Sunday, July 31, 2005

Revolt of the 19th Century

Edited & brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar : Revolt of the 19th Century

Everything has been happening when nothing happens. Good management is not about solving problems; it is about preventing problems. And so when a part of India does not jump at us from the front pages, it is a safe guess that the chief minister has his eye on trouble spots and someone is doing something to lance the boil before the simmering and potentially septic puss erupts.

Haryana’s chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, is still an infant in office, which is when most mistakes of omission are made. He made every mistake possible in the confrontation between the workers of a Japanese multinational, Honda, and its management at Gurgaon. He ignored the slow burning anger of the workers for weeks. His first response to the crisis in which policemen were first beaten up, and then took barbaric revenge, was uncertain and irritable. When the fire, fuelled by stark television images, began to singe him and his leaders in Delhi joined the roast, he went into vocal appeasement mode and forgot the practical, as for instance the need for extra, emergency medical facilities, thereby feeding media with another day’s story. Finally, while he had to hold police officers accountable, since they were obviously and visibly guilty, he forgot to add that the workers were guilty as well, for they began the violence.

The Haryana police, which is going to be around when all the workers have gone back to work, will remember this lapse of memory. A chief minister with an indifferent police force is only a minister, not a chief.

Here is a suggestion for all executives in public life. If you want to manage the troubles of our nation, create a war room. Place a huge map on one of the walls, with lots of lights around it so that you don’t miss anything. Get the chief secretary and the police chief to flag all the places where social tension is likely, has spurted out but been controlled, or where it is growing and could go out of control. Get a status report every morning, and ensure that the officials briefing you are not telling lies, or covering their backs with evasion. Eruptions will still take place, for India is exploding with anger just below surface level. But at least chief ministers — or indeed Prime Ministers — will not be surprised when the splinters hit them in the face.

The story of the police onslaught on workers at Gurgaon, Haryana, is a little deeper than swinging lathis, however dramatic that might have been, or the failure of the Japanese management system, whose paternalism rarely has the breadth to reach industrial colonies in foreign lands.

We are in the summer of 2005. The last time Indian working class anger dominated the news was in the summer of 1974, when George Fernandes led a national railway strike and Mrs Indira Gandhi responded with harsh measures to break it. That is 31 years, or a generation-and-a-half, ago. (I am ignoring Datta Samant’s irresponsible and self-indulgent misrule of textile workers in Mumbai, because that was egotism, not trade unionism, and therefore turned sour and counterproductive. The millowners used the foolishness of Samant to close a meagre-benefit industry and became doubly rich as masters of vacant property in the heart of Mumbai.)

In a developed country three decades of peace would be good news. It is bad news in a country that lives across centuries: those below the poverty line are in the worst phase of the 19th century; the urban poor live in the early part of the 20th century; the middle class live in the middle of the 20th century; a minuscule few have entered the 21st century. There is too much anger at base volcanic level, waiting for a chance to turn into lava.

One reason is that the dialectic of India’s democratic politics shifted, in the 1980s, from economics to communalism. Then, in the 1990s, both organised labour and the middle class were pacified with sops — aspirations, consumerism and rising incomes thanks to fresh foreign capital, innovation and competition. Aspirations are a problem in an uneven economy, for while they comfort 20 per cent at the top (the creamy layer, to use a quaintly Indian economic formulation), they create great resentments in the thick slabs below. The slabs may not be even, nor the resentment uniform, but resentment exists.

Moreover, in 1975 television was not around, except as a droning black and white propaganda box that dished out half an hour of utterly boring news that viewers watched only to look at glamorous news readers. No one actually heard anything on television. Today, independent channels bring you news. But they are not half as potent as the entertainment channels that take the world of the rich and the beautiful into the homes of the impoverished and the plain. The poor now know what they are being denied. Television also promotes a greater sense of reality than cinema, which is always closer to fantasy. At one level this angst creates a market for products that promise to make young, or even old women look beautiful within 28 days. (Since in our unhappy self-image, beautiful is synonymous with fair, these globs of acid sold as cream have to make you fair as well. It would be interesting to find out how much of television ad revenue comes out of false promises.) At another level, this creates a sense of injustice that the political or the economic system has long stopped trying to assuage.

If this was all the news, it might still leave some room for comfort. The worry is, or should be, not the violence that we have seen but the violence that we could see. Those Indians left behind in the 19th century are beginning to mobilise, and Indians cocooned in the 21st century have no idea what to do about the spreading people’s armies. The plural is accurate, for there is more than one army. But they have a single motivation: to create a parallel state until they can destroy the state that has left them behind. We use a loose term for them. We call them Naxalites.

The Naxalites do not sit outside the gates of multinational factories for a month waiting to be heard. They collect taxes, they have funds, they buy sophisticated weapons, and they shoot. When the Naxalites feel threatened by the state machinery, or when they want to take revenge, they do not use the lathis that the workers at Gurgaon wielded. They plant powerful bombs in the way of a Chandrababu Naidu’s convoy in Andhra Pradesh; or they attack banks and police stations at Madhubani in Bihar. The Naxalites do not depend on Leftist Members of Parliament for publicity or a trade union movement for solidarity. They keep their wounds hidden, their secrets to themselves, and work through a network that crawls through village and jungle between Andhra Pradesh and Nepal, extending to Orissa and Bihar in the east and Maharashtra in the west. According to one report, more than 7,000 villages are already under their control, and two villages at the very least are joining this parallel state every week.

Underneath a thin sheen, we Indians remain casteist and sectarian. The two groups that have suffered the worst humiliation, through centuries, are the Dalits (formerly the Untouchables) and the tribals. The process of the politicisation of Dalits started with the venerable Dr B.R. Ambedkar and is in the aggressive hands of Ms Mayawati at the moment. They are beginning to find their niche in our democracy, even though their impoverishment has not ended.

The human and economic exploitation of tribals has been a shocking story, and one that is not told very often because the tribals do not have a voice. Their women suffer rape in silence; the men have no answer to sophisticated and crude economic exploitation. (The Church, incidentally, is one of the few groups doing exemplary work in tribal areas of Jharkhand, and is therefore targeted by the establishment.) At long last the tribals are mobilising politically and doing so under the banner of the Naxalites. Tribals are brought out by Delhi to dance at the Republic Day festival. They are now getting ready to make Delhi dance to their tune. It will be a danse macabre.

I did not use the image of a war room lightly. There is a social war going on, but since government survives behind the screen surrounding Delhi, or any capital city, it is blind to that war. Sometimes defeated candidates in a Parliamentary election return shell-shocked at the power of Naxalites; but winners of course never see anything, for they live under the illusion that their party or their charisma has got them victory.

The masses of the 19th century are at war with the elitists of the 21st in India. The latter are armed. The former are angry. Don’t take the outcome for granted.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Club of 13

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar : The Club of 13

The twenty-first century definition of the national interest is economic power and nuclear power, because prosperity is the guarantor of internal stability and nuclear capability the true protection against external aggression. All nations in their senses want the first. For varying reasons a fortunate few nations have both, or can hope for both. America, Britain and France have both. China, Russia and Israel possess greater military power than economic power, but are catching up. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers without being economic powers, but India’s economy is now very significant steps ahead of Pakistan’s. North Korea has enough nuclear capability to protect its borders from American troops stationed there.

An era is a long and distinct phase of history; an age, although it sounds longer, represents a shorter period, "the length of time that person or thing has existed".
The operative meaning of concepts changes with the shift of an age. Nationalism as a concept includes both identity as well as the ability to defend the national interest. The first is incomplete without the second. If we assume that modern Indian nationalism begins with the age of Mahatma Gandhi then he expanded the identity to include the poor, the untouchable, the weak into the national struggle; and made mass mobilisation into his weapon to protect the national interest.

Jawaharlal Nehru, who had to redefine its purposes in the context of a free nation and an effective state, upped the ante to create an international alliance against traditional and modern imperialists by creating a movement that refused to align itself with either the West or the Soviet Union. At home Nehru concentrated on an industrial base (the "temples of modern India") and a knowledge infrastructure which could become the springboard of a modern economy.

Indira Gandhi inherited an India mired in famine and language riots, and an Indian Army that had been humiliated against China in 1962 and battled out a draw against Pakistan in 1965. Her thrust was on putting new life into the wheat fields, where the Green Revolution was born, and a new heart into the armed forces, which delivered victory on the battlefields of Bangladesh.

The twenty-first century definition of the national interest is economic power and nuclear power, because prosperity is the guarantor of internal stability and nuclear capability the true protection against external aggression. All nations in their senses want the first. For varying reasons a fortunate few nations have both, or can hope for both. America, Britain and France have both. China, Russia and Israel possess greater military power than economic power, but are catching up. India and Pakistan are nuclear powers without being economic powers, but India’s economy is now very significant steps ahead of Pakistan’s. North Korea has enough nuclear capability to protect its borders from American troops stationed there.

Iran is the hidden fist. It may not have much of an economy, but it has oil, which enables it to survive a harsh cordon thrown by the United States. And it is widely believed that its unknown nuclear capability has either achieved a clandestine weapons programme or is on the verge of one. For Iran the linkage between national interest and nuclear capability is particularly strong. Iranians believed that this is the only real deterrence against American aggression. While there were other reasons, a principal reason for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory over the favourite Hashemi Rafsanjani in the recent Iranian presidential election was the suspicion that the latter could have compromised Iran’s nuclear power to the United States.

It isn’t only fringe nuclear states like North Korea or Israel who treat nuclear weapons as their defence guarantee. Israel, which has never admitted to possessing nuclear weapons or tested a device, retains the capability as its guarantee against annihilation by potentially hostile neighbours. And just in case anyone missed the point, China’s General Zhu Chenghu said, during the last fortnight, while discussing the possibility of American involvement in any conflict with Taiwan, "If the Americans are determined to interfere (then) we will be determined to respond … with nuclear weapons". What was Washington’s response? To grin and bear it. Just as it had done when a little while ago another Chinese general pointed out that China’s nuclear missiles could hit California. It wasn’t a threat. Just something for the record.

This is why the controversy over the agreement that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has signed with President George Bush is inevitable. India’s nuclear capability, built by every Prime Minister since freedom across party lines, created without the permission of the West or the Soviet Union, constructed despite their active hostility by Indian scientists and them alone, is at the heart of India’s sense of itself as a power that, after a long while in its turbulent history, will not take dictation from anyone. Any suspicion that a Prime Minister has taken dictation from Washington does not travel well with public opinion.

No one expects complete transparency on issues as complex as nuclear weapons. It is possible that gains have been made by Delhi beyond the verbal fluff offered by Bush, as for instance the patronising statement that India is a responsible nuclear power without according it a formal status. Bush pointedly and categorically rejected this option. The rest of what he has offered is subject to Congress. Dr Singh might want to make a phone call to Islamabad to check what Congress did to Pakistan F16s. However, while none of the possible gains are immediate, all the concessions made by Dr Manmohan Singh could become operational at once.

The concessions are major. If you want to know why separating civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes is important, then all you have to do is check out why the United States has been so insistent about what seems an operational rather than a fundamental reality. You should also check why no other nuclear nation has accepted such a condition. The short answer is that separation will curtail our flexibility in determining the size of our nuclear capability. I hope Islamabad and Beijing have sent Washington a thank you note. They could do it on a common letterhead.

We have also allowed international inspectors free access to our facilities everywhere and at any time. The protection that every Prime Minister from Nehru to Vajpayee gave to our nuclear scientists has been removed. Think about it.

One of the key elements of our ongoing research is the thorium programme which can make nuclear fuel imports irrelevant. Will inspectors now monitor our scientists there?

Public opinion, and even specialist opinion, is also created by the context. Dr Singh has courted his British and American hosts in language that sounds more obsequious than friendly. We heard, from Oxford, about the splendours of the British Raj, which had, among its missions, a responsibility to "civilise" native Indians. Now we hear Dr Singh tell us, from Washington, that anyone who is civilised anywhere in the world cannot but support Bush. Who on earth thinks up such statements for the Prime Minister? Or does he do so himself?

Still, froth is of limited consequence, however soapy it might be. The Prime Minister’s visit was preceded by a Indo-US defence pact which has raised questions that have not been answered. And Dr Singh ended his visit to Washington with a shocking statement casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Iran pipeline. Dr Manmohan Singh is trying to reverse the declared decision of his own Cabinet (a coalition Cabinet, by the way, not just a Congress one) on dictation from Washington. This is unacceptable. The oil minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, has made it clear through his ministry officials that the project remains on track. I hope he does not have to pay a price and lose his portfolio for taking a stand.

Dr Manmohan Singh is at a crisis point in his tenure as India’s 13th Prime Minister. (There have been 14 prime ministerial terms but 13 Prime Ministers.) His luck is not in the number. It is in his own hands. He is still seen as a decent, honest, good man. But one flaw is beginning to stain his public image. He is beginning to get a reputation for weakness, and of being manipulated, of taking dictation, often against his own instincts and his own will. A vague view can easily consolidate into a conviction, particularly if it is tinged with suspicion that there is a puppeteer in Washington. It will be up to the Prime Minister to use Parliament to eliminate misgivings.

The Indian voter welcomes each new Prime Minister with trust, affection and almost unlimited power. Most of the Club of 13 ended lonely, unloved and without a modicum of influence. It is up to Dr Manmohan Singh to determine how he will be remembered.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Last Trumpet

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar : The Last Trumpet

If Dr Manmohan Singh were mindless, one wouldn’t mind so much. The troubling part is that Dr Singh has a keen mind honed by a passion for reading. It is possible though that ever since he was catapulted from chiaroscuro to the national limelight in 1991, his primary reading has become files. Bureaucrats have a very simple methodology when they want to consume a minister’s time: they feed the minister with his passion. Since Dr Manmohan Singh is fond of reading, I am ready to wager a fair bit that the bureaucrats around him are making sure that he has enough files to read from waking-hour to goodnight-collapse.

The Prime Minister has been making some long-haul flights of late, a necessary part of his cumbrous duties in running the affairs of a virtual superpower. Last week he was in Scotland, with a place of honour in the waiting room of one of the most exclusive and glittering clubs, code-named G8.

The fact that the Prime Minister of China, Wen Jiabao, was also present in that resplendent waiting room added to the lustre. British hospitality at Gleneagles, the scene of the meeting, was at its finest. According to reliable reports, the British spent a hundred million pounds on the conference. This however is less impressive than the fact that France’s combative President, Jacques Chirac, who is known to sniff so loudly at the mention of British food that it can be heard across the channel, stood up after a meal and sent his personal congratulations to the chef.

Since academics is much higher on Dr Singh’s wish-list than food, the British were wise to feed him with what he wanted, an honorary degree from Oxford, the university that gave our Prime Minister a much-deserved degree in economics. Dr Singh was forthright. "I am truly overwhelmed," he told Oxford, adding, "…nothing can be more valuable or precious than receiving an honorary degree from one’s own alma mater… This is a day I will truly cherish". It was in such an expansive mood that Dr Singh remarked, in his speech, that "even at the height of our campaign for freedom from colonial rule, we did not entirely reject the British claim to good governance".

This week Prime Minister Singh takes an even longer flight, to Washington, where, when he rises to address the august Senate of the United States, he will warm the cockles of George Bush’s heart. Within a fortnight, Dr Singh will find a place in the hearts of both men who rule the world, and that is no small achievement. Some of the time on the long flight to America will doubtless go into polishing the speech, but I hope Dr Singh gets a chance to read some books apart from speeches and files.

The first book I would put on his table is Poverty and Famine, by a fellow-Indian, a fellow-economist, and a fellow-compatriot from Oxbridge, Dr Amartya Sen.

Dr Singh mentioned many names of those who had enriched the Indo-British relationship, men from public life, from academics (Dr S. Radhakrishnan and Dr Bimal Krishna Matilal) and literature. Even Salman Rushdie got a look-in. It is possible that Dr Singh might want to follow up this verbal honour by lifting the ban on Rushdie’s controversial book, The Satanic Verses. The Prime Minister of India did not mention Dr Amartya Sen, although the latter has received the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on hunger, and his conviction that nature has much less to do with famine than man. There could be a sensible reason for this omission. Dr Sen has been master of Trinity College in Cambridge, and it is well known that any positive reference to a Cambridge man is a scandal in Oxford. Be that as it may, even a quick glance at Dr Sen’s book would have led Dr Singh to Chapter 6, on The Great Bengal Famine.

In the last years of the British Raj, resplendent as it was with good governance, between 3.5 and 3.8 million Bengalis died of famine during the period 1942 to 1945, of which most died between March 1943 to November 1943. This total does not include the normal mortality rate of any population. I would suggest you read the figures again. Nearly four million Bengalis died in less than three years in the most wretched, painful and inhuman manner possible. Dr Sen shows that there was no major grain shortage in Bengal in 1943, despite a cyclone that affected the aman crop and the end of rice imports from Burma due to war. Even the official famine enquiry commission, whose conclusions were sometimes at variance with facts, admitted that the deficit in food supply was only about six per cent. There is no space to go into the details of this extraordinary tragedy, but I offer a few sentences from Dr Sen’s book in order to whet the appetite of the Prime Minister for facts. Dr Sen says, "no matter how a famine is caused, methods of breaking it call for a large supply of food in the public distribution system". Not very difficult to understand. But what did the good-governance Raj do?

"One curious aspect of the Bengal famine was that it was never officially ‘declared’ as a famine, which would have brought in an obligation to organise work programmes and relief operations specified by the ‘Famine Code’ dating to 1883; Sir T. Rutherford, the Governor of Bengal, explained to the Viceroy: ‘The Famine Code has not been applied as we simple have not the food to give the prescribed ration’."

Later, the government admitted, on the record, that "the food shortages were mainly due to hoarding". Of course Indians were involved in hoarding, but surely the good governance of the British could have sorted what was an administrative matter.

The British inaction was more mala fide than that. "As it happens, even the request for permission to import 600,000 tons of wheat was turned down in London on 16 January (1943, the year of the worst deaths), only a small part of it being met." On the other hand, and please underline this heavily, "On 26 January (1943), the Viceroy wrote to the Secretary of State for India: ‘Mindful of our difficulties about food I told him (the Premier of Bengal [Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy]) that he simply must produce some more rice out of Bengal for Ceylon even if Bengal itself was short! He was by no means unsympathetic, and it is possible that I may in the result screw a little out of them’."

You screwed a lot out of us, Viceroy! Nearly four million Bengalis were to die of starvation and the good-governance Raj was exporting rice from Bengal to Ceylon!

I do not blame the British for the sins of India. That is stupid. India fell to the British because it had decayed and, as Robert Clive said, was ready for conquest with but a few thousand troops. Clive may have been exaggerating but not by much. But Britain was an imperial power, and operated on the logic of self-interest rather than Indian interest. If there was good government in many aspects, it was only to reinforce British rule, not to save Indians from their misery.

A second book for the Prime Minister’s reading list: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale. It was pertinent of Dr Singh to mention the work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison who showed that India’s share of world income was 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe, and collapsed to 3.8% by 1952. As an economist, Dr Singh should also have answered the question, why. Let me offer, within this limited space, another statistic, this time from Kennedy. In 1750 India had 24.5% of the world manufacturing output and Britain had 1.9%. In 1900 Britain had 18.5% and India had 1.7%. While there was definitely more than one reason for the reversal, may I suggest that colonialism had something to do with this?

A third book, Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor. For only one quote. When Clive entered Murshidabad after victory at Plassey, he noted that "The city of Murshidabad is as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London with this difference, that there are individuals in the first possessing infinitely greater property than any in the last city."

No one conquers a poor country, Prime Minister.

- M.J.Akbar

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Goodbye Nehru, Hello Bush

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar : Goodbye Nehru, Hello Bush

If Dr Manmohan Singh seems to be in office without being in power, it is because he has not been able to establish his authority on the four big offices of state that constitute the substance of power in any government: home, defence, external affairs and finance. The big four, Shivraj Patil, Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and P. Chidambaram, pay lip service to the Prime Minister and pursue their own agenda (or, as in the case of the home minister, non-agenda).

  • Nehru

  • There is generally an iota of truth in any swathe of Delhi gossip. The certainties of Delhi are more dubious. The certainty this week is that differences between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are slowly corroding and paralysing governance.

    Logic suggests that this is unlikely. There has been a clear demarcation in the Congress between Church and State, with Mrs Gandhi in charge of political management and the Prime Minister entrusted with governance. Differences are expected in any human relationship, and inevitable when power is in play. The two may, for instance, have differing views on whether Satish Sharma should be inducted into the Cabinet or not. But to stretch that into a deathly Singh-Sonia confrontation is stretching the imagination.

    Why? Simply because it is in neither person’s interest to damage the government and neither has shown the tendency, as yet, to be suicidal. Could this equation change? Certainly. If Mrs Gandhi is persuaded that the BJP has weakened itself enough to give the Congress an opportunity for a breakthrough in BJP territory (the contiguous states of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat), she could well set in motion a process by which the allies would seem to have brought the government down and forced another general election. But that moment has not yet come.

    If Dr Manmohan Singh seems to be in office without being in power, it is because he has not been able to establish his authority on the four big offices of state that constitute the substance of power in any government: home, defence, external affairs and finance. The big four, Shivraj Patil, Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and P. Chidambaram, pay lip service to the Prime Minister and pursue their own agenda (or, as in the case of the home minister, non-agenda). The first three consider themselves unfortunate, in the sense that any of them could have become Prime Minister instead of the incumbent, and see no particular reason why they should accept his leadership. The fourth, Chidambaram, the weakest since he has no political constituency, and little to advertise except puff notices in backscratch media, has been encouraged by the example of his peers to behave similarly.

    Is it a coincidence that two of the big four have created serious problems for the government with its principal ally, the Left, or is that merely an accident? The Left is not playing charades over disinvestments in Bhel or the Indo-United States defence pact. Its anger is serious. These are issues of hard politics and policy. The CPI(M) cannot risk alienating the working class in Bengal, which is the foundation of its strength, and which provides, at a rough estimate, some 70 seats to the party in Bengal (take away those seats and the Left Front’s majority disappears). The Congress cannot expect the CPI(M) to accept a decision that affects its core interest in its citadel in order to keep an alliance afloat in Delhi.

    Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s sunny smiles in Washington had clouded by the time he landed in Delhi. He tried to placate the Left, and indeed important sections of the country, with semantics. This was only a "framework" rather than a "pact". Intelligent ministers should not believe that either their opponents or their friends are foolish. A rose by any other name smells as sweet, but onions do not begin to smell like a rose if you rename them.

    The objectives of the "framework" signed by Pranab Mukherjee and Donald Rumsfeld have been defined in Clause 3. The first is, "defeating terrorism and violent religious extremism". No problem with that. The second is "preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data and technologies". This is more interesting.

    Who defines "spread"? The last person accused of such nefarious behaviour, in case you’ve forgotten, was Saddam Hussein. The truth did not prevent the launch of a horrible war in which nearly two thousand Americans and a hundred thousand Iraqis have already died, a war which co-signatory Rumsfeld says might last another twelve years. Would we have been required to help America under the terms of this "framework" had it been signed three years ago? Saddam Hussein was also called a terrorist. Would we have been required to help eliminate him or remove him from power? These questions are relevant not only because of the past but because of the future. President George Bush and Rumsfeld believe Iran is in an "axis of evil", and accuse it of promoting terrorism and building nuclear weapons. Iran has an advanced nuclear programme that it says is for peaceful purposes. The dividing line between peaceful and not-so-peaceful purposes is thin. We claimed for decades that our nuclear programme was only meant for peaceful purposes until, to no one’s surprise, out popped the bomb. Supposing Europe, which does not want a strong Iran either, joins Washington in declaring Iran to be on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. Are we then committed by this treaty (alias "framework") to join a campaign against Iran?

    These are not idle questions, Mr Mukherjee; nor are they merely rhetorical ones. I presume the defence minister has noted that he has signed such a commitment twice, not only in Clause 3 but also in Clause 4E where he reaffirms that the two sides will "enhance capabilities to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".

    There is a sub-text to this clause that has not been addressed. India became a nuclear power without America’s permission, or indeed without anyone’s permission. America imposed sanctions against India, which became irrelevant over time. However, has the United States formally recognised India as a legitimate nuclear power, or are we still in an undefined penumbra? This has to be clarified. Otherwise, we become, paradoxically, an illegitimate nuclear state, and must, by the terms of this "framework" act against our own interests! As I said, all we need is a formal statement from Washington recognising India as a legitimate nuclear power. Did Pranab Mukherjee raise this point with his host Rumsfeld?

    Will Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, and therefore responsible for everything that his defence minister has signed, raise this with George Bush when he pays a formal visit to America in a week’s time?

    The third objective should have been signed by commerce minister Kamal Nath. India and the United States have agreed to protect "the free flow of commerce via land, air and sea lanes". This is the ultimate homage that a defence minister can pay to globalisation. Pardon my ignorance, but I had no idea that government policy had become so committed to globalisation that we were ready to introduce such a clause in a formal defence agreement with the United States. I wonder if Mr Mukherjee checked with Mr Rumsfeld if America would, under this "framework" protect the free flow of gas in the proposed pipeline through Iran, or whether America’s definition of freedom is slightly different from ours. I presume we leave each other alone when our definitions differ. But what was the necessity of accepting a clause such as this?

    Two lines in the "framework" need to be read together, although they are distanced in the document. Clause 4B says that the two countries must "collaborate in multinational operations when it is in their common interest" and Clause 4J adds that they must "assist in building worldwide capacity to conduct successful peacekeeping operation, with a focus on enabling other countries to field trained, capable forces for these operations". There is no suggestion, incidentally, that any multinational operation should be under the aegis of the United Nations; a bilateral agreement is sufficient. India has therefore formally replaced the Nehru doctrine of working in multinational operations only through the blue-helmet regime of the UN with the Bush doctrine that seeks to build alliances for intervention in third countries outside the UN mandate. Under the careful guidance of Pranab Mukherjee we have rejected Nehru and embraced Bush. Welcome to the future, boys!

    It does not need a cryptologist to understand what this means. The second sentence is a direct and obvious agreement for Indian participation in what will be called the training of the new Iraqi Army and police (consistently being attacked by the insurgency). Against all this Mr Mukherjee has been waving the lollipop of co-production. He has not been totally candid here either. American defence production is in the private sector, and I would be pleasantly surprised to see transfer of technology from the private sector.

    Did the defence minister take the Prime Minister into complete confidence about the intricacies of the commitments he has made? If he will not answer, the Prime Minister must.

    Are the senior ministers indifferent to the Prime Minister because they believe that their jobs are in the gift of Mrs Sonia Gandhi rather than the Prime Minister? If that is true then the government of Dr Manmohan Singh is in trouble, because an animal with two heads will walk in different directions. To return to the classic analogy, the Church and the State work in the same country, protecting separate parts of a common interest. Mrs Gandhi named the Prime Minister. It was her right to do so after she revived the Congress. It is now the Prime Minister’s right to name his ministers, and hold their performance accountable. It cannot be in Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s interest if the government does not function. Who gains if Manmohan Singh fails?

    If an animal with two heads cannot walk straight, then a cross-eyed Prime Minister cannot see straight either. Dr Singh has one eye on his duties, and the other on 10 Janpath. Realignment is essential for focus, and focus is critical for success.

    Sunday, July 03, 2005

    A Santorini Diary

    Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

    Byline by M.J.Akbar: A Santorini Diary

    When we cruised around the volcano I was ready to believe every story told in every folk song about these magical waters, of mermaids and demons and ghosts and sailors enchanted into stone in mysterious caves inside a sea of heavenly blue. (It is heavenly; water is colourless, and adopts the hue of the sky.) Our gentle timber boat might have been from the past as well, except for the motor and the absence of sails. I kept wondering why it seemed familiar, since my sole previous trip to Greece had been restricted to Athens and a ride to the oracle at Delphi, until it struck me that I might have seen something similar in The Guns of Navarone. Gregory Peck was not around, but I did espy a couple of Anthony Quinns. My fellow guests, unmindful of age, were happy to plunge into the cool waters when we rested under the shade of a volcano.

    A Santorini Diary

    The cat came free. Everything else had a price, except the view, which was priceless. The cat, brown-grey with blue eyes, Ottoman whiskers, sat upright on the white stone wall, her body silhouetted half against a blue sky and half against a blue sea, and checked me out impassively.

    Satisfied with what she saw, or tempted by the breakfast on the table of my neighbour across the wall at the Canaves Oia resort, she scurried off, leaving nothing between me and a horizon indistinguishable from the sea.

    Canaves is an exquisite series of terraced rooms set up on a cliff rising above the Aegean, on the island of Santorini, the diamond in a cluster of thousands of jewels collectively known as the Cyclades. Its special claim to fame is that it is volcanic, the last eruption being in 1939.

    But the Big Bang came in 1500 BC. The truth is buried in legend; the line between the two is in any case delicate in a land with as much history as Greece. The Athenian statesman Solon (6th century BC) made the first recorded suggestion that this Santorini-based volcano-cum-tsunami sent the fabled city of Atlantis to the bottom of the ocean.

    Since then it has been settled/ruled by a circle of neighbours, all of whom took their turn: Phoenicians (today’s Lebanese), Spartans, Egyptians (under the Ptolemys), Byzantines and Ottomans until Greece won her independence in 1821. The past appears in the most unexpected forms: the Ottomans are visible in a local variation of the shalwar-kameez, still worn by a few middle-aged women in an era of tops and jeans.

    You know you are ageing when your head gets fried.

    When we cruised around the volcano I was ready to believe every story told in every folk song about these magical waters, of mermaids and demons and ghosts and sailors enchanted into stone in mysterious caves inside a sea of heavenly blue. (It is heavenly; water is colourless, and adopts the hue of the sky.) Our gentle timber boat might have been from the past as well, except for the motor and the absence of sails. I kept wondering why it seemed familiar, since my sole previous trip to Greece had been restricted to Athens and a ride to the oracle at Delphi, until it struck me that I might have seen something similar in The Guns of Navarone. Gregory Peck was not around, but I did espy a couple of Anthony Quinns. My fellow guests, unmindful of age, were happy to plunge into the cool waters when we rested under the shade of a volcano. I remained on deck, in shirt and trousers, not out of modesty but inability and caution. I can’t swim, and have no appetite for sunburn. I appreciate the desire of the white person to turn brown, a much better colour, but we are already there. Back on shore it took me time to understand the slight scratchy itch on my head. I had forgotten to wear a cap, because I had forgotten I was bald. My scalp now looks like a map of the world with more than five continents, and I can’t even hide it with hair.

    We were in Greece for the annual conference of the New York Times’ worldwide partners, and in Santorini as the weekend guests of Themis Alafouzos, scion of a great Greek family and owner of a great newspaper, Kathemirini. I have rarely met anyone as gracious and charming as his mother. Pearls of a dazzle I have never seen, nor am likely to see, might have set her apart at first glance, but as a hostess she was in and out of the kitchen of the Katina taverna on the seaside, personally supervising the food, and then attending to each guest with elegance and charm. A gang of newspaper managers and editors can be as cynical as any lot in the world, but we melted: everyone wanted a picture with her. At one point she turned to me, her voice full of paternal censure, looked disdainfully at my robust cigar and asked, "Why do you smoke?" All potential wisecracks about helping Comrade Castro’s economy froze on my lips. I meekly put the cigar away, delighted to experience schoolboy guilt after decades.

    Socialism is alive and well in Santorini. You can hire a donkey from the capital, Fira, to the old port, Yialos, for three euros, or take the quaintly name Funicular for two. The latter takes only five minutes for the journey, but if you are counting minutes, don’t go to Santorini. The Funicular was a gift to the island from a certain Evangelos Nomicos but not before the trade union of donkey drivers had made its point: 20% of the gross receipts (gross, not net) from the Funicular go to the Fira Union of Mule Drivers. The trade union lives! So does Communism, which gets about 8% of the vote in every election. The spirit extends beyond the 8%. The graffiti in Athens attests to a strong tradition of anti-imperialism. Some of the graffiti about George Bush and Osama bin Laden in a quiet street just below the Acropolis cannot be printed. It would get me into trouble with America’s Homeland Security.

    There is an incidental, but entertaining, connection between Greece and the George Bush presidency. About two years before Bush was first elected, a small group of intellectual-activists sat down to fashion the agenda that could bring him to power (Condoleezza Rice is the starring survivor of that group). They called themselves the Vulcans after the Graeco-Roman god. As is well-known, the Romans absorbed the Greek pantheon into their worship and gave them Roman names. And so Ares, the god of war, became Mars, Aphrodite became Venus and Hephaestus became Vulcan. It has been wisely noted that the ancient Greeks did not have a religion; they turned their fears into gods, and then made the gods behave like themselves. The Odyssey narrates the story of how Hephaestus (Vulcan) trapped his wife, Aphrodite (Venus), when she was making love to Ares (Mars) by ensnaring them in his net.

    Why on earth did George Bush’s intellectual mentors name their group after a cuckold? And what happens when a Vulcan tries to emulate his wife’s lover, Mars? Is this an explanation for the misadventure known as the Iraq war?

    If the Greeks understood war, their dramatists also understood the futility of it, and no one better than Aristophanes who wrote Lysistrata in 411 BC. She found the perfect solution to the bitter and unending wars between Athens and Sparta, who continued to fight even when the hated enemy, the Medes (today’s Persians) were at their door. Lysistrata organised what might be called the first women’s trade union, and struck work in a unique way. They decided to deny their men sex until the Athenians and Spartans had stopped fighting. The oath that Lysistrata made the women take is worth repeating: "I will not allow either boyfriend or husband to approach me in erect condition. I will live at home without sexual activity. I will not raise my legs towards the ceiling…" and so on.

    Lysistrata won the day by shutting down the night. Anyone, incidentally, who thinks boyfriends are a modern idea should read the ancient Greeks.

    It was not only Lysistrata who saved the Greeks from speaking Persian. The oracle at Delphi, which was always consulted before any great event, played its part as well. When Xerxes threatened to overwhelm Athens in 480 BC the oracle advised Athenians to put their "trust in the wooden walls". The general interpretation was to take a stand behind the city walls but Thermistocles argued that the wooden walls meant their ships made of wood. And so Athens challenged Persia on the sea, and won the historic battle of Salamis. The oracle succeeded because, like an Indian astrologer, it left more than one option open.

    I often wonder why Greece is hyphenated with western civilisation when it is so eastern. At the airport immigration counter a corpulent official lounges behind another sitting at the desk. The latter is doing the work; the former, having served the nation in his prime,

    is preparing for retirement, which is only ten years or so away. What could be more eastern than this? On a road to the Acropolis, one municipal worker is busy repairing a drainage outlet while three others stand around him, chatting and smoking. This is not injustice. They will work in turns, one at a time. But work together to finish the job in a quarter of the time? No chance.

    What could be more Indian than that?

    No wonder, as I left Athens airport for Delhi, I felt I was leaving home to come home.

    -MJ Akbar

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