Sunday, November 27, 2005

Bihar's Gift

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By M.J.Akbar : Bihar's Gift

Nitish Kumar has not yet won the Bihar election. He has only won an opportunity. We will know whether he has converted that opportunity into a hard political victory by this time next year.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar will be tested on a five-point report card.
** Law and order at the top
** Naxalites
** Economy
** Urban Renewal
** Hindu-Muslim relations

No matter which way the numbers are stacked, there is only one clear winner in the long-drawn Bihar Sudoku: a Sikh gentleman generally resident in Delhi who barely intervened in the turmoil of India’s most turbulent state except to give Lalu Prasad Yadav the chance to convert what was a self-inflicted wound in March into suicide in November. When the Almighty was writing Dr Manmohan Singh’s destiny, He took a lot of care to ensure that every loophole was properly sealed.

Nitish Kumar has not yet won the Bihar election. He has only won an opportunity. We will know whether he has converted that opportunity into a hard political victory by this time next year.

If Nitish Kumar believes that he can do everything, he will achieve nothing. Bihar is not suffering just from the sins of Lalu; Lalu was only the most cynical of a long line of chief ministers who compounded a disease that began in the Sixties. It might shock readers to know that Bihar was consistently ranked among the best-administered states in the Fifties; but there is no point discussing how prosperous Bihar was when Chandragupta Maurya was in power.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar will be tested on a five-point report card. I was going to put "law and order" at the top but felt, on consideration, that it might be too ambitious. If the new chief minister can ensure order, even if he cannot implement the full majesty of the law, he can claim distinction. There has to be a curb on the dacoits and gunmen who form a parallel, and more effective, administration. He should import high-profile consultants who can draw up, and perhaps oversee, a comprehensive plan that addresses the menace district-wise. On a practical, and politically incorrect level, a few trigger-happy policemen might be needed.

Priority number two will be Naxalites. Bihar shares a long border with Nepal that is porous for criminals, smugglers and those who dress up violence in ideological clothes. The sharp escalation of Naxalite violence across the country is also an indictment of the Union home ministry. As far as this terrible problem is concerned, Delhi’s response is to jerk a knee before the cameras whenever a story bursts on the front pages, and retire hurt when the news disappears from public view. Clearly, unlike straight crime, there is a social dimension to this problem, which has to be addressed politically. Nitish Kumar must involve the Leftist parties in a bipartisan effort that must be transparent and sincere. The chief minister will probably run dry of his resources of sincerity after a year’s pressures and strains, so it is best that he start doing something right away.

Third: the economy. Nitish Kumar should stop trying to think of the answers, because there is no answer that will take less than fifteen years to implement. He will have long passed his sell-by date by then. But there is something that can be done, which is a deft combination of the cosmetic and practical. Bihar is littered with tombstones of projects aborted. For decades, its leaders have laid the foundation of grand schemes that never saw as much as a wall being built, let alone a chimney constructed. The chief minister could go back to what had been sanctioned (this will save a lot of time), get a fast-track reassessment done, offer the best terms to industrialists of repute, and bring at least a few tombstones to life.

Fourth: urban renewal. If someone were to control the mosquitoes of Patna, he would be renamed Chandragupta. Disease is another name for neglect and filth. So far, the city’s services ensure little more than comfort for the residential area of the political class, up to a point. There should be a ministry for infrastructure in the Bihar Cabinet, with a politician of some ability heading it, and a strong bureaucrat in charge. To treat a road as a joke, as Lalu did, is to sign the death warrant of the economy.

Finally, the government will be severely tested on Hindu-Muslim relations. So many of Lalu Yadav’s crimes were forgiven because he was absolutely flawless in ensuring peace between communities so easily provoked into violence. His government imploded because even Yadavs and Muslims deserted him in large numbers. Nitish Kumar found a brilliant political answer by creating his core vote around backward castes other than Yadavs, but there had to be a spillover from the Lalu vote to ensure such a comprehensive victory. Lalu was complacent because he was convinced that no one would get a majority, and no one was better than him in cobbling a coalition. Complacency is the blood brother of power.

Nitish Kumar’s problem is accentuated by the fact that the BJP is his ally, and too many of its leaders find Muslim-baiting irresistible. But the challenge is greater than being the good cop of the alliance. Nitish Kumar has to use power to create a vote base as solid as Lalu’s. Only then can he hope to change political equations. If he grows, he will be a potential leader of a Third Front. The "if" should be written in capital letters. A key to his future will be the level of trust he can create among Muslims. I suspect that he will at some point announce a job reservation for backward caste Muslims (akin, in some ways, to the 4% Karnataka model rather than the hurried, ill-thought Andhra scheme that was punctured by the courts). This will create friction with the BJP, which will do him no harm either.

If victors are hard to identify, losers are not. Victors demand applause; losers invite sympathy.

The biggest loser in Bihar was Shatrughan Sinha, because he decided to lose when his side was winning. All wars have collateral damage, the serious-sounding term for being shot dead by your own side. Shatrughan Sinha, erstwhile filmstar and BJP-minister pulled off something spectacular: he shot himself dead. No wonder his nickname was Shotgun Sinha. I hope this gives pause to the myth that filmstars enable you to win elections. This proposition was always demeaning to the Indian voter. To collect a crowd is not synonymous with collecting votes. Former filmstars make a difference when they become politicians, in the extraordinary manner that N.T. Rama Rao did, or Jayalalithaa has done.

Lalu Yadav may have suffered a setback, but he is still in play. His fate will be determined by the quality of Nitish Kumar’s performance as chief minister.

And thus to the question that I hope has been nagging you: how has Dr Manmohan Singh become the winner of the Bihar election? In just about every which way.

Defeat in Patna has made Lalu Yadav impotent in Delhi. After the first Bihar elections, Lalu was powerful enough to demand and obtain a disgraceful recommendation to the President dissolving the Bihar Assembly without due consideration. If he had won, he would probably be discussing a better portfolio for himself at the Centre — for starters. Now, the Prime Minister can take Lalu’s support for granted. An occasional smile will be sufficient to keep him happy.

A simple fact will explain more. Dr Manmohan Singh has never been in danger of being destabilised by the BJP-led Opposition. Why would any party of the ruling alliance exchange the comfort of power for the uncertainty of an election? The only party that might conceivably have an interest in another election is one that hopes to do much better. For the past year, voices have been gathering strength in the Congress that, with the BJP in disarray, a midterm election could win the party up to 200 seats. The additional seats would come from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra (where the Shiv Sena is fading into inconsequence). It is axiomatic that another election would mean the end of Dr Singh’s tenure in office, irrespective of how the Congress fared.

The defeat in Bihar has ended all talk of a midterm poll. Unless some seismic event takes place that no one can foresee, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh is safe for the rest of its tenure. The accidental Prime Minister has become a politician of substance.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Vice President of Torture

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by : By M.J.Akbar

Media disseminates information, triggers reaction, further shapes response, and creates new facts. Media thereby becomes the vehicle of change and the procreator of history. Truth was never a simple fact, but it could be hidden in an establishment cupboard till the time of accountability, at least in this world, had passed. Now, truth can evolve almost on a daily basis, once it is out; the genes of this evolution lie in media.

Media used to be merely the message. But that was once upon a time, when a Canadian professor of literature, Marshall McLuhan, coined the phrase, and a laconic British poet, Philip Larkin, announced the birth of sex in 1963. We have moved on from the Sixties. A new dictum rules. History is media.

I do not offer that proposition to suggest that modern media compiles the data that will comprise the history waiting to be written. That is too passive a role, and if only this were true it would not be worth writing about. Modern media is not just an accumulation of dormant technology, a data bank called Google — the latest avatar of HAL, Stanley Kubrick’s memorably sinister computer in Space Odyssey. Media is now an active ingredient and vital instigator of events. Information is the new mother of invention.

Media disseminates information, triggers reaction, further shapes response, and creates new facts. Media thereby becomes the vehicle of change and the procreator of history. Truth was never a simple fact, but it could be hidden in an establishment cupboard till the time of accountability, at least in this world, had passed. Now, truth can evolve almost on a daily basis, once it is out; the genes of this evolution lie in media.

Dictators, and manipulative democrats, would prefer it the other way around. They would like media to become history. They want media to return, at best, to the fundamentally obedient, if not corrupt, state in which it existed during socially progressive but nevertheless brutal regimes like those of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong; and nihilistic, suppressive and genocidal regimes like the one of Adolf Hitler. Media did exist in Soviet Union, China and Germany but it was blind to mass murder of peasants, mass starvation of citizens and mass extermination by Nazis.

Even the most repressive governments today cannot quite hope to survive behind an unliftable curtain of ignorance. It is not almost impossible for brutality to remain an archival fact, to be discovered only after their perpetrators have enjoyed a lifetime of power. Today accountability is increasingly around the corner.

The governments of superpowers publicly worry about Weapons of Mass Destruction: WMD, or nuclear weapons, in Iraq yesterday and Iran today. I suspect that privately they are far more worried about the real modern WMD, media. The exhilarating part is that media destroys what needs to be destroyed, the lie, the evasion — not wholly, nor in full measure, but substantially. (Those who hear an echo of Jawaharlal Nehru, albeit in another context, have their ears tuned correctly.)

Nuclear weapons are a Weapon of Mass Perception (WMP) rather than a WMD. They are victims of the ultimate paradox: nuclear weapons are too destructive to be destructive. Generals who want to bomb the enemy back into the Stone Age are going to achieve precisely what they want, except that the stones will be found back home as well when the nuclear cloud clears. And since you won’t get hamburgers or SUVs in the Stone Age, that option is unrealistic for even a hyperpower like George Bush’s America. (Important: we must always make a distinction between America and Bush’s America.)

The only time America used nuclear bombs was in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That was enough. Even when America is at its most desperate, as in Vietnam or in Iraq, it might resort to chemical killers but has not found the will to use nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union was a mighty nuclear power, but that arsenal was impotent when the Soviet state imploded. Israel has at least a hundred nuclear bombs. Not one of them is useful against a Palestinian struggling for self-respect and freedom.

Nuclear weapons are useful only as a strategic reality, not as a tactical option. They did enormous service to the world during the long decades of the Cold War, when they successfully prevented that war from boiling over into bloody combat, as could have happened over Hungary in 1956, Berlin in 1962 and even Czechoslovakia in 1968. Today, they are extremely useful in preventing a fourth full-scale war between India and Pakistan. Thank you, Dr Einstein, Dr Raja Ramanna, President Kalam, Dr A.Q. Khan and all your mentors.

How do we know that America has used chemical weapons in Iraq, during the Fallujah operations? Well, I can safely report that Donald Rumsfeld did not hold a series of press conferences on the subject, and the Pentagon did not issue a news bulletin. Italian television found out before it was confirmed, lips very tight and eyes wide shut, by the Pentagon. Nor did the Pentagon call editors over for an illuminating chat on Abu Ghraib. It was only the severest pressure that forced it to convict a couple of underlings on its payroll as token punishment for images that shocked the world and stirred more than one heart to who knows what depths of anger.

It might, in passing, interest you to know that since Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon has sacked one general for adultery, but found absolutely no evidence of any culpability against any senior officer for the scandal at Abu Ghraib. But of course, in Bush’s immortal words, America doesn’t do torture. I often wonder what Bush would have tried to get away with if media did not exist, or if all the world’s media were controlled by Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox TV in the United States and choice properties elsewhere. Bush seems oblivious of Abu Ghraib. Or that John McCain, a Republican ally who helped him remain in the White House, is author of legislation that would ban torture by the American administration and is being opposed by Dick Cheney. This is what, according to AFP, Admiral Stansfield Turner, has to say: "We have crossed the line into dangerous territory. I am embarrassed that the US has a Vice President for torture. I think it is just reprehensible. He (Cheney) advocates torture, what else is it? I just don’t understand how a man in that position can take such a stance."

Stansfield Turner is not a Sunni-Wahabi-Baathist-mullah from Baghdad. He is a former chief of CIA. He also reaffirms my early comment that we should not confuse the Bush Brigade with America.

It is not just America that is affected by the syndrome. Cross over to the other side of the world. Thailand is mired in a virtual insurgency in its Muslim-majority provinces; more than a thousand people have died since January 2004. If there was one moment that turned disaffection into active war, a "nerve moment", then it was surely the incident during Ramzan when a Thai general packed Muslim suspects into a "black hole" in which about 80 suffocated to death. When questioned, he dismissed this as a consequence of weakness due to fasting. Thaksin Shinawatra was Prime Minister and did nothing. He later won a landslide victory by gently fanning prejudice against Muslims. How do we know about this "nerve-moment"? Because of media. Otherwise it would have remained a shadowy rumour, regularly dismissed as "preposterous" in gentle Thailand.

Predictably, France has given a whole new meaning to our subject. We have heard of the Internet revolution. Silicon Valley and Bangalore must find a new term for what they do after the French Revolution of Autumn 2005 in which minorities, primarily but not uniformly Muslim, rose against the quasi-racism of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s long-tongue interior minister. This was a revolt planned and implemented on the Internet. They’ve finally stopped counting, after 9,071 vehicles were torched and 126 police officers injured.

Modern media’s greatest service to contemporary civilisation is that it has made injustice that much more difficult to hide. Obviously I wish I could say that all media lived by this creed. I cannot. Most media is still conformist and obedient. Almost every government in the world has its own channel (Bush has Fox). State-owned channels, almost without exception, are propaganda platforms for their governments. But this does not matter. All you need is one television station or newspaper to report the truth. Once facts emerge they develop a life and power of their own and create new facts. Reaction overpowers action.

As the President and Vice President of Torture are beginning to discover.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Will Natvar Singh Sing?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Will Natvar Sing?

Natwar Singh has exhausted his capacity to hurt himself. But he has not exhausted his capacity to hurt the Congress. The story of the ex-foreign minister of India confirms an old view of mine. While there is always the danger of character assassination in public life, the far bigger danger for politicians is character suicide.

Now that Mr Natwar Singh has more time on his hands, if not more peace in his mind, he is probably allotting blame for his misfortunes. Paul Volcker is surely on top of his list. But, in all honesty, he needs to divide the blame between Volcker and hubris. The details in the UN report were half the problem. The other half was television: or, to be more specific, the frequent appearances of Singh and Son on the box. Volcker condemned Natwar Singh in his report. Natwar Singh ended up condemning himself on television.

The minister is an extremely well-read man. He might have paused to check Shakespeare. "He doth protest too much." As for Jagat Singh: his innate aggression might be tolerated in a decadent feudal environment, but it does not travel very far in civilised society. If the not-so-young man thought he could huff and puff his way out of trouble, he has not grown up.

One wonders if either Mr Natwar Singh or the Congress took any advice on how to handle a problem that quickly pole-vaulted into a crisis. Friends comment, or suggest; that is perfectly normal and understandable. The initial reaction seemed based on the view that this was a silly season story, the sort of news that fills a gap when nothing much is happening. Hence the slightly thoughtless initial reactions, both by the Congress and the minister. "The Congress will send a legal notice to the UN." In other words the Congress was sending a legal notice to India, since India is a member. "Who is Paul Volcker? He doesn’t even know that I am the foreign minister of India!" It was silly to doubt Volcker’s credentials, and a phone to any sensible man in America might have prevented such a mistake.

But hubris tends to have an escalating impact on poor judgment. By the time Mr Singh was asserting, vibrantly, that "I, as foreign minister of India" could dictate national policy it was apparent that he was out of sync with the culture of democratic governance. After that his departure was no longer a question of whether but of when.

Mercifully (for the victim), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought one stream of the running story to a halt when he decided that Mr Natwar Singh could no longer be a tenable custodian of the nation’s foreign policy. The Prime Minister’s initial defence of his colleague is not to be faulted. He cannot jettison a senior minister in the first onslaught even though he was aware of Volcker’s reputation, as well as the integrity of the committee that had done the damage. But the final compromise, in which Mr Natwar Singh has become a minister without portfolio, achieves nothing. Natwar Singh is no Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose advice was needed even after he resigned his portfolio. Nor did the former resign; he was ordered to walk the plank (in his own interest, since the plank was fitted out with a temporary safety net).

The compromise has fuelled suspicion that Mr Natwar Singh knows something that we do not, at least not yet; and that something could hurt others in the Congress. This may not be true, but the Indian voter is a suspicious sort of chap. The chances of anything remaining secret are remote. By the time the various wringers have done their work, at least half a dozen enquiries would have sifted through the oily affairs of an elitist friends’ circle who thought that the world was their oyster and their dads were little pearls. There is the Volcker report, already with us, documents awaited.

The Enforcement Directorate has begun its interrogations and alerted airports that the directors of Hamdan, Andaleeb Sehgal and Vikas Dhar, should not be permitted to leave the country for the moment. The tax authorities will doubtless want their turn. Mr Virendra Dayal has been put on a parallel track, to report on UN processes and reports. Justice R.S. Pathak, with the powers of a civil court, will enquire into the Volcker conclusions. And then of course is the continual enquiry report being done by the media. Ironically, Mr Natwar Singh and his son might find that, of all these options, Volcker might have been the most gentle.

The media has, so far, the softest job. Volcker has done most of its work; all it needs is a bit of follow-up. This is bad news for the Singhs, since with each layer and each lead their protestations look that much more hollow. It is apparent now that Paul Volcker’s basic information came from documents seized from government records after Saddam Hussein’s defeat. He then cross-checked the names with bank transactions. There were no allegations against those who did not figure in bank records: witness Bheem Singh, a Jammu and Kashmir panther. I can hardly comment on the merits of each individual allegation, but the case against Sehgal looks strong. Sehgal was in the picture only because of his connections with the Singhs, and, as confirmed by a former Congress minister, P. Shiv Shankar, a member of the Congress delegation to Iraq, was in the group only in his capacity as their friend. It would be very unusual if two plus two did not make four. It is safe to assume that Andaleeb Sehgal did not go to Baghdad under the false assumption that it was Paris in summertime.

The life of a government is best measured in events, not months and years. By that yardstick, the Manmohan Singh government has reached its midway mark. The early hiccups, like the shindig over tainted ministers, did not affect its stride; in fact, it was the BJP that was sounding strident. But 2005 has been a year in which the government has aged faster than it expected. The budget was more hype than hope; economic reforms were trapped in the contradictions of the ruling alliance. There were political mistakes, the most unforgivable being the mismanagement of Bihar after Lalu Yadav failed to get a majority in the first Assembly elections of the year. The consequences of that mistake will be evident in the November polls. Now we have a very old-fashioned scandal, as grubby as they come. Since the foreign minister was involved, it was entirely appropriate that it had an international flavour. But the most significant fact of this scandal, as far as the Manmohan Singh establishment is concerned, is that it is a Congress scandal.

The lead singer pulls in the bigger bucks in any performance, but he also pays a higher price when things go wrong. In fact, if the lead cracks up, the show disappears. If a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha slips in the ruling coalition, it barely raises a yawn. If Lalu Yadav stumbles, despite his 25 MPs, it is probably good news for the rest, since his ability to blackmail the coalition is dented. But if the political and ethical credibility of the Congress goes, then the edifice crumbles. The coalition can still brazen it out in arithmetical terms, but it will not be able to function as a government. It will also whittle Dr Manmohan Singh’s personal credibility. Take that away, and there isn’t much left.

During his more intemperate spells, just before he lost his job, Mr Natwar Singh often asserted that he was indistinguishable from the Congress. That is precisely the sort of thing that a Congress Prime Minister or a Congress president might not want to hear. The last thing the Congress wants is to have beloved sons like Jagat Singh, who have dear friends like Andaleeb Sehgal and pathfinders to Baghdad like Aneil Mathrani. A Congressman might have such afflictions, but the party would like to consider itself a little bigger than an individual.

Alas, the paradox. The only time an accused is readily believed is when he spreads the accusation. Mr Natwar Singh’s power lies in ambiguity. As long as there is no clarity, and the whisky trail, or the oil-cash trail, does not lead to specific hands and homes beyond doubt, he and the Congress are safe. But there are too many documents leading to too many established companies; will everyone keep quiet? If Natwar believes that he is being made a scapegoat, will he sing?

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Pure Evil

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Pure Evil

The Indian voter’s faith in its politicians has collapsed. Its faith in many institutions is dangerously low. But this is more than offset by the Indian’s faith in the country’s economy and the nation’s polity. The view is gaining ground that the politician cannot do much to harm the economy, and the polity is stronger than the politician. This is what makes India much stronger than the sum of its parts and gives it the ability to absorb wounds in order to protect the whole. It will take much more than a few bombs in Delhi to hurt India.

There has to be a reason, even for pure evil; otherwise it is lunacy. We must never confuse evil with lunacy. To say that Hitler was mad is, in a sense, to absolve him because you eliminate his responsibility for his crimes.

Lunacy may extract a grievous price on occasion, but it is an accident — an accident of the brain that destroys the capability of judgment, moral and amoral, whether it is a matter of sifting right from wrong or separating fact from fiction. Evil is a deliberate, often carefully calibrated choice. We must understand lunacy in order to isolate it, and we must understand evil in order to punish it. We have to live with the depressing fact that neither can be eliminated.

Evil can take both a collective as well as an individual form. There are times when substantial majorities of a population become collectively evil, and remain so for hundreds of years if not thousands. There was the spasm of Nazism in Germany, a virulent strain of evil that is unparalleled in human history. Other forms were less destructive perhaps, but hardly less corrosive or forgivable. Racism, for instance.

Americans are mourning the death, and celebrating the life, of Rosa Parks, who became the pivot of a turning point in American history when she refused to give up her seat in a bus to a White man in a small town. The pastor of a Black church in that town was drafted to head the non-violent resistance movement when she was arrested. His name was Martin Luther King, and he led Black Americans to emancipation after hundreds of years of the most inhuman slavery.

Apartheid in South Africa took even longer to destroy. Lest we Indians begin to feel smug, the fate of Untouchables in our country was worse than the lot of slaves in America or Blacks in South Africa. Dalits had to carry a pitcher around their neck so that their spit would not pollute the ground. When you think about some of these facts, all you can do is shudder, for our forefathers who practised such evil, or condoned it, considered themselves civilised. By the 1960s and 1970s the world changed sufficiently to outlaw such practices, not just in word but also in practice.

Terrorism, the contemporary evil, is not collective; it is the work of individuals or very small groups operating through cells. Terrorists are faceless because they are ready for personal obliteration — hence the faint paradox of an identitikit hunt. The normalcy of the men who planted bombs in crowded marketplaces is their weapon, making them all the more sinister.

What were the reasons behind the barbaric, senseless terrorist bombs on the eve of Diwali in Delhi? The checklist is obvious, if often unstated in respectable media for reasons of delicacy.

At the top of the list is surely the bleeding wound of the subcontinent, the problems of Kashmir. Was this an act of revenge? But if it was revenge then it should have been targeted against a symbol of government, not against a marketplace. The purpose seems more mischievous.

Was it an attempt to provoke communal violence between Hindus and Muslims? The moment for this barbarism was the eve of Diwali, the happiest day on the calendar of Hindu festivals. To spread carnage on such an occasion is to incite the mildest of human beings to rage. It is evidence of the growing maturity of inter-community relations in India that there was no such reaction. This is not the first time that such embers have been fanned in the hope of a larger conflagration. But apart from the unforgivable post-assassination riots of 1984, the fallout of the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 and the more recent, gruesome Gujarat riots under the watch of chief minister Narendra Modi, the people of India have met such challenges with commendable calm.

Did the anonymous killers hope to derail the peace process between India and Pakistan, in the manner that the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13 froze relations and drove the subcontinent to the edge of war? If so, once again the result was failure. The first assessment in Delhi in such situations is to measure the role, if any, of either the whole or a part of the Pak establishment in such wanton terror.

Since nothing has been established, nothing can be ruled out, or ruled in. But at least as far as the principal voice of Pakistan’s establishment was concerned, the message to Delhi was reassuring. President Pervez Musharraf seemed sincere in his private conversation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and, more important, his public pronouncements. He offered "unequivocal" support to India in any investigation and added "Pakistan stands with India on this act of terrorism". We will wait to find out whether this offer of support means anything or not, but it is reasonable to assume that Dr Singh was comforted by what he heard, or there would have been public ramifications. Privately, India and Pakistan believe that terrorists, who feel increasingly abandoned as peace initiatives strengthen, will express their desperation through mindless, destructive terrorism. Their targets will be both innocents and VIPs.

It is now two decades since the Russians were defeated in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan needed another war before America could get the government it wanted in Kabul. One of the motivations of those foot soldiers of the Afghanistan jihad who turned their attention towards India was that a "soft" nation like India would be a pushover for the conquerors of the Soviet Union. It is easy to underestimate the strength of a democracy, particularly when it looks tattered at the top. But a democracy builds very strong underground roots, because it is always nourished by the will of the people.

People have direct ownership of the state; the vote makes them shareholders in the power process; they elect and destroy the executive. Patriotism is common to all nations; democracy strengthens the stake in a nation’s present and future. The strength of India is much more than the strength of its armies, for it derives from the strength of its people. Since the vote is equal, all communities, with time, discover that their stake matters, and that their will can change the nature of governments.

Military strategists have looked wistfully at the geography of India, and the strategic depth that this provides. Basically this means that India’s defence forces have space to manoeuvre, to take a second stand in the event of any setback. But that is an advantage only in a conventional war. The real war today is unconventional, for the nameless, faceless terrorist can strike anywhere and melt into anonymity.

A nation needs a different kind of strategic depth to fight this war successfully. It requires depth of character, and an extraordinary resilience to sustain perspective and balance. Delhi did not grieve any less on the day after the pre-Diwali havoc, but the manner in which the city recovered could not have escaped the attention of those trying to destroy its peace. Only the very cynical, or the very prejudiced, would consider this a sign of indifference. The simple message from the city was that it would not be defeated.

The Indian voter’s faith in its politicians has collapsed. Its faith in many institutions is dangerously low. But this is more than offset by the Indian’s faith in the country’s economy and the nation’s polity. The view is gaining ground that the politician cannot do much to harm the economy, and the polity is stronger than the politician. This is what makes India much stronger than the sum of its parts and gives it the ability to absorb wounds in order to protect the whole. It will take much more than a few bombs in Delhi to hurt India.

We do not know how long terrorism will enter our homes and our markets and our streets, and we do not know when the last battle will be fought. But we do know that this is not a war with set-piece battles; that this is a process in which victory and defeat will be determined in the mind much more than the street. The mind is controlled by the nerve, and democracy has given India nerves of steel. That admittedly flabby flesh you see on the outside is the weakness of a sweet tooth; the other teeth can bite back.

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