Monday, May 30, 2005

Saturday Morning Fever

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar : Saturday Morning Fever

Indonesia, unlike India or the United States, permits cameras in the courtroom. And so a verdict against a pretty 26-year-old Australian beautician, Schapelle Corby, was a star story on the pre-dawn news bulletins of the principal bastions of Anglo-American television, BBC and CNN. The essentials of the case were not disputed. Corby, travelling from her home airport, Brisbane, to Sydney and Denpasar in Bali, was caught by Indonesian customs officials with 4.1 kilograms of marijuana in an open bag. The judgment of the court however aroused extraordinary passions.

Corby pleaded innocent. As a cynic might say, she would, wouldn’t she. To do anything else would have been an invitation to a death penalty. Indonesia, like other nations of the region, Singapore, Malaysia and China, has strict anti-drug laws. Four kilograms of marijuana is serious. The prosecution demanded the death penalty.

The defence, which had no evidence for Corby’s innocence, spun a great deal of theory. It suggested that the drugs had been planted in the open bag, possibly by a ring that wanted it to be picked up by an accomplice in the Sydney airport baggage area. "For some reason" defence counsel argued, the marijuana took the flight to Bali. Such presumed innocence is accepted as fact by 90% of Australians (including actor Russell Crowe) and has set off hysteria against Indonesia. Corby is the beautiful white flower of innocence while Indonesia is the cesspool of brown Asian corruption, intent on collective vengeance against the distraught Corby. Australian media did note earlier that Corby had a history of drug abuse, but that has been quietly eliminated from most of Australian media (but not all; serious newspapers have taken admirably objective editorial positions). However, the feeding frenzy is at its greediest. There is little time for questions. Why ask who left the bag open, or whether open bags are normal behaviour for Australians heading for a holiday in Bali. Since the bag was caught at customs, it must have been taken there by Corby: didn’t she notice a difference of four kilograms in weight?

Corby’s mother, Rosleigh Rose, and her sister, Mercedes, were in court when Judge Linton Sivait sentenced Corby to 20 years in prison. Their faces were contorted with virulent rage. Liar, shouted Rose at the judge. In any American or Indian court she would have joined her daughter in prison, for contempt of court. Here she was permitted to take her venom to the world via media. One phrase of hers stuck in the mind above the din. She looked at the judge and shouted that "Your people" are the ones who are really guilty.

Your people. People who are brown and Asian and Muslim.

From Japan came a story out of Reader’s Digest. Two veterans of the Panthers Division, Yoshio Yamakawa, 87, and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, 83, have been found in the mountains of Mindanao in south Philippines, where they may or may not know that World War II is over. It was thought that the last such Japanese veteran, Lt. Hiroo Onoda, emerged out of the caves in 1974. However, Yamakawa and Nakauchi might have simply integrated into the local community and even been of service to them. How?

They are living with the Muslim rebels of Philippines who are engaged in an armed struggle against the state, and could always do with help in military training.

No one really believes in opinion polls anymore, but no one has the courage to discount them either. Twenty-four hours before the voters of France decide to accept or reject the new Constitution of the European Union, conceived by France and Germany and now expanded to 25 nations, the polls suggest that "no" might win. This will be considered a catastrophe for the world’s bravest idea of the last century. As one commentator put it, a few thousand swing votes could decide the fate of 450 million people. All is not lost. As one Frenchman put it so charmingly, "My head is not made yet. I think I decide on Sunday."

Why the surge towards "no"? The reasons are many, from 10% unemployment to the proposed extension of the 35-hour-week to dislike of Chirac. But the key to the anger is the creation of a supranational state in which foreign policy will be controlled by Brussels. The French, already furious that the Poles are taking their jobs, are dreading the possibility that Brussels might allow the 70 million Muslims of Turkey into the European Union.

Turks are "Your people".

A blackout in Moscow left life in tatters for a day. Saturday’s bulletin reported that the Muslim Chechens demanding independence from Russia had claimed responsibility for the blast that blew up the power station and created havoc in the capital. I read a piece in the International Herald Tribune by Mark Medish, senior director in the US National Security Council for Russian, Ukranian and Eurasian Affairs in 2000-1. He was walking with his father, a world war veteran, in the Russian city of Krasnodar when he was picked up by the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB and interrogated for three hours for taking pictures of the local police building. After threats, questions and videotape they were released and told, "You should know about the extraordinary security situation in the Northern Caucasus."

Translation: Haven’t you heard about the Muslim rebellion of Chechnya?

Images follow of breast beating and mourning in Pakistan. A suicide bomber has attacked Shias gathered at the Bari Imam shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, patron saint of Islamabad. The bomber had two kilograms of explosive strapped to his chest and flew through the air after the blast. 19 people died and over 65 were wounded. A grim President Pervez Musharraf called the suicide bomber a "religious terrorist".

In Pakistan, your people and my people even among one people.

Kashmir shut down on Friday to protest the desecration of the Holy Quran at the American prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. Stories about such desecration by Americans have been appearing for a while now. In March 2000 prisoners went on hunger strike in protest. Former prisoners like Aryat Vahitov and Abdallah Tabarak have narrated behaviour that will only inflame passions if described. The Red Cross has confirmed other incidents. Why did a small item in Newsweek, semi-denied by its editors, catch fire across the world? Why does no Muslim believe the denial or accept George Bush’s word that no disrespect was ever meant? Not because Imran Khan held a press conference in Pakistan to encourage anger, but because Washington no longer has any credibility among Muslims. No one believes that America is in Iraq to save democracy; particularly not the Iraqis. The insurgency was supposed to have been crushed by now; the number of daily attacks is somewhere over 70. America’s death toll continues to mount, even on Saturday’s pre-dawn bulletin. No one counts Iraqi casualties. Iraqis don’t count.

Lebanon. It is an orderly political meeting. Rows of dignitaries are seated on chairs lined in neat rows. It is all utterly respectable. At the microphone appears Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah. This meeting is being held to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, often described as the only Israeli defeat since the loss of Sinai to Egypt in the 1973 war. In Lebanon, victory was claimed by Hezbollah. Sheikh Nasrallah says that he has 12,000 rockets under his command, all trained at Israel and warned that the war was not over. CNN then showed a video, shot by five cameras, on how to make a devastating bomb from chemicals you can pick up from your nearest chemist, put it into a simple pouch, strap it to your body, and — bang!

A war of the people.

The last major story mixed pleasure with business. The share price of the major pharmaceutical multinational Pfizer went down after a certain Dr Howard Powerantz reported with what I thought was a gleam in his eye (but I could be prejudiced) that he had found 40 cases of loss of direct or peripheral vision among over-50s after they had taken Viagra. Pfizer countered, as might be expected, vigorously. Some 23 million users had benefited from Viagra in the last seven years, the company said. In 2004 alone Viagra had earned Pfizer $1.7 billion in sales. The 40 alleged cases therefore were a minuscule sample. My own view is that the men were simply affected by shock of out-of-practice ecstasy. This is what the blinding flash of lightning is probably all about.

This was the only story of the early morning on Saturday in which Muslims were not being hated, or killed, or killing each other, or preparing to die. And even this story was depressing.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Victimorious: Only Victim is the Voter!

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar : Victimorious

The Indian voter has a simple formula for Indian democracy: he votes for himself. This may seem an obvious reality, but there are nuances.

I do not mean that he votes for a party that claims it will serve his interests, for the simple reason that everyone claims the same thing. Every party promises to eliminate poverty, end corruption, provide water and ensure law and order. No party’s manifesto declares that it will pollute the environment, take bribes in defence deals, institutionalise nepotism, incite violence between people for votes and leave you angry, frustrated and miserable after five years.

Since there is not much to choose from in manifestos, the voter needs a different measure to define the difference. It is pertinent to enter a caveat: we are talking about most voters, not every voter. However, since the majority trends determine the result, the qualification is probably irrelevant.

When I said that the voter votes for himself, I meant that he votes for the party or leader that comes closest to his image of himself. The Indian voter used to see himself as poor. As long as this was the case, the sway of the Congress was unassailable, culminating in the massive victory of 1971. By the 1977 election the self-image had switched. The voter now saw himself as a victim. The Emergency of course was a significant reason for the switch, but it was also a sign of greater democratic assertion, and stress on the rights of an individual rather than the largesse of the government. The stability of British rule depended on the concept of the government as mai-baap, both the mother who nourishes and the father who protects. The Congress, as the successor government, inherited that legacy, bolstered additionally by the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was the granddaddy of the national movement. But after 1977, the voter refused to be patronised by the government, or indeed by mere slogans. Instead of the voter being a child of the government, the government, very properly, became the creature of the voter. Good governance, a growing economy, law and order were no longer valued as "gifts" from the sarkar, but as the due right of a voter who had done the politicians a favour by putting them in office.

The Emergency crystallised the shift in self-perception, and because the Emergency was harsher in the North, the shift was more acute in the North. The South however soon caught up, provoked by incidents such as the one in which Andhra Pradesh chief minister T. Anjaiah was seemingly humiliated (I say seemingly, because Congress chief ministers were so obsequious that it was difficult to humiliate them). However, it was when the southern voter also became demanding that N.T. Rama Rao and Rama Krishna Hegde swept the Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

There is no formula that can apply to every state in a nation as complex as India, but this is a broad rule of a broad thumb if not an absolute dictum. One exception comes to mind easily. In Bengal the Congress looks like a victim, talks like a victim and is a victim, but the Left always wins. The reason is that while you are permitted to be a victim, you are not permitted to be a pathetic victim. The victim must possess the self-respect to assert himself and not sink into shallow depths of self-pity.

Mrs Indira Gandhi lost the elections in 1977 because the Janata Party (conceived in jail, and produced, with much labour, outside) was the ultimate victim. Mrs Gandhi won in the winter of 1980 because in just three years of hunt and misfire, the Janata turned her into a victim. In the next elections, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination was something that the voter easily and powerfully identified with: who could be a greater victim than a martyr for Indian nationalism? In 1989, V.P. Singh donned the mask of a victim. It was a mask, but it worked. In 1991 the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi midway through the elections shifted the balance of seats in favour of the Congress in the South, giving the party just enough ballast to form a minority government. Atal Behari Vajpayee won in 1999 because the one-vote defeat in the Lok Sabha turned him into a "bechara" and he soon added flow of Kargil to his political persona. The BJP lost in 2004 because its spokespersons on television and its interlocutors were too well-fed and spoke in the orotund tones of a success they took for granted. The voter punished smugness by turning towards Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who represented the victim.

This is the difference between the Jayalalithaa of 2004 and the Jayalalithaa of 2005 in Tamil Nadu. Last year she was seen as the woman who had thrown the elderly Karunanidhi into jail, tried to impose her will on the free media, snubbed the bureaucracy and sniffed at a democratic culture. This year — thanks both to the fact that the alliance of her foes is in power in Delhi and is complacently waiting to come to power in Chennai — she is the victim. This transformation was not easy. Ms Jayalalithaa worked hard to refashion her image after her sweeping defeat in 2004. In order to change you first have to have the humility to recognise what is wrong, and then the perspicacity to realise what is right. The second is more difficult than the first. The electorate tells you in detail about the first; the second you have to figure out yourself. In a carefully thought-through process Ms Jayalalithaa re-positioned herself both politically and administratively. She struck at the DMK’s Dravida plank by taking on a symbol of Brahmins. And the competence and concern with which she handled the relief work following the tsunami, re-established her image among the victims of that tragedy (the resonance and connection reappear). The swing that she achieved in two constituencies that she had lost last year is phenomenal. Moreover, she did it alone. She has distanced herself from the BJP in the last year. Her foes, on the other hand, stuck to their alliance. As she put it, she had the coalition of the people behind in the battle against the coalition of the parties. And she did it while remaining in power. In Opposition you have to do nothing to look like a victim.

How many apple carts, and whose, did Ms Jayalalithaa upset? The fruit on the DMK’s cart certainly has a scattered feel to it now. Coalition politics is an ever-changing game of multiple options. Will Mr Karunanidhi be tempted by the apples of Delhi if he begins to believe that he might not become chief minister of Tamil Nadu? Incidentally, reports that he is unwell are exaggerations, or wishful thinking: he is fit enough for a spell in office.

It is curious, but entirely understandable, that no one looks like a victim in the Delhi scenario. The Congress is flexing muscle that it does not possess, as the Bihar elections proved; and stretching its power lines beyond their tensile strength, as Jharkhand and Goa proved. The BJP is amazingly depressed by its defeat, a curious state for a party that never expected to be in power. It has not got its act together, or even selected the scenes that will make up the act.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s government has found its feet, but not discovered a route map or a destination. It is there because it is there. A little more of this and it might get frozen in political cement. The Prime Minister is an honest man. He commemorated the first anniversary of his government by giving himself six out of ten. It might have been seven were it not for the fact that the one area in which his personal expertise is unquestioned, the performance of the government is being questioned.

The growth rate of the GDP has already been formally lowered to 7.5% and could slip below that. The victim-voter is not going to be terribly enthused since employment cannot be reduced unless growth rate is over 8%, and with half of that growth coming from industrial production (the projected share of the service sector in the growth rate is 65%). Industrial production is in fact sinking, and this year’s Budget offers no reason for hope that the curve will change direction.

Curiously, Dr Singh’s one chance of dramatic success, and perhaps the rescue of his government, lies in an area where he has no expertise: Pakistan policy. But to move forward on that dramatic front (the fortunes of peace with Pakistan incidentally are more dramatic than the fortunes of war) needs a Prime Minister who will rise above himself, and carry both his government and his nation towards a historic moment. Will that happen? That is a question that only Dr Singh can answer.

For the moment, the only victim in Indian politics is the voter. He is still awarding grace marks all around, but the day the victim feels that he is being deliberately victimised the silence on the streets will become a murmur, and the murmur will turn into a roar.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Cotton Revolution

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: The Cotton Revolution

Last week the guardians of the civilised nations gathered in Moscow to commemorate the worst episode of sustained savagery in the history of the world. We do not know the exact figures of dead during the awesome and sweeping victories of a Chengiz Khan or an Amir Taimur between China and eastern Europe, for both victor and vanquished tend to exaggerate, one in pride and the other in anger. The less careful historians take recourse to that useless phrase "countless millions" which is both a tautology and an absurdity. At what point do the millions become "countless"? After twenty? Moreover, the population of the world in the 13th and 14th centuries was not enough to justify such casualties, even though whole cities were wiped out. But the dead of the Second World War, which ended 60 years ago in Europe and a few atom bombs later in Japan, were counted, more or less.

It was entirely appropriate that the political memorial services were being held in Moscow, with the victorious, defeated and bystander nations in attendance. (India was in the curious position of being both a bystander and an activist for reasons we shall address later.) For as much as 70% died in what is known as the eastern front, that vast expanse between Berlin and Moscow. It was on the eastern front and the conflict between Hitler and Stalin that the Second World War was won and lost. Compared to the Soviet Union, Britain and Winston Churchill were secondary players; America was a late but critical arrival and France was hors d’combat — out of the game.

Stalin won the war against Hitler and lost the propaganda against Hollywood. Vladimir Putin, his successor, was making a conscious effort to redress this injustice. A popular impression has been created that the tide began to turn against Hitler with the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, D-Day. But D-Day only highlights the fact that no one was fighting on the European mainland for most of the war. The British empire retreated from Europe after the humiliations suffered in 1940, symbolised by the escape from Dunkirk and did not return till, bolstered by America, Allied troops crossed into Italy in 1943 and then into France (still with great trepidation) in 1944. The nadir for the British came with the fall of Singapore and the almost contemptuous Japanese victories that brought Emperor Hirohito’s rule up to the Burmese door of India. Japan lost the war when it provoked the United States at Pearl Harbour, and Hitler lost the war when he awakened the Soviet bear. Britain’s contribution to real war came in Africa under Wavell (made Viceroy of India after he was replaced) and Montgomery. More accurately, it was the British empire’s contribution, for empire troops were a critical element of the British armies.

Churchill, in a sense, was more important than Britain. His contribution lay in courage and conviction, and his power lay in rhetoric. It would be foolish to underestimate the importance of such qualities. Defeat begins in the mind and that is where Churchill refused to be defeated. This was in sharp contrast to France, where Marshal Petain, a genuine hero of the first war, compromised with Nazi evil. The figures tell the story: the Soviet Union lost 37 million dead. France does not advertise its casualty figures, although it was as key a battleground as eastern Europe.

America lost around a quarter million, but that is not a true measure of its contribution. Since the war was not fought on American soil it was spared the ravages of civilian agony. This was the true savagery of this horrific war. Nations who called themselves progressive and civilised (vis-à-vis the "barbaric" brown and black people of Asia and Africa) indulged in unprecedented rape and bloodlust against civilians. Women were raped and men killed. Nazi evil acquired an especially racist dimension against Jews and "non-Aryan" blood types such as the gypsies, who were treated as worse than vermin. Wars have always been fought between ruling classes in search of wealth and empire, but extermination of a race has rarely been a war objective. The nearest earlier instance was the Spanish Inquisition which eliminated Muslims and Jews from Spain and Portugal. Muslim kingdoms from Morocco to Ottoman Turkey provided space and shelter not only to the Muslims but also to the Jews who were welcomed as people of the Book and lived in those empires till the 20th century.

The Communists, who understand the relationship between motivation and definition, first ignored the Second World War as a clash between rival capitalist imperialists. Their analysis was right, but their complacency was wrong. Hitler turned towards the big prize, the Soviet Union, after he had occupied and pacified the rest of Europe and swept up to St. Petersburg and Moscow. But when Stalin began to fight back, he defined the war as the Great Patriotic War — a defence of the homeland rather than an offense against Germany. It was a war of liberation from the oppressor.

"Liberation" was a favourite word of the speech-givers in Moscow. But perhaps they should have extended the word into a term in order to complete its meaning. They were talking of self-liberation rather than liberation as a principle. In that sense, it was even a selfish liberation, for to the European powers liberation was never a universal virtue. Britain and France and even Holland and Belgium were the great colonisers in Asia and Africa, happy to brutalise black and brown people as immorally as Germany and Italy and Japan sought to colonise them. It is curious that even the horrors of the Second World War never taught Britain and France that imperialism was wrong and morally unsustainable in a changing world.

France, the weak link of the Allied coalition, and a nation which did very little to deserve the rewards of victory, was particularly insistent that its ravaged colonies be restored to French rule after the Allied victory. This led directly to punishing, wretched wars in Vietnam and Algeria: you put the millions who died directly to France’s account. General Charles de Gaulle, at best a pseudo-hero, was as contemptuous of the colonies of Francophone Africa as any dictator with a heightened sense of self. The Dutch had to be thrown out of Indonesia, which they happily demanded back from the Japanese after having done damn all to defeat Japan or Germany. Belgium, always pernicious in Congo, was eventually kicked out more than a decade later.

The British left India with less grace than they claimed, and might have been more stubborn had not the British electorate delivered a stunning defeat to Churchill in a general election just after he had saved his country from Germany. Churchill had vowed never to preside over the liquidation of the British empire.

Such duplicity (one principle of freedom and independence for Europe and another for the colonies) led inevitably to contradictions. In the same week that Dr Manmohan Singh was in Moscow to applaud the Allies for their victories in Europe, Shyam Benegal released his biopic of Subhas Chandra Bose in which the Indian nationalist’s escape from a British prison in Calcutta and his epic journey to Germany and Japan is a powerful theme. Bose, affectionately called Netaji, or the Leader, had a mature dialogue with Hitler who advised him to fight alongside Japan. Bose agreed, and led 80,000 Indians up to Indian soil before the tide of war changed. It must be stressed that Bose was critical of Nazi genocide against Jews, but he was willing to deal with Hitler as an enemy’s enemy. Does that make Bose a fascist? No. In his estimate, he was negotiating with one enemy to destroy another.

Similar sentiments persuaded Gandhi to keep the Congress out of the British war effort, although Gandhi had absolutely no sympathy for Nazism and was willing to describe Hitler as evil. Gandhi’s position was not quite the paradox it seemed: India would fight beside Britain, but only if permitted to do so as an independent nation. Jawaharlal Nehru took a dimmer view of fascism, and would have joined the war effort, but of course he would never break rank with Gandhi. Jinnah had no qualms about supporting Britain in the darkest days of British despair. The rewards were handsome.

The American President, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat who was also a democrat, was sympathetic to the colonies and championed the vision of a United Nations (his term) of free countries. But he died before the war ended. His successor Harry Truman wore conventional glasses and remained indifferent to a change that Roosevelt could perceive. And so after the Second World War ended, a genuine world war began, for freedom and liberation of the colonies from imperialists. There was no alliance, but each nation rose in anger and eventually found freedom. During the Cold War many of the former colonies preferred to trust the official anti-imperialism of the Soviet Union to the neo-colonialism of the democratic West, but soon they realised that they had bought into an illusion. As East Europe proved and Afghanistan illustrated, the Soviet Union was an empire-monger as well.

Democracy has become George Bush’s leitmotif. He has all the zeal of a new convert since he discovered democracy only after he failed to discover the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But while zeal has its advantages, it is no substitute for understanding.

There is a basic and critical flaw in Bush’s prescription for the world’s ills. He is right to claim that democracy is the best medicine but he cannot seem to appreciate that democracy is impossible without sovereignty. Democracy is a flower, not a weed. It will bloom only if its conditions are honoured. Strangely, you can have independence without democracy, but you cannot have democracy without independence. The elixir becomes a killer if it is not administered correctly. That is the danger of the American policy in Iraq.

Gandhi understood this perfectly. It is a pity that his name is being erased from the scroll of memory at a time when his ideas have become indispensable. After Moscow Bush went to Georgia where he praised the "Rose Revolution" in which the people of Georgia got rid of dictators through non-violent struggle. This is the new dharma in a post-9/11 world, that even the fight against injustice should be non-violent. Surely the greatest of the non-violent wars was the Cotton Revolution led by Gandhi. It is unlikely that a speechwriter travelling with President Bush will mention the Cotton Revolution. But a speechwriter with Dr Manmohan Singh should have.

The slogan of the French Revolution was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". The cry of the Cotton Revolution was "Liberty, Sovereignty, Non-violence". The Cotton Revolution did not devour its children as the French one did. Instead of unleashing terror it found space for children of many hues and a multiplicity of views, united not by any plastic ideology but by commitment to a nation.

I know that cotton is also called yarn in America, because it is spun. Trust me, President Bush: Gandhi spun a loom around the British empire, but his doctorate was not in spin. Raise a cheer to the Cotton Revolution!

Monday, May 09, 2005

A Provence Diary

Edited & Brought to You by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: A Provence Diary

Do good food and good news taste better when touched by enchanting style and environment? Such questions of high philosophy seem inevitable after a few days in the south of France alias Provence. We are tucked into the first slope above the Mediterranean. Sunset is ahead, the sea behind, and the breeze pampers us from all directions. We overlook the serene village of Valbonne which despite its anonymity boasts of a one-star Michelin restaurant. The village has a modern town hall, ancient streets, a large pharmacy, a modest parking lot and an internet cafe that opens 15 minutes late but is managed with visible sincerity by a young man in constant need of conversation. A swerve of the road later is Mougins, where the chef Alain Llorca offers a 3-star Michelin meal and where Picasso came to die. The chateau which was his last home sits quietly with its memories. Inevitably the locals say that the unique natural light of these mountains drew the painter like a magnet, and to see the spreading blush above the kohl-black mountains long after sunset is to understand why "silhouette" is a French word.

Michelin’s stars are more respected by the discerning than its tyres although the tyres pay for the dilettantes who wander incognito through France checking the quality of levels of the nation’s highest art form, gastronomy. Fewer are aware of what the stars indicate. A restaurant can get only three at best. One star means excellent food. Two indicate that the restaurant is worth a detour. Three stars insist that the restaurant is worth a journey.

In front of us rise the Alps, the highest peaks still glittering with the glowing white glamour of winter. Behind us is the pearl necklace of fairytale beach-towns from St. Tropez to Monaco through Cannes, Antibes and Nice. The chances of seeing a pram are much higher in the touristy afternoons of St. Tropez than a bikini. The place is much too expensive for the young and the beach too public for the rich and famous who remain rich because of their accountants and famous because they stay at home unless summoned by the camera. There is a traffic jam of boats on the shore and villas on the shoreline. Boat to bungalow is via a Bentley. Nudists have their privilege of their own offshore island where you cannot wear clothes even when strolling with a trolley through the foodstore. There is no equality like nudity, which is one more reason for the rich to leave such options alone. And voyeurs must find such freedom simply too boring.

Cannes pouts and waits for its suitors. They come in all shapes, from all directions, enjoy a flirt and return home. Nothing more is expected, nothing more is delivered. Cannes is a strip of four parallel curvaceous lines between sea and mountain: beach, promenade, shops and exit route. The beach is the altar where the sun god is worshipped. Celebrities receive their homage on the promenade with its majestic hotels, paparazzi and throngs of hangers-on. The pantheon of the gods of fashion dwells on the shopping street, the Rue de Antibes. Common sense presides over the exit highway: there is only so much that you can take. The sea is saucer-calm all along the coast but water incidental to its joys. The true deity is the sun, demanding its daily sacrifice of skin and burn from men and women who flock in from the cold, wet, grey, dismal, depressing, dull, driven, regions of north Europe. The coast sparkles with dream towns till Monaco where it swerves south into the upper thigh of Italy, as beautiful a resting place for a tired head as any in the world.

If music is the food of love for Shakespeare then food is the music of love in Provence. To eat such food in a hurry would be a high crime. To expect such food elsewhere would be a misdemeanour. To return to our opening query: is pleasure enhanced by environment? Yes. It’s like love. Looks are not essential; but they always help. Taste buds need nature’s embrace to flower.

Eze is a 12th century village atop an ageless hill perpendicular to the Cote d’ Azur, towering above a sea of shifting colours. Walk the last stretch through dainty shops selling Provence jams and pottery, swing through the high gates and climb the final steps to reach the perch of the golden goat at the pinnacle. This is the Chevre d’Or, the restaurant at the heart of the four-Michelin, 33-suite chateau-hotel. (Hotels can rise above three stars.) The fuss of the waiters at the bar is the first indication that this is going to be an agreeable afternoon. The prices along the wine list suggest otherwise. The problem is quickly sorted out by the maitre d’ who offers an excellent Provencal chilled white and hints, through various facial contortions, but without saying a word, that all sensible guests prefer the local fare. We leave food to his safe hands and are offered the set menu. We are led, for reasons that we cannot fully comprehend but do not want to explore, to the best table with magnificent sea views. The food comes at the pace of a leisurely, sunlit summer afternoon, starting with a palate-searching aperitif that is off the menu. We meander through soup, shellfish, starters, fish, vegetables, meat, port, cheeses, two kinds of dessert, sorbet and coffee. When we rise after three hours we are consumed by the experience.

Note for tourists from our subcontinent heading towards Provence this summer: A brasserie in France is a kind of restaurant and not a kind of brassiere.

What else could disturb a night’s sleep other than politics?

If all politics, as famously said and often repeated in this column, is local, and all coverage is international then surely all results are comparative. The Conservatives managed to get only about as many seats as the much-derided Michael Foot won against Mrs Margaret Thatcher and have broad smiles. Labour has won an unprecedented third term under Tony Blair and is looking as glum as a Frenchman denied his holiday. Joy and sorrow are defined by the distance you have travelled from expectations, and by that yardstick Labour has won but Tony Blair has lost. He was defeated by Iraq. The British electorate might have forgiven him for a war they never wanted but they refused to forgive him for telling lies to justify the war. The percentage of the vote Labour polled, 36, was the lowest ever for a party that went on to form a government. The Tory vote did not rise by much, only .5%. But tactical spread of discontent ensured that their benefits were higher in seats. Tony Blair looked glum and Cherie could not conceal a twitch. Bliar cost Blair his credibility. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall.

Of all the voters who switched Blair could not have cursed anyone more than the 413 whose decision gave a certain George Galloway victory in the Muslim-heavy East London constituency of Bethnal Green. Galloway is a Scotsman who was thrown out of Labour for his strong, almost virulent opposition to Blair’s war. He has been at various times accused of every sin from smoking big cigars to wearing well tailored suits to adultery to friendship with Saddam Hussein. As he told BBC (questioners cannot stop hectoring him) he had met Saddam only twice in ten years — the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld, so what was this friendship all about? Galloway challenged Labour in one of its safest seats: safe not only because of popular support but also because of the control over the local government machinery that the party exercises in the boroughs. Galloway yet got 15,801 votes against Labour’s 14,978. They were separated by 823 votes, so a switch of 413 votes would have ensured that the man who will make Blair’s life miserable would not have reached Parliament. More important, Galloway returns to the limelight. He gave a taste of things to come from the limelight that he loves in his acceptance speech, beamed by BBC at four in the morning: "Mr Blair, this is for Iraq... All the people you have killed and all the lies you have told have come back to haunt you."

Tony Blair has the false strut of a lame duck. Gordon Brown has the smile of a successor. As the French commentator put it, Blair won but it was a short victory. You can’t do a long haul from a short victory.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

On Your Marx

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: On Your Marx

‘We have to have a war. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield."

The quotation is from Marx, but not the Marx you think.

Airline reading has its merits. The books I picked up for my latest long-haul flight were a biography of the world’s most famous orator, Cicero; a biography of the world’s second-most famous conqueror Tamerlane (more correctly, Taimur); and a biography of the world’s most famous comedian, Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. The first two books were inestimable. The third was irresistible. Guess which I began first?

Groucho Marx is not yet forgotten. He can be found in the back shelves of the modern generation’s favourite intellectual haunt, the DVD library. Julius, using the screen-stage name of Groucho (picked up from a cartoon-spoof on Sherlock Holmes called Sherlocko, the Monk), along with three brothers Chico, Harpo and Gummo, lifted popular comedy from vaudeville and placed it among the classics without losing the ravenous insanity of slapstick. The knockabout was not physical. It was intelligent gymnastics that never made the mistake of becoming intellectual.

No victim was out of range. In a sense, if you had not been insulted by this Marxist gang you hadn’t arrived. Their theatre and movies, Animal Crackers, At the Circus, Cocoanuts (sic), Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, Copacabana, I’ll Say She Is — in which Groucho is Napoleon without sacrificing his handlebrush moustache or round spectacles — could not be scripted for no one could reinvent their natural, instinctive madcap insight. Their movies are an inexhaustible riot. No one was safe, least of all high society or the pretentious.

Groucho got away with murder, or at least character assassination, because he was never afraid to assassinate himself. In a famous exchange his brother Chico once said, "I’d like-a to say goom-bye to your wife." Groucho replied, "Who wouldn’t?" He once rejected an offer to join a Hollywood club with this charming reply: "I don’t want to join any organisation that would have me as a member." When an anti-Semitic swimming club would not take in his daughter, he wrote to them: "She’s only half-Jewish. How about it if she only goes up to the waist?"

He had a devil in his eye and an angel in his brain. His insults are legendary. "I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception." A woman on his talk show claimed proudly that she had ten children because she loved her husband. Replied Groucho, "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."

Groucho Marx should have been around to cover the British general election of 2005, for I haven’t seen a better analysis of why Tony Blair went to war in Iraq in the company of his best mate George Bush: "We have to have a war. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield."

The moment Blair and Bush sent their troops to the frontlines along the borders of Iraq, long before the United Nation’s wars on the invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were over, they simply had to have a war. The rent was costing them too much, in both money and credibility. Every ploy after that was only an excuse (which got thinner as the days passed) to justify what they had already decided had to be done.

Blair called a general election this year rather than in 2006 because the opinion polls were consistent in their view that Labour’s victory was certain. With less than a week left for voting, the polls still do so, although they are less strident about their future-mongering. There are so many hums and haws (if the vote is below 59% Labour is in trouble, if there is a minor negative swing against the government in a hundred marginals, watch out Tony Blair etc etc) that one wonders why anyone bothers about psephological stretch exercises based on samples of 2,000-odd voters.

The second reason that Blair went to the polls early was surely because he was convinced that time, and Bush’s re-election, had put the Iraq war on the electoral back burner: there might be steady heat but it was too low-level to burn up votes. And yet, like the ghost in Macbeth, the Iraq war refuses to leave the Labour banquet. Come to think of it, Blair has become an excellent instance of hubris.

The one thing that a majority of British voters are agreed upon, irrespective of their party affiliations, is that Blair lied to the country in order to drag Britain into this war. This is the one charge that evokes response even when it comes from the dour Conservative leader Michael Howard.

All politics, it used to be said, is local. That remains true. Television, curiously, had made all local politics international. We sit in India and watch a bus rolling through London’s East End proclaiming to Bangladeshi-origin Muslims that the moment has come to avenge a war they did not support. Cameras bring alive a debate in which the three leaders, Blair, Howard and Charles Kennedy of the Liberal-Democrats spar over Iraq. In which Blair is accused by a citizen of going to war to please his best-mate Bush, and Howard asks people to raise their hands if they think Blair is telling the truth on Iraq and very few hands rise.

It was noted, famously, of Howard that he had something of the night about him. The eyes of Tony Blair during that debate and through this election campaign suggest that he has something of the graveyard about him.

Blair could still be Prime Minister of Britain on May 6 but desolation will never entirely disappear from those eyes. Blair seems to have lost even if Labour wins, for victory will come because of Labour’s record on the economy and not on Blair’s record on the war. Power has already passed from Blair to his chancellor of exchequer and heir-presumptive Gordon Brown. Brown’s eyes have acquired the quiet sparkle of confidence as a much-cherished dream comes within striking distance.

A pro-Labour newspaper, the Guardian, probably settled the succession issue in Labour last week with its revelation that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had clearly advised Blair that the UN Security Council was the final arbiter, and not the British government, on whether Saddam Hussein was complying with UN resolutions or not. This in turn would determine the legality of the war that Blair was determined to wage. Blair got away with an ingenious fudge: the attorney general would deem it satisfactory if Blair could be sure of Saddam’s guilt.

Anger over Iraq has returned to the core of this campaign. The Conservatives are not beneficiaries of this anger because of their familiar problem: they speak with a forked tongue. They believe the war was good but Blair was bad, which is why no one believes them. The Liberal-Democrats are the only party which has been consistent in its opposition to the war and now wants British troops withdrawn. But the Lib-Dems are stuck in that strange swamp called unelectability. Madhu Limaye, the socialist ideologue now, sadly, not with us, used to tell me that a political party needs to cross the 23% support line in order to emerge from this swamp and then stride ahead towards the crucial 30s in public support. The Lib-Dems are still stuck on the wrong side of 23%.

While the politics of war demands its wages, no one is paying a heavier price for this war than the Iraqi people. There have been a few welcome steps in Baghdad, but the carnage continues on the streets. The simple fact of relentless death makes nonsense of good intentions.

Where else to end but at the beginning? On May 6, 1972, the 81-year-old Groucho made his final faltering and moving appearance in New York, at the Carnegie Hall. With havoc of Vietnam preying on his conscience and consciousness he recalled an old Irving Berlin song in which the devil sings thus to his son:

You stay down here where you belong

The folks above you, they don’t know right from wrong.

To please their kings they’ve all gone out to war,

But not a one of them knows what they’re fighting for.

Way up above they say that I’m a devil and I’m bad;

But the kings up there are bigger devils than your dad;

They’re breaking the hearts of mothers,

Making butchers out of brothers;

You’ll find more hell up there than there is down below!