Monday, March 28, 2005

Cheque the Books

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J. Akbar :Cheque the Books


What does the military-industrial complex do when it runs out of enemies? No problem, darling. It still has friends. And with friends like India and Pakistan, who needs enemies?

Military hardware is surely the most astonishingly brilliant con ever devised. You spend millions on creating a fabulous death machine, offer it to one side in the name of security/superiority, and then make it a must-buy for the other in the name of parity. Talk of a win-win situation. By the time you’ve created an F-16 it’s a no-brainer.

The only concern about the F-16s that the United States is finally delivering to Pakistan (they were sold Heaven knows how many years ago) is whether all these years of disuse have converted them into F-15s. However, Pakistan’s defence establishment will ensure that what it receives is in mint-shape. India’s parallel purchasing force must have already measured out what is needed for strategic compensation.

Money, of course, is no object. It rarely is for governments. It never is for governments spending on patriotism. Have you ever stopped to consider why governments on principle have no respect for money? Because a government is the only body, apart from the awkwardly named Non-Government Organisation, or NGO, which does not have to earn what it spends. A government simply orders us to pay a large percentage of what we have earned, legitimately, and gives that arbitrary order the force of law through the will of Parliament. Governments do not earn, they spend. And "patriotic spending" is the ultimate holy cow: he who challenges it does so at serious risk. Pakistan’s defence budget is passed as a one-line item. The one section that is never questioned in an Indian finance minister’s speech is any rise in defence spending. Bill Clinton was the only politician I can recall who actually took advantage of the peace dividend following the collapse of the Soviet empire, and cut the budgets of both the Pentagon and the CIA. But Clinton was an unusual man. With George Bush, life is back to normal. To be fair, 9/11 did not take place under Clinton’s watch, but Bush is a traditionalist of the military-industrial complex cadre who would have found ways and means to strengthen its profitability.

How useful are those F-16s going to be to Pakistan? Will they serve any practical purpose or will their death rate be the familiar story of fighter planes crashing out of the blue during routine runs taking yet another young pilot’s life? The attrition rate of Air Force officers is the highest of any service because new technology promises only to be newer, not necessarily safer.

True, the F-16s can carry nuclear weapons. And if George Bush has decided to go ahead with the delivery of these planes, then this means official American recognition of Pakistan, and by corollary, India, as acceptable and mature nuclear powers. This is the most welcome aspect of this arms deal. America cannot now revert to the non-proliferation regime. If it has sold some of its finest weapons-delivery means to nuclear powers then it cannot pretend that it still expects them to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Clinton put serious pressure on both countries to disband their nuclear arms, as Strobe Talbott’s excellent memoir on the subcontinent, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, reveals. Clinton had bullied Narasimha Rao into inaction when Rao wanted to declare India’s nuclear status, and thought, mistakenly, that he could repeat his performance. (Choice morsel from Talbott’s book, always worth re-savouring: the Clinton White House learnt of Pokharan 2 from CNN rather than the CIA. The CIA therefore got all the three Bigs of the last 15 years wrong. It failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. It failed to predict India’s bomb. And of course it got Iraq hopelessly wrong. Clinton must have cut the CIA budget with special glee.) Bush has ended that element of Clinton’s policy, for there is no endorsement better than arms sales.

Since one consequence of nuclear capability is the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) syndrome, the presence of F-16s in both countries might, paradoxically, strengthen notions of security among the insecure, and contribute further to the search for peace. Peace has never been a problem for sensible people. One assumes that insensible opinion in Pakistan has now concluded that Kashmir cannot be solved by war, and insensible opinion in India has decided that Pakistan cannot be destroyed by military aggression. Hawks will always search for better claws, but is there any ceiling to an arms race? Just recently President Pervez Musharraf declared that Pakistan had crossed a vital threshold when it achieved more than minimum deterrence capability. Indian defence ministers have always been blunt about their ability to deliver maximum punishment on the enemy in case India becomes the victim of a first strike. So what has the policy become now? Maximum deterrence? Mid-level deterrence?

The truth may be simpler. There is a visceral attraction to new weapons systems which defence establishments might find impossible to resist. War is fought between enemies, but the puppeteers of war, the arms manufacturers have no enemies. They only have friends. Any and every customer is welcome in the arms bazaar. They have no ideology. Their faith is written with the ink on a chequebook. Their inspiration is fear, and their catechism is the spread of suspicion. The fear does not have to be real; imaginary will do, as long as it can be sustained in the imagination.

Morality does not enter this game. Morality is for nerds. As long as you have the wherewithal, weapons are available, whether it be a flying machine or flying mortar. During a conversation the other day, Inder Malhotra, one of the greats of Indian journalism, mentioned that the 16 months of ceasefire that had held between India and Pakistan must be the longest uninterrupted trouble-free period in memory. The one incident of exchange of mortar, he added, was by "non-state" sources. Was mortar of such calibre so freely available to "non-state sources", I wondered. He laughed at my naiveté. Had I seen the news on television, he asked, the previous evening? All I had to do was see the weapons that had been seized from an Indian Rajdhani train to realise what was available on our subcontinent from "non-state" sources. Some arms manufacturer somewhere must be thanking God for creating Indians and Pakistanis of a particular variety.

A basic question must be addressed even if it cannot be adequately, or convincingly, answered: do India and Pakistan need any more hi-tech, exorbitantly priced weapons for each other? Aren’t the nuclear bombs and missiles sufficient?

It is obvious that President Bush treats Pakistan as a vital strategic partner of America in the world’s most volatile region, and wants to reward President Musharraf for the risks the latter has taken in pursuit of a joint strategy with Washington. But surely President Bush also appreciates that there are imponderables. Would Pakistan be as cooperative in its support of American military action as it was during the war against the Taliban, if the United States moved against Iran? Nor can Pakistan choose to be aloof, as it has been about the war in Iraq. Iran is a border state. There cannot be a clause in the sale contract insisting that the F-16s are permitted to fly in only one direction — towards India!

One presumes that the American decision is part of a larger scenario in which Pakistan is a pro-American fortress guarding the eastern walls of the Middle East region. This would in turn fit in well with the American desire to see peace between India and Pakistan, so that Pakistan stops being a hostage, in its mind, to the Indian threat. The problem with such formulations is that they are drawn on shifting sand, vulnerable to passing storms. It is possible that someone in Washington has calculated that both India and Pakistan need a weapons upgrade from the West; that India’s defence budget is too Russia-centric; and that the best way to force India to turn west for arms is to supply Pakistan with them. This seems possible if only because it sounds logical. But is it the logic of a think tank strategist or a defence contractor?

I only have the questions. I wish I had the answers.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Guilt by any other Name

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Guilt by any other Name

As politicians go, Narendra Modi is among the least corruptible. Money is not his weakness. So there you are: a hero to minority-haters, competent, honest, ambitious. It is the kind of biodata that can take you places. There are enough middle-roaders who would be happy to overlook the riots in exchange for competence and personal probity. Liberals may loathe Modi, but they would be foolish to ignore him or his potential.


So is Narendra Modi a hero then, thanks to George Bush and Condoleezza Rice?

Of the many reasons for taking a position on the Gujarat chief minister and his adoring fans in the American Asian Motel Owners Association, who have been seeking his charismatic presence on their motel-soil for perhaps two years now, this has to be silliest. The relevant point is not whether Narendra Modi has become a hero. The point to note is that he is already a hero to those who hero-worship him.

It did not need Bush or Rice to persuade the motel-owners, many of them fellow-Gujaratis, to adore Modi or make him their star guest. They did not want Atal Behari Vajpayee or Lal Krishna Advani; and certainly not Dr Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi. They wanted Narendra Modi and no one but him, which is why they were prepared to wait. He became their hero when he supervised a pogrom against the Muslims of Gujarat after the Godhra incident three years ago. It was the kind of "revenge" that pleased the heart of hate-mongers. Since then Narendra Modi’s problem has been to check similar heroism without losing his fan base.

Narendra Modi is a politician with both ambition and a strategy, which itself is unusual. All, well, most, politicians are ambitious, but rather than developing a strategy they wait for stars to bring them luck and joy. Modi believes that the infamous riots have provided him with a cushion-vote of some 15 million Indians. This, apparently, is his estimate of the core "anti-Muslim" vote in India. He is building other vote blocs on that to become the most popular leader of his party and by virtue of that a future Prime Minister of India.

His strategy is cool and logical. Having taken command of the venom vote he does not need to spew venom anymore. He can now concentrate on proving that he is an excellent administrator, which he is. His reputation as an effective chief minister is growing steadily but surely. Moreover, his palm does not itch in the manner of, say, Pramod Mahajan, a contemporary with similar ambitions if less strategy. As politicians go, Modi is among the least corruptible. Money is not his weakness. So there you are: a hero to minority-haters, competent, honest, ambitious. It is the kind of biodata that can take you places. There are enough middle-roaders who would be happy to overlook the riots in exchange for competence and personal probity. Liberals may loathe Modi, but they would be foolish to ignore him or his potential.

The principal yardstick of public life is not justice, but success. Success tends to drown out accountability, while failure invites quick punishment. Modi’s success in the Assembly elections, when he brought the BJP back to life from a comatose state, exonerated his mischief.

This was not mischief behind a curtain. This was not corruption ferreted out by either fearless or sleazy journalism. This was not a crime that needed too much investigation. It was a macabre, brazen use of state power for political gain, in front of the world’s television cameras and print media. It was a crime whose evidence lies in dozens of photo exhibitions, on Internet sites and archives, and most painfully, in the minds of a generation of young people who watched helplessly as a government abetted hooligans gone berserk, torching homes and killing their loved ones. If there is another definition of genocide I would be grateful for some education.

We in India did very little about Modi. His leader Vajpayee made some noises, which spluttered away and exposed the impotence of a Prime Minister. Nor have his adversaries done anything in particular. The UPA government that succeeded the BJP-led coalition has not even bothered to worry about those riots, except to the extent that a Lalu Yadav wanted to derive his own quota of political mileage from Godhra. It will soon be a year since it has come to power, but the Congress, always ready to expend serious heavy firepower against Mulayam Singh Yadav, who destroyed the BJP in UP and effectively prevented its return to power, has not mounted any effective political campaign against Modi. To be fair, no one else has, either.

Congress and non-BJP chief ministers gladly shake Modi’s hand at ministerial conferences, while media lines up to seek the favours that he can offer from office. (By the way, notch up another Modi success: he has eliminated a great deal of corruption within media.) His party, which saved him from its Prime Minister, does not dare interfere with the rising trajectory of his star. It is sometimes whispered that BJP president Advani would like to remove Modi, but they remain mere whispers. In any case, Advani, who retains a persistent memory of Delhi in the 1984 riots gets amnesia about Ahmedabad in 2002. If India did not bother, there was no reason why the rest of the world should. Britain, Switzerland, Australia and Singapore were happy to give Narendra Modi a visa when he asked for it.

It is extraordinary, then, that, quite out of the blue, Washington took a stand. It is of course symbolic. America can only exercise its right to deny a visa to a non-American. Most of us were unaware of the American law that "makes any government official who was responsible for, or directly carried out at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom, ineligible for a visa". America cannot do anything more, because Modi does not need anything more from America. He has no desire for a green card, or even a holiday. If he was interested in the members of the motel association it was because many of them are of Gujarati origin, and their applause would have resonated well among some sections back home.

According to some knee-jerk analysis, this decision could even become counter-productive. Well, so what? Is justice to be weighed on the scales of popularity, or its not-very-distant relative, prejudice? I am certain that extremists and even terrorists often have popular support. That does not make them less culpable. If we make justice conditional, we erode the foundations of civilisation and sap the life-energy of democracy.

A psychoanalyst would probably find much more in the sometimes overlapping and sometimes disparate layers of Modi’s arguments against the American decision than a columnist. There is a hint of self-incrimination in the plea that if others who have violated human rights can be permitted to visit America, and even welcomed (he can hardly resist mentioning President Pervez Musharraf), why should he be denied a visa? At other moments, there are suggestions that India’s sovereignty has been undermined. Er, not quite. It takes more than a denied visa to undermine our sovereignty. But Narendra Modi does provide one splendid suggestion. Should India refuse a visa to the United States Chief of Army Staff because of the alleged violation of human rights in Iraq? I don’t know about others, but I consider this an absolutely splendid idea. Should Pranab Mukherjee, as our defence minister, lead the campaign to prevent any such visit? That might be over the top, but how about letting this idea loose among all the liberal NGOs and human rights activists whose combined efforts persuaded the United States establishment to stop Modi’s visit? After all, the same yardstick must apply. The evidence for the abuse is visible in hundreds of photographs, and we do not know how much abuse took place with those who were not photographed. There is serious evidence of culpability at the highest levels of the American military. Jeff Jacoby, writing in the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune, says: "In August 2003, when he was commander of the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Baghdad with some advice for US interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison. As Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the military police commander in Iraq, later recalled it, Miller’s bottom line was blunt: Abu Ghraib should be ‘Gitmo-ized’ — Iraqi detainees should be exposed to the same aggressive techniques being used to extract information from prisoners in Guantanamo. ‘You have to have full control,’ Karpinski quoted Miller as saying. There can be ‘no mistake about who’s in charge. You have to treat these detainees like dogs’."

Treat these detainees like dogs. Any more evidence needed? Here is some from Afghanistan. "A detainee in the ‘Salt Pit’ — a secret, CIA-funded prison north of Kabul — is stripped naked, dragged across a concrete floor, then chained in a cell and left overnight. By morning he has frozen to death." What was his crime? "He was probably associated with people who were associated with Al Qaeda," a US official explained.

Of course the American military high command never accepted that they were guilty of what happened under their nose.

Neither did Narendra Modi.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

London Diary

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar : London Diary

Blair has been in power for a political generation and at war against terror long enough for a measured, thorough debate. His motivation, however, was political as much as it was legislative. Blair is ahead in the polls but wants to confirm victory in this summer’s general election by wearing the George Bush mantle of Warrior Prince.

"Ikkoi gal hai." I do not understand the mysteries of free association but this quote kept wandering through my mind as I savoured, long-distance, yet another century by Virender Sehwag. The author of the quote is a federal minister of Pakistan who had best remain nameless during this great outbreak of peace between Delhi and Islamabad. He was discussing President Pervez Musharraf’s famous dictum that the future of his country lay in "enlightened moderation". Our minister, not too familiar with the complexities of English syntax, sat the phrase on its head and when queried, replied, "Enlightened moderation ... moderate enlightenment ... ikkoi gal hai (it’s the same thing)..."

That’s the great beauty of Sehwag’s batting: whether he opens his innings with a six or completes a century with a six, it’s one and the same thing. It is a happy state of mind that stretches, in varying degrees, across the great river-fed plains from Peshawar to the outskirts of Delhi. This mindset definitely changes once it crosses the border: Delhi is a city where craft is the operating element in statecraft. The state can go hang itself as long as the craft is brilliant. The plains of Punjab on the other hand breed a cheerful mix of talent and sincerity, both natural elements, that cut across creed. When Sehwag suggests that it is mother’s milk that makes him hit sixes, he is being truthful rather than sentimental. Nothing could be more natural than mother’s milk, the dominant life-metaphor for strength, purity and every moral virtue. Intelligence, in this syndrome, is subservient to sincerity. Sehwag’s problems arise when his sincerity is placed in direct conflict with his talent, generally on captain’s orders. This is what happened on the third day. Captain Sourav Ganguly ordered him to play out time, instead of playing against Pakistan. Sehwag was loyal, but it was no longer one and the same thing. Unfair.

Contrary to an impression that some of you may have gathered, the big story in London is not about babies of strange aspect but an anti-terrorist law that was shoved through Parliament at deadline hour by Tony Blair. Question one: why the rush? Blair has been in power for a political generation and at war against terror long enough for a measured, thorough debate. His motivation, however, was political as much as it was legislative. Blair is ahead in the polls but wants to confirm victory in this summer’s general election by wearing the George Bush mantle of Warrior Prince. At the heart of the new law is a provision by which a suspect can be detained without trial on the orders of a politician, rather than a judge. This is effective denial of habeas corpus. And it was this that persuaded a vital pillar of the British Establishment, the Lords, to return the bill thrice and force the longest confrontation between the two Houses in a hundred years. The Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and a section of Labour MPs took a stand against Blair’s harangue and threats that he would go to the people accusing them of being "soft" on terror, the contemporary taboo of western politics. The debate took place against a background of not-so-subtle signals that accomplices of Osama bin Laden, detained in Britain, were on their way to freedom thanks to such weakness. With evil-looking beards on his front-office posters, how could Blair lose the pubic relations game? Eventually, however, it was Blair who blinked, just one step before the edge of the precipice of excess. Perhaps someone pointed out a Tory slogan he could face in the elections: Would you hand over your liberty to a politician? Blair got his law at the last moment, after the Opposition got the right to review and possibly repeal this law within a year. Some interesting facts and parallels were washed up in the debate. At the height of the IRA’s terror campaign in the Seventies and Eighties, when multi-storeyed buildings were bombed to smithereens and in a famous incident at Brighton most of the Thatcher government nearly blown up, no one attempted to remove habeas corpus from the British citizen’s bill of rights. And out of the 17 men convicted under the current anti-terror laws, only three are Muslims.

The big show of the moment is a splendid exhibition at the Royal Academy on Piccadilly on an extraordinary people who range across Asia from a wedge in Europe to the depths of China, the Turks. The true majesty of this collection, among the armour and the jewellery and the art and the ceramics, lies in the splendour of books and manuscripts, exquisite in calligraphy and perfect in binding after seven and eight centuries. If this is what has survived, one can only wonder at what must have been lost to the excesses of time and the ravages of war. Rumi’s Masnavi had pride of place, for obvious reasons, but the piece de resistance, as far as I was concerned, was a beautiful collection of Khusrau preserved in Istanbul. The author, very correctly, was called Amir Khusrau Dihlivi. Since past glory so often invites rumination I wondered at what point Turkish power, and its Ottoman manifestation, began to decline. A famous schoolboy question, once put to me at lunch by the headmaster of a grand British school who confused my surname with knowledge, is: Why didn’t the Turks increase the range of their guns before their famed and failed assaults on Venice, capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the bulwark of Europe against the East? It struck me that the answer might lie not in the range of guns but in the books before me. Battles are won by the supremacy of guns, but empires are preserved by the supremacy of books — the dissemination of knowledge to administrators and bureaucrats and scholars in the medressa and seminary. The superb master calligraphists who turned books into an art form also created powerful guilds that blocked the introduction of printing machines to the Ottoman empire. It was classic trade union protectionism. The Sultan acquiesced because he was either indolent, or more likely, a victim of the system in which these scribes were the recordkeepers and bookkeepers of empire. Europe was already much more than a century ahead when the guilds were finally browbeaten in Istanbul. Printing meant the mass production of books and pamphlets; it destroyed the elitism of education in the West and created a middle class and an industrial revolution. Europe broadbased knowledge and conquered the world. Turkey lost the knowledge edge, and lost the world.

A curious reverse process has begun. Tabloids and television control information at mass levels in a country like Britain and knowledge is once again, albeit slowly, becoming an elitist fact, returning to the pinnacle of the pyramid after seeping towards the base for four centuries. The new elite may be determined by merit rather than class, but it is still narrow. A paradox of democracy encourages this process. Politicians who want re-election have a vested interest in mass ignorance: the truth about Iraq, for instance, might become injurious to their health. Dumbing down in print media and phobia-promotion in television suits them very well. Good journalism — there is still a lot of it about, I am happy to report —irritates them and they seek to drown it with the bad.

How stupid can television get? Surfing channels through an idle phase in the hotel room, I discovered a new low amid the Lowest Common Denominators of modern television on a music programme called B4. An anchor offered high rewards to anyone who correctly answered this question. "Which of these three married Bruce Willis: Demi Moore, Roger Moore or Michael Moore?" No prizes from this column for the correct answer, even in an era of gay marriages.

As for Britain’s glorious tabloid journalism, the last word must remain with the everlasting Humbert Wolfe:

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there is no occasion to."

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Misgovernors

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar:The Misgovernors

Recognition of a mistake is the first step towards redemption. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have realised this, which is a sign of good sense. But good intentions are not good enough. There has to be accountability. That starts with replacing Jamir and Razi with men of known integrity.


Here’s a headache for which aspirin is not going to be easily available in the misleading stores of Delhi. What is going to be Jharkhand chief minister Shibu Soren’s next job? The fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairman Sonia Gandhi share this headache does not make it less painful for either head. If the government does not watch out this could become the cause of a major migraine.

I am assuming of course that the Three Blunderbusses (I can’t quite get myself to call them Musketeers), misgovernor Syed Sibtey Razi and his two ATM cash dispensers Subodh Kant Sahay and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, do not succeed in the now limited time span at their disposal in buying out a couple of Arjun Munda’s MLAs and rig up a last-minute victory for Shibu Soren. Incidentally, they seem to be targeting the sole Muslim MLA with Munda. They’ve got it wrong. Life will be far better for this gentleman in a group where he has no competition in the minority quota.

Soren will need a job in the Union Cabinet if he is defeated in the state, since he hates the loneliness of neglect. He also wants the right sort of job. He insisted on coal and mines when sworn in last May. This was not because he had some grand vision in which India would be a leader of the ore-to-steel world by 2020. It was because mines are the most lucrative source of political and financial muscle in Jharkhand, both of which Shibu Soren needed for the just-concluded Assembly elections. Shibu Soren could not survive when he was forced to resign after a warrant in a murder case. The moment legal formalities had been taken care of he bullied his way back into the Cabinet. His mines portfolio was waiting for him. He refused to wait for a Cabinet reshuffle which is the normal means of reinduction.

In his calmer moments Shibu Soren must be wondering what the fuss is all about. In the good old days of Narasimha Rao, he saved the Union government in exchange for both hard and loose cash. Why should not he save his own government in the state through similar means? Did the political class berate Rao for immorality? Was it not true that the BJP paid perfunctory lip service to protest and the Congress admired Rao as a survivor of exceptional skills? Were such transactions an issue in the general elections of 1996? No. Has any political party been loath to buy wandering MLAs in a hung legislature? Isn’t it true that morality comes easily only to those who do not have the means to be immoral?

Where does this leave the two symbols of political virtue, one legislative and the other human? The written symbol is obviously the Anti Defection Act passed by Parliament with the conjugal consent of the Congress and BJP. Practice, and the authority given to governors and speakers, has made a mockery of the law.

There is prevalent fiction that a speaker is not partisan. A speaker is not nominated by the Supreme Court of India. A speaker is a politician elected on a party ticket and keeps on getting further rewards from the party that gave him the job. That is why a speaker so often has such poor mathematics. He even forgets how to count.

A bigger nonsense is that all governors are representatives of the President of India, guardians of the Constitution and models of propriety. If S.C. Jamir of Goa and Razi of Jharkhand are guardians of the Constitution then it is time for another Constituent Assembly.

The human face of political propriety is Dr Manmohan Singh. But every exercise in sleaze indulged by Congress politicians is going to leave one more faint scar on his visage. He has redeemed his image with the imposition of President’s Rule in Goa, and the President’s order to shorten the period in which Shibu Soren must prove his majority. But the irony could not have escaped his attention. The benefactor of President’s Rule in Goa is going to be the perpetrator of the mess, for the governor does actually rule during President’s Rule. If propriety had any place in our politics Jamir would have resigned. But this is expecting too much of a man who turned power into personal property (pun intended) when he was chief minister of Nagaland.

The Prime Minister consciously kept himself aloof from the skulduggery in Jharkhand, but he cannot keep himself aloof from correctives. There is far more at stake in Jharkhand than in Goa because in the case of Soren he has to restore democratic mores at the cost of a troublesome ally who could easily slip towards blackmail if he was thwarted. When the going is good, the good (like Manmohan Singh) look even better. But when the going gets tough, the good have to get tougher. This is what makes alliance politics a can of worms.

Three months ago the Congress was savouring the prospect of sweeping victories for either itself or its allies, to the point where voices urged that the momentum be carried forward into a snap general election. Victory was assured if the alliances of 2004 had been carried into 2005. Lalu Yadav would have won comfortably in Bihar and Jharkhand would have seen a sweep on the lines of Haryana. Instead, miscalculation led to a U-turn in Jharkhand, and an about-turn in Bihar. Throw in the fact that a frustrated Bhajan Lal has retreated into sulks and rage and you have a scenario that even the most optimistic BJP leader could never have envisaged.

Recognition of a mistake is the first step towards redemption. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have realised this, which is a sign of good sense. But good intentions are not good enough. There has to be accountability. That starts with replacing Jamir and Razi with men of known integrity.

Compared to the histrionics elsewhere Bihar has been comparatively quiet. One reason is because all the players there, including the governor, Buta Singh, are men of many seasons, honed by sharp success and dramatic failure. They also know that the repercussions of any decision there could ripple towards Delhi. Lalu Yadav is an angry man just now, but he will not choose the Bhajan Lal option of sulk and sabotage. His anger is already direct. When he was asked to talk to the Congress his initial response was that there was nothing to talk about. The time to talk was two months ago. If the Congress had listened to him both would have gained. His compensation prize will probably be the right to make the first claim on government but even if he gets all the Independents on his side majority will elude him. That is why the others are calm. His only real hope is to split Ram Vilas Paswan’s MLAs, but if he is allowed to get away with that the alliance in Delhi will flounder and a Goa-like situation emerge in the state. In other words, a mess.

President’s Rule might be Lalu’s best alternative because at least it would mean governance by an ally pending another election or, although this is more unlikely, a government headed by Ram Vilas with participation by the JD(U) and support from the BJP.

When all options are open, hard facts rule. The hardest fact for Lalu is that he has lost. No one else may have won, but he has lost.

While all this may be bad news for the Congress, this could mean good news for Dr Manmohan Singh. Fragile partnerships are not the best option for a general election, and allies would have to be extremely foolish to commit suicide on a national level after breaking their backs in the states.