atal Behari Vajpayee made all that irrelevant.

The war lobby, which of course is a coalition of varied interests, must have an objective, for war cannot be an end in itself. Let us try and examine what it is as coolly and unsentimentally as possible. Militants, the self-proclaimed "jihadis" who have picked up the gun, believe that the status of Jammu and Kashmir can be changed by continuous, low-intensity, high-casualty warfare as long as they have the protection of a base outside the reach of the Indian Army. They underestimate the will of a state to preserve its geographical integrity. It is easy to be gulled by the rhetoric of a television debate, particularly when someone else’s child is being sent into the killing fields.

Situations do not remain static. India and Pakistan have taken significant steps in the last seven years to preserve their national integrity, the most critical element being that they are now mature nuclear powers with efficient delivery systems. This has created a sense of psychological parity, particularly in Pakistan, which laboured, with reason, under the weight of being the smaller and therefore more vulnerable nation. The new zero-sum game has a happy calculus: neither side can win, and both might lose all they have if they are not careful.

You could extend the syndrome. All the three principal military powers of Asia, China, India and Pakistan, are now mature nuclear states (North Korea would fall into the category of an immature nuclear state). China, India and Pakistan therefore lend the region from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans an unusual degree of geopolitical stability, for the era of defeat is over. So if a 1971 is now impossible, so is a 1962. A mixture of fear and opportunism was once the basis of uncertainty, and uncertainty promoted tension and adventurism. The beneficial paradox is that peace opens up opportunities that war once closed. China would never have recognised Sikkim as part of India under the threat of war. It has done so through the compulsions of peace.

Peace has its compulsions as well, but since no sabre rattles we rarely hear about them. The compulsion of war is sacrifice: eat grass if you must, but find the money for arms. The compulsion of peace is economic growth and a better life. People put pressure on their leaderships to deliver more consumer goods, better basic infrastructure, health care, safety and a whole clutch of freedoms: to talk on phones without being tapped, to get access to entertainment, to travel with ease across frozen borders. Rasheed Masoodi lives in Srinagar, is 65 years old and has not seen his father, who lives in Muzaffarbad, for 56 years. A son who is a grandfather will now meet his father. Raja Mohammad Hussain is 96 and cannot restrain his joy that he will be able to see his birthplace, Muzaffarabad, before he dies. Peace has relit hope that conflict had extinguished. Those in power sneer at sentiment. They deliver sermons on what they will do for Kashmir, and have no time for the Kashmiri.

India and Pakistan, having fought over Kashmir for so long, have at long last found time for the Kashmiri.

It would be a disservice to underestimate what has been achieved. The last time a vehicle plied between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar was in October 1947, and it carried men intent on war. That is not a facetious truth. It is a harsh memory that has led to more bitterness on our subcontinent than any other fact of our history barring partition. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, father of Farooq, never forgot the human price that Kashmiris had to pay as a problem became a tragedy and the tragedy spiralled out of control. The dream of an open road that could reunite families was always a part of the National Conference manifesto.

It requires will to change a won’t. Natwar Singh and Khurshid Kasuri showed precisely how diplomacy can be used creatively when the will to do something positive exists. You can either find a solution for every problem, or a problem for every solution. And the bus was as tricky as it gets, for it involved issues as basic as identity and sovereignty. The two foreign ministers chose to look for solutions. They operated on the strength of a basic agreement, that no decision would be tantamount to any dilution of the known positions taken by the two countries on Kashmir. Pakistan could not accept a Kashmiri crossing a disputed border with an Indian passport for it would have been tantamount to recognition of Kashmir as a part of India. So a document was created that would contain all the details that a passport has, would be issued by the Regional Passport Officer (who is a servant of the federal government) and handed over to the other country for permission to enter, just as a passport is handed over for a visa.

Now, it was Pakistan’s turn to accommodate. Under UN resolutions, any travel across the Line of Control should have been regulated by UN personnel (who actually do exist, however nominally). Instead the travel will be handled bilaterally. Further, the Northern Areas of the original Kashmir state have been separated from "Azad Riasat-e-Jammu-o-Kashmir" by Islamabad. But under this agreement, residents of that region will also be permitted a Kashmiri status if they want to take the bus.

India dropped one of its demands to accommodate another agreement with extraordinary potential, the gas pipeline that will, if all goes well, run through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to Turkmenistan. At one level, it is a project that suits India’s needs much more than Pakistan’s, for Pakistan would have got the gas in any case. But that is not the main point of the concept. This is a daring example of what should be called eco-politics: the triumph of mutual economic benefit through the application of positive political skill. The crossroads of so many neighbours are policed by the devil. If India and Pakistan can cooperate and define common strategic goals for this energy-rich region, they can together challenge the domination of any power that seeks unilateral primacy in the Middle East and Central Asia. This is not a claim made without consideration, or a day dream.

Is there any significance in the fact that the bus was first mooted by India? Yes. It is evidence that Delhi is ready for flexibility. Not so long ago, rigidity was synonymous with patriotism. That cul de sac has been breached, and suddenly possibilities are opening up. India could become the meeting point of pipelines between Burma and Central Asia.

War breeds vested interests that will not easily surrender their lucrative space. Peace must build its own vested interests. Natwar Singh has placed us on a bus that could create such interests: some at the emotional level, others at the economic level, for he has also opened up tourism in the valley to Pakistan.

It is a significant achievement. But every achievement is only the starting point for the next one.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Peace Gets A Chance

Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi


In a single day of talks with President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri and the official delegation, Mr K. Natwar Singh achieved agreement on a gas pipeline that will change the eco-politics of the region; a bus route that was part of Kashmiri fantasy - Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which will begin from April 7, there will also be bus services between Amritsar and Lahore, and to religious places like Nankana Sahib. The Khokrapar-Munnabhao rail link will be reopened by October 2005.



There is a law of Indo-Pak relations: nothing has happened until it has happened. So much scalding tea has spilled between the cup and the lip (the Agra summit being the most famous instance) that only the very brave predict good news. A sub-law indicates that when things begin to happen, everything seems possible.

In a single day of talks with President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri and the official delegation, Mr K. Natwar Singh achieved agreement on a gas pipeline that will change the eco-politics of the region; a bus route that was part of Kashmiri fantasy; CBMs on nuclear missiles that should be common sense but were uncommonly difficult to push through. As if this were not enough, he reopened the consulates in Mumbai and Karachi and even cleaned up the self-generated cricket tour mess. "The tour will go through," said foreign secretary Shyam Saran at his formal press briefing at the Marriott Hotel here on Wednesday evening. The two cricket boards will later pretend that they reached a decision.

Besides the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which will begin from April 7, there will also be bus services between Amritsar and Lahore, and to religious places like Nankana Sahib. The Khokrapar-Munnabhao rail link will be reopened by October 2005.

This is the first bilateral visit by an Indian external affairs minister since 1989.

One indication of the scale of Mr Natwar Singh’s achievement can be gauged from the point that the last people who came on vehicles from Muzaffarabad to Srinagar were the raiders who started the war in the third week of October 1947. As is well known, they did not quite reach Srinagar, being stopped by the Indian Army at the edge of the airport before being pushed back to what is known now as the Line of Control, or LoC.

It is such a history that has necessitated the complex procedure that will govern the bus route in Kashmir. Any Indian wishing to take the Kashmir bus from Srinagar will have to obtain a document from the regional passport officer in Srinagar, which will be handed over to the Pakistani authorities at the LoC checkpoint. This application will be processed and returned. Those given permission will be allowed to travel. In other words, any Indian taking the bus will travel on the basis of an Indian document. A mirror procedure will operate on the other side. This is a check to ensure that any person considered suspect by either side will not be permitted to cross over.

Mr Natwar Singh began the day with a call on President Musharraf that extended beyond the officially allotted time. The mood at the meeting was realistic, according to one official. This might indicate that they did not waste time on excessive pleasantries. As Mr Singh noted in a statement: "No doubt we have differences between us. This is only normal given the history and complexity of our relationship. However, as leaders, it is incumbent upon us to find ways through which we can enhance trust and cooperation, so that the differences can be addressed more productively." Mr Kasuri, noting that discussions on the "core issue" of Jammu and Kashmir had taken place, expressed "satisfaction" at "the overall improvements in atmospherics between the two countries. We have taken positive steps that augur well for the future of bilateral relations."

The gas pipeline, recently cleared by the Indian Cabinet, was a highlight of Wednesday’s achievements, and will leave petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar free to pursue a grand idea that links India to Central Asia through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

Referring to the controversy over the Baglihar hydel power project at his press briefing, Mr Shyam Saran said Pakistan’s taking the matter to the World Bank was "premature" as there had been "a degree of convergence" at the bilateral meeting of experts. There was no question of Pakistan either being "flooded" or denied water, he added, saying that India did not believe that this project violated the Indus Water Treaty in any way.

The two sides also agreed on an early Saarc summit in Dhaka. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Pakistan after that. India and Pakistan have returned to the fast track that seemed to have got mislaid some weeks ago.

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Answer alas is 'No'

Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar : The Answer alas is 'No'

If Saddam actually had nuclear weapons, would America and Britain have invaded the country? That might be called the nuclear paradox. But the world’s nuclear regime was challenged and changed not in East Asia but in South Asia.

The Answer alas is 'No;

The silence, as happens so often, was louder than an explosion. North Korea announced this week that it had nuclear weapons (for "self-defence" naturally) and suspended disarmament talks with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. In simpler language, North Korea was telling America: "We have weapons of mass destruction. Come and get us." The answer so far is — I was going to resort to the familiar "deathly silence" but that phrase might be too close to the bone.

North Korea has been candid before. In September 2004 it announced at the United Nations, no less, that it had transformed material for nuclear weapons "into arms" but it wasn’t in the White House’s interest to shift the message from Iraq. The paradox is almost funny, except of course that it isn’t. America, which splintered the operating unity of the Big Powers in the United Nations over its determination to believe that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, ignored an admission as candid as it could get. The White House spokesman said that it was a "regional" issue that should be dealt with by North Korea’s neighbours.

How many national armies would have been lined up against Saddam Hussein if he had ever suggested anything even remotely as dangerous? How many armies will move against Iran if it suggests, even obliquely, what North Korea has claimed formally, officially, unambiguously, repeatedly? Have different standards been allotted to different regions of the world?

According to Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies, writing for YaleGlobal Online, the United States has assessed that North Korea has an arsenal of "roughly eight plutonium-based weapons, and it is known to have production capacity for roughly one weapon per year". North Korea also has facilities for enriching uranium, another actual or potential source for nuclear weapons. So what happens? Nothing. So why isn’t anyone interested in spreading democracy to North Korea? South Koreans have democracy. America already has troops on the North Korean border. It does not need United Nations authorisation for mobilisation. And yet a great deal of nothing continues to happen. America urges Pyongyang to engage in talks, and offers scaled levels of incentives for de-weaponisation. When Iran is already engaged in talks with France, Germany and Britain over its nuclear status, Vice President Dick Cheney coyly suggests that Israel could, or perhaps should, bomb Iran while Condoleezza Rice icily suggests that the time for an invasion of Iran has not arrived "as yet".

One problem, of course, is realism. The cost of invading a nuclear state is far too high simply because of the horrendous damage it could cause even in its descent into defeat and destruction. North Korea has already indicated its missile capability by "mistakenly" sending a missile over Japan. So while it might not be able to threaten the United States, it remains a serious concern to South Korea and Japan, the bulwark American allies in the region. The threat of havoc makes nuclear weapons a supremely powerful deterrent. Israel has insured its national security by going nuclear, a right denied to any of its antagonists.

If Saddam actually had nuclear weapons, would America and Britain have invaded the country? That might be called the nuclear paradox. But the world’s nuclear regime was challenged and changed not in East Asia but in South Asia.

The world, as defined by the victors of World War II, was fundamentally altered in the summer of 1998 when India conducted three nuclear tests at Pokharan on 11 May, followed it up with two low-yield explosions on 13 May. On 28 and 30 May Pakistan joined the nuclear club with five tests in the Chagai hills of Baluchistan.

The two rewards that the five victors of World War II (America, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China) reserved for themselves were a veto in the Security Council of the United Nations and the right to nuclear weapons. The first was explicit, the second implicit. That was why there was little or no protest when China went nuclear in 1964, despite being outside the UN regime at America’s insistence (China’s seat was held by Taiwan). The rest of the world was offered sermons when it sought nuclear capability. Jawaharlal Nehru responded with a ruse. Conscious also of the Gandhi mantle that the Congress leadership still wore, he made disarmament the policy but encouraged India’s scientists to develop independent nuclear facilities. Indira Gandhi made this official with the Pokharan test in 1974. Pakistan began to build its bomb only after 1974 but by 1998 had acquired sufficient capability for psychological parity. In the past seven years both nations have enhanced their arsenals and improved their delivery systems. The geopolitical implications will be more apparent over time, particularly if tensions between India and Pakistan begin to come down.

The reality is that the nuclear club now consists of eight members and there is nothing much that anyone can do about at least seven of them. The jury is out on the eighth, North Korea. Does North Korea constitute a case for separate treatment?

One concern that the rational world shares above the host of differences in approach and policy is that terrorism is an unacceptable threat to stability and civilisation. One of the genuine nightmares in an age of expanding knowledge is the possibility of a garage bomb (a home-made nuclear device) being used by a terrorist group. Other nightmares include chemical, biological and radiological weapons being used against civil society. It is important, therefore, to identify a rogue state (or, more accurately, a rogue government) that would feel no sense of obligation to world order, and actively connive with terrorist groups or organisations.

Of course it is necessary here to define terms that we are using. An enemy government does not automatically become a rogue government. For more than four decades the western Anglo-European alliance led by America fought a cold war against the Soviet-led alliance that often simmered with a great deal of heat, but while either side had the power to blow up the world many times over neither did so. Even when one of the protagonists accepted de facto defeat, its government did not launch nuclear missiles in despair or anger. India and Pakistan have come to the brink as well after going nuclear, but have (perhaps to the disappointment of interventionists) behaved responsibly. If there is uncertainty, then it is only about the government of Kim Jong-II, son of a "Dear Leader" whose deadly idiosyncrasies were in the Idi Amin mould, and who runs a closed, totalitarian state that hides famine behind a cloak of terror. These are widely accepted perceptions.

It is curious that the United States, formally engaged in a worldwide war against terrorism, seems so disengaged about the one country that would fit many of the paradigms that it has designed to describe the syndrome. There is credible evidence that North Korea supplied uranium to Libya when Colonel Gaddafi was a customer. Its missiles are among the best in the world. What more does North Korea have to do to identify itself as a possible if not active problem? One is not suggesting that Washington leap into war, which of necessity must remain the last option. But question marks do begin to arise against George Bush’s apparent indifference. His predecessor Bill Clinton showed sustained concern and involved North Korea in a dialogue that showed some promise. George Bush has two eyes as well, but they are focused on only one point.

Is this because North Korea is not situated in the Middle East, astride substantive energy resources? Would George Bush have ordered another mobilisation if Pyongyang was where Baku is? "Let the neighbours worry; we have other things to do": would this have been the response if Syria had eight active nuclear bombs, the possibility of many more, and a missile delivery system that had a market around the world?

Such questions seek an answer, but there is a secondary problem: who is now credible enough to give an acceptable answer? Is it time to turn the United Nations into an NGO for tsunami relief and hand over such questions to a new world body? Is a veto by a victor of a war that ended sixty years ago still the means to a solution? I don’t know the answers to the previous questions, but I know the answer to the last one. No.

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    Sunday, February 06, 2005

    The Silence of Democracy

    Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi

    Byline by M.J. Akbar : The Silence of Democracy

    It is surprising that the George Bush White House, which was so good at picking up the silence of the Bible Belt, missed out on the silence of the Quran Girdle.

    How long have Shias been waiting silently for power in Iraq? From one perspective I can count up to more than 1,300 years by the Roman calendar and 1,400 by the Islamic one. Ever since Hazrat Ali’s son Iman Hussain and his family and followers were martyred on the field of Kerbala in the struggle for power against the Umayyads, Sunnis have been in power in the region that constitutes modern Iraq.

    There is an old and familiar Chinese proverb that might be appropriate for Bush just now. Be careful about what you want, because you might get it. He wanted democracy in Iraq. He has got just the first taste of it.

    The Silence of Democracy

    When pondering over a long election, look at the arc and hear the silence. One of the more interesting facts about democracy in its current, refined manifestation is that elections have turned from a comparative sprint to a laboured marathon.

    Reasons differ. In America they have devised an electoral process that only a democratic fundamentalist would consider rational: they start with elections for elections, called primaries, making up rules as they go along. In Britain, they love the traditional English game of cat-and-mouse. A Prime Minister spends half his time threatening an election or shifting the date, depending on whether the threat to his job is from a foe or a friend. Politics remains in election mode long before a date is set. In India the first general elections, in 1952, started in winter and continued for six months. Those were considered the bad old days. In 2004 too the elections started in the previous winter and continued till summer. The reason in 1952 was that we still carried ballot boxes on bullock carts. These days we have instant electronic machines but we take so long because the Election Commission wants to protect the voter from thugs, bandits, looters and politicians armed with replica Kalashnikovs or the more compatible pistol. Welcome to progress.

    A long election has a different dynamic from a quick one. It was the receding arc that got the BJP last year. 2004 was more evidence that once slippage begins, it is rarely reversed; and defeat builds further momentum beyond the election. The BJP is trapped in that slide. It could not, in alliance with Shiv Sena, find that extra edge in Maharashtra; and it is either stagnant or in danger of further erosion in Haryana, Jharkhand and Bihar. I am not saying this on the basis of exit polls after the first phase of elections in the three states. Only the very rich now believe in exit polls. In other words, only those who have a lot of money to waste — whether they are politicians or television czars — spend hard cash on such polls. Media is far from infallible. Nor is this an Indian phenomenon. Exit polls put John Kerry into the White House, sending him into stratosphere for a few hours. But if you get things wrong, decency demands a modicum of restraint along with a mea culpa. It was amusing to see the precision with which pundits, who got every prediction wrong last year, forecast how Lalu Yadav was slipping and would fall. I have no idea whether Lalu Yadav is going to win or not. History suggests that he doesn’t like losing. In any case, if we have lived with Lalu in power for 15 years, we can wait another three weeks for the Election Commission to let us know his fate in what has become a scatter-shot election.

    The results of silence are more dramatic. It is surprising that the George Bush White House, which was so good at picking up the silence of the Bible Belt, missed out on the silence of the Quran Girdle.

    How long have Shias been waiting silently for power in Iraq? From one perspective I can count up to more than 1,300 years by the Roman calendar and 1,400 by the Islamic one. Ever since Hazrat Ali’s son Iman Hussain and his family and followers were martyred on the field of Kerbala in the struggle for power against the Umayyads, Sunnis have been in power in the region that constitutes modern Iraq. Damascus was the capital then; Baghdad was built by the Abbasid Caliph Mansur. The Shias helped the Abbasids overthrow the Ummayads, and were speedily dispensed with once their fervour had been exploited. Abbasids, in turn, surrendered space and then power to Central Asian Turks before the Mongol Hulegu destroyed them and Baghdad in 1258. There were various successor states, divided between Turks and most famously the Kurdish family of Saladin until the Osmanalis (mispronounced as Ottomans) restored central authority, stability and unity till the British victory in the First World War in 1918. So far, so good, so Sunni.

    In 1917 the British seized Jerusalem and Baghdad from the Turks; by 1918 they had all the Arab lands in their control, including Mecca and Medina — the first time in history that the two Holy Cities were occupied by non-Muslims. The British tried direct rule in Iraq. In the month of Ramadan, 1920, the Shias declared jihad against the British occupation in Najaf and Kerbala. They called the British "Franji", a term once reserved for Crusaders. Memories run deep. Sunnis willingly joined the uprising. The British had to withdraw their administrator, A.T. Wilson: since Iraq was also known as Mesopotamia, Wilson was nicknamed "Despot of Messpot". In 1921 Winston Churchill, colonial secretary of the Empire, installed a puppet government with an Arab face to appease sentiment. He imposed a Hashemite Prince, Faisal, as the new king of Iraq. Faisal had never set foot in his country till he was seated on its throne at six in the morning of 23 August 1921. The band played God Save the King.

    Faisal was a Sunni.

    The vicissitudes of colonial politics need not detain us, except to note that oil was controlled by western companies, and the British retained military bases long after they officially "withdrew" from sovereign Iraq.

    Anger against the compromised family of Faisal finally turned savage, and on 14 July 1958 the ruling family was massacred (royal body parts were distributed by a delighted populace as trophies) after a coup led by the Free Officers of the Iraqi Army. The British ambassador Sir Michael Wright went into hiding, but within 24 hours struck a deal with the new strongmen assuring the protection of British interests. In February 1963, officers belonging to the Baath Party seized power from the squabbling coalition of interests. But irrespective of who was boss in Baghdad, every boss belonged to the Sunni minority. The last and most successful of these bosses was of course Saddam Hussein, who emerged at the top of yet another bloodstained heap in 1968. Of course Saddam was also a Sunni.

    Shia political mobilisation in a modern context began after the coup of 1958, with the formation of the Al Dawa Al Islamiya by Mahdi al-Hakim and Mohammad Baqr al-Sadr. Its aims were to establish adult franchise and democracy (naturally, for Shias were 60% of the population), revive Islam, fight atheism (read Communists) and create an undefined Islamic Republic. In 1965 a fellow cleric and exile from Iran came to live in Najaf: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In a series of lectures between 21 January and 8 February 1970 at Najaf he defined that Islamic state and offered a diagnosis for the "hopelessness and impotence of the Muslim world". The pro-establishment Shia leadership in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Abolqassem Khoi, supported by Saddam, came out sharply against Khomeini and for the Shah of Iran. But the Shia street was talking a different language. The slogan there was stark: "We are there for you to sacrifice, Khomeini!"

    Saddam and Khomeini came to power in the same year: 1979. Khomeini gave a call to Iraq’s Shias to rise against Saddam and he responded as only he could. No one knows how many were executed. Ayatollah Hakim was sentenced to death but later allowed to go to Iran. In April 1980 Sadr and his greatly-respected and loved sister Amina were executed by Saddam. Since these surnames have returned to the daily news, perhaps you can make your own connections.

    Perhaps the Bush White House made two miscalculations. It transferred the Shia hate for Saddam into a welcome for America. And it mistook silence for consent. Washington’s calculation was that its preferred Shia, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would get enough votes from his community to cobble an alliance with the pro-American Kurds that would enable him to remain at the head of government during the writing of a Constitution. (What Iraq has voted for is a Constituent Assembly and an interim government.) But the leader of the Shia silence was Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In the first hint of the future, the Ayatollah had over 70% of the vote against Allawi’s 18%. Ayatollah al-Sistani has waited for this day. His message to his community was simple: keep quiet, leave the violence to Sunnis, and keep your powder dry for the elections. That is why he reined in Moqtada Sadr, when Sadr picked up the gun. The Shias could turn to the gun if they are denied power.

    There is an old and familiar Chinese proverb that might be appropriate for Bush just now. Be careful about what you want, because you might get it. He wanted democracy in Iraq. He has got just the first taste of it.