Sunday, December 31, 2006

Yearend Jottings

This column was written before the break for Id and before news of Saddam Hussein’s death by victor’s justice was known. A piece on Saddam Hussein will appear in this space next week.

Some odds and ends from a jumble of books picked up during a year’s rummage of bookshops. Opening thought: can any piece of information be totally useless? The emphatic answer is no.

First dip: 1215, the year of Magna Carta. A thirteenth century British monk, Jocelin of Brakelond, worried about his abbey’s debts, answered, tangentially, a minor query. He recorded: "There is an English tradition by which every year on the day of Our Lord’s Circumcision, 1 January, the abbot, as lord, is presented with gifts by a great many people." The Jewish circumcision is on the seventh day after birth. When and why did the Church stop the Abrahamic practice of circumcision, possibly to create a different identity for the new faith? That answer will come, hopefully, from next year’s reading list.

There isn’t that much difference between Plato’s ideal society and the Hindu caste system. In both, a rigid hierarchy keeps society stable and every man in his place. The four Greek divisions are sage, warrior, trader and menial, a precise mirror of brahman, kshatriya, vaisya and dalit. In Plato, property does not change hands; a class of wealth, rooted in land has been the norm rather than the exception till Marx smashed the class ceiling. The fatal flaw in perfectionist Plato is the ban on anything new, even in poetry and music. Old is romantic; new is growth rate.
Which city was the real capital of the British Raj? There was no confusion in the East India Company days: Calcutta. But once the north came under Sahib sway, the government spent seven months in cool Simla and only five in Calcutta. The choice of Delhi, far closer to Simla, was announced in 1911 during the visit of King George V and Queen Mary; the new capital would be a symbol of imperial power and British superiority, another Constantinople or Rome, designed in the "Grand Manner". A debate arose over whether the look should be "Indo-Saracenic", Mughal, Rajput or Renaissance classic. The much-vaunted Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens dismissed Indian architecture as "cumbersome, poorly coordinated and tiresome"; Hindu architecture was "veneered jointry" and the domes of Delhi’s mosques were mere turnips.
The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, thought such sentiments a bit thick, given that the bill
for British grandeur was paid by India.

Herbert Baker, Lutyens’ less famous colleague, touched up New Delhi’s pillars with lotuses, cobras, elephants, bulls and bells.

A useful thought from Kipling for both my fellow journalists and our honourable readers:

Men who spar with Government need to back their blows

With something more than ordinary journalistic prose.

Durru Shehvar, Princess of Berar, daughter of Abdulmecid, the last Ottoman Caliph, was born in 1912, married to the heir of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1931, and died in February this year in London. Her legal adviser, Walter Monckton, commented, "I learnt from her what any person must learn who has English friends — how unnecessary it is to talk just for the sake of talking, and that there is no unfriendliness and there would be no awkwardness or embarrassment in silence." She called it a Muslim way of life.

A return to that old favourite, Philip Woodruff’s The Guardians, resurrected a few gems:

* "Human nature changes when the Sind border meets Punjab, on a line east of Kandahar."
*After victory in 1857, the British Army decided that all gunners would be British.
* Sir Robert Montgomery, lieutenant governor of Punjab during the uprising, thought John Lawrence, victor of Delhi, was an old woman because Lawrence had not razed the Jama Masjid to the ground.
*Sir Alfred Lyall, one of Montgomery’s successors in Punjab, noted, ruefully, "One thing is sure; the natives all discuss our rule as a transitory state."
*Shiva cannot be defeated because he is god of destruction as well as the phallus.

Charles Goodyear, impoverished and manic, created vulcanised rubber by accident when, after years of experiments, he dropped sulphur on India rubber. So did he become a tycoon overnight? No. His patent was stolen by better, if unscrupulous, businessmen. Goodyear never owned any part of the company that still bears his name. Tycoon, by the way, is an American word of Japanese origin, from taikun, or military chief.

Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the American National Security Council and senior fellow at Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, wrote in the International Herald Tribune on 25 January 2006: "During its five years in office, the (Bush) administration has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory. Three examples stand out." Which are they? After 9/11 Iran offered help against the Taliban, but Bush decided to include Iran in the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in 2002. In the spring of 2003, Tehran sent a proposal through the Swiss for comprehensive negotiations, acknowledging that it would have to discuss its weapons programme and support for anti-Israel groups. The Bush administration snubbed the Swiss diplomats. In October 2003 Iran suspended enrichment of uranium to pursue talks, but Bush refused to join the European initiative for a dialogue. In the same month Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi foreign minister, noted archly that a nuclear strike against Iran would probably kill as many Palestinians as Israelis, and if it missed destroy some Arab nation. Blaming Israel for starting the nuclear race in the region, he suggested a nuclear-free gulf, followed by a nuclear-free region.

Note: by the end of the year Egypt had signed a deal with China for nuclear reactors — for peaceful purposes, of course. Saudi Arabia was also beginning to see the merits of "peaceful" nuclear energy.

Do you agree with this old Arab proverb: In every head there is some wisdom? Prince Charles, patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, quoted the proverb in a lecture on "Islam and the West" at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford on 27 October 1993, a copy of which was given to me thirteen years after the event by Dr Farhan Nizami, who chairs the Centre and is nurturing it into a wonderful institution. The Prince, of course, was being modest, British, self-deprecatory. But is the subject, theme of a million seminars long before 9/11 (Remember 1993? The whole Muslim world had lined up alongside America against Saddam just after it had cooperated with America to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), all that wise? Islam is a faith; the West is geography. How much dexterity do you need to compare apples and oranges?

The Titanic and Olympic were identical sister ships, both higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza. The former began life in 1911, hit an iceberg and became immortal. The Olympic went to sea a year earlier, in 1910, and sailed peacefully till 1937. No one remembers a success story.
King George, I am reliably informed by A.N. Wilson, in After the Victorians, did not bring his real crown when he came to India for the durbar of 1911. He wore a lighter version in Delhi, made by Garrard’s of London at a cost of 60,000 pounds. Guess who picked up the bill. Right. The Indian taxpayer.

Patrick French has an illustrative story about Colonel Francis Younghusband’s Tibetan expedition of 1904 in his latest book. "When the British officers marched to the Tsuglakhang and other places, the inhabitants of Lhasa were displeased. They shouted and chanted to bring down rain, and made clapping noises to repulse them. In the foreigners’ custom these were seen as signs of welcome, so they took off their hats and said thank you."

The World Health Organisation announced an important discovery, after years of research, in December. Circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection by half, so the Prophet Abraham, who started it all, was right. What was the name of the Belgian doctor who gave the world such good news? Dr Kevin De Cock.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A con in congruent

Byline by M J Akbar: A Con in Congruent

America is the oldest, rather than the youngest, country of the modern world. My definition of modern hinges on a great modern concept, democracy.

There were faults in American democracy, but for more than two centuries, America has found the creative link between national independence and individual freedom to create the world’s most successful economic and military power. You cannot enter the modern age simply by building highways as good as America’s. You also need a democracy as good as, or even better than, America’s.

The spine of democracy is the law. Governments come and go, and may the traffic be incessant, but the law is permanent. Governments can legislate, or amend legislation, but once that is done, governments become subservient to the law.

It is curious that one of the most vocal advocates of world democracy, a man ready to spend billions in war ostensibly to create it, should miss such a basic principle. President George Bush sought to allay Indian concerns over the civilian nuclear partnership that he signed into American law, by explaining that a President makes foreign policy, not Congress. For reasons that can only be excused by either ignorance or indifference, large sections of the Indian elite, including, sadly, media, immediately congratulated themselves on yet another "victory". If the American President makes foreign policy, why did Bush need Congress approval of his deal with India? The President is head of the executive, and he certainly has much leeway in his management of government, but he is not above the Congress. If the Congress defines the parameters, then the President can only break them at the risk of impeachment.

The narrative of the Indo-US deal now has been bound with hard covers, and the covers are the Hyde Act. The July 18 agreement of 2005 is a limp document that may or may not be in the appendix. Bush has less than 25 months in office; the text of the Hyde Act, unless amended, will be in force long after Bush and this columnist are in their graves. Bush is an interlocutor; the Hyde Act is the lock that will seal the discourse for a generation if not more.

It is specious to suggest, as some in the Delhi government have done, that the Hyde Act is binding only on the United States. Isn’t that the point? We did not do this deal to supply nuclear fuel to ourselves, did we? We did it to get American fuel and technology, and if the United States cannot give it because we are in violation of some aspect of Hyde’s tough and unambiguous demands, then we are up a creek without a paddle.

What are the main objectives of the Hyde Act? They are written in clean English. One stated objective is non-proliferation. It avers that as long as India is outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which we have not signed, it will remain a challenge to the "goals of non-proliferation". How does the Act propose to achieve this goal? By seeking to "halt the increase in nuclear weapons arsenals in South Asia and to promote their reduction and eventual elimination".

Halt, reduce and eliminate. Remember these three words.

Those who insist that the deal is only about civilian nuclear energy are surely literate, and one presumes that they have imperatives that persuade them to gloss over such phrases. "The costs to the US appear minimal. The price India will have to pay may well be total loss of control over its future policies," M.R. Srinivasan, member of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, told the December 21 issue of Science magazine.

The Hyde legislation calls for Indo-American cooperation between scientists to develop a common non-proliferation programme — for the rest of the world, that is, not for America. America continues to exercise its right to test, and is working to build miniature nuclear weapons whose fallout can be contained, making them usable in conventional war.
It may be of mild interest that if we agree to this deal, we will also be committing ourselves to the elimination of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons along with ours. Perhaps optimists in Delhi believe that after he solves Kashmir, President Pervez Musharraf will discuss a nuclear-free South Asia, but somehow I doubt it.

If the first objective is corrosive, the second is colonial. It wants Indian foreign policy to be "congruent" to America’s, and expects "greater political and material" support in the realisation of American goals. I doubt, if during the talks, any Indian negotiator suggested that America might want to align itself with Indian foreign policy goals. That would be the language of equals, and this is an unequal relationship.

Sometimes the fog of peace is more dense than the fog of war, but there is a route map to guide us through to US strategy. It is a country called "Iran".

"Congruence" is an untidy word with very neat implications. Bilateral agreements rarely, if ever, are third-country specific. Here is what the deal expects India to do vis-à-vis Iran: "full and active cooperation to dissuade, isolate and if necessary sanction and contain Iran".

The text asks India to keep in step with US policy on Iran, and quotes, approvingly, the votes by India against Iran in the IAEA board of governors as evidence of such compliance. Iran is not the only country with which America has a problem about nuclear intentions. Iran does not have a weapon yet, although it is clearly making a serious effort to get one. North Korea has weapons.

There is no specific linkage to North Korea. Why? One possible answer: Washington does not contemplate war with North Korea, but retains the option for an assault on Iran in 2007.
Hyde is the stick to Bush’s carrot. But both are on the same side.

Bush would certainly expect "political and material" support from India if he started military action against Iran. Don’t underestimate the "material" part.

Dedicated astrologers apart, everyone concedes that predictions are a speculative science. There is something about the end of a year, however, that makes such a temptation irresistible. The current language of defeat, or "neither winning nor losing", may have lulled us into the belief that Washington’s military options are off the table. The Iraq Study Group, headed by as patrician a Republican as James Baker, a virtual uncle to George, has suggested that Washington starts talks with Damascus and Tehran, not war.

But there is a minority — and, I stress, speculative view — that a last-ditch desire to salvage a miracle out of the mess, might tempt Bush, Tony Blair and Ehud Olmert into gambler’s corner. All three have tasted unexpected and even humiliating defeat this year, and have one chance before the triumvirate disintegrates with Blair’s departure in early summer. Their fortunes might suddenly transcend if they were able to announce, at the end of a series of lightning strikes, that they had eliminated Iran’s nuclear facilities.

There is also a technical reason, which all but a few experts have missed. The destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities would become too dangerous, apparently, after November, because the fallout would then reach Chernobyl levels.

I spoke to Dr Steven Wright, who presented a paper on this subject at a security conference in Geneva in the first week of December: "Yes, there is indeed a technical issue at play which no one I have come across has picked up on. In essence, it is the loading of the Russian manufactured and supplied uranium fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor. Air strikes cannot be carried out after they have been loaded into the reactor due to the fallout being akin to Chernobyl. Therefore, they need to be carried out before that time, if at all. The Bushehr reactor, despite being a light water reactor, still has a proliferation risk as the uranium rods can be removed a mere four months after loading and a crude plutonium weapon can be fashioned from it. There is a common myth that light water reactors are proliferation proof. If the objective is to prevent Iran from developing such a weapon, action would need to be carried out before this stage is reached."

There are many reasons why war should not happen. Bush, Blair and Olmert may want one, but their publics are disenchanted, and their legislatures more circumspect. The Pentagon is stretched taut, as are the British armed forces. The impact on oil prices, and the region, would be catastrophic. But dreams of glory have this awkward ability to overwhelm common sense. It has happened before, in Iraq. India was not tested three years ago because Bush declared a premature victory. If there is another American "shock and awe" invasion, we will find out whether India is still independent or has become congruent.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A job to do

Byline by M J Akbar: A job to do

Hoax is one of the more cruel four-letter words in the English language. What happens when you double it? You get government — and Parliament — policy towards Indian Muslims.

On Thursday the Lok Sabha approved a bill providing a 27% reservation for "Other Backward Classes" in Central educational institutions by a voice vote, which means that there was such unanimity that there was no need for a vote. These benefits have no economic conditionality: the rich among these castes will be the ones who will of course benefit far more than the poor.

The government, and Parliament, did not need a special commission, and a report with 404 pages of statistics, charts and comments, to tell them to do this. They just went ahead and did it.
Other Indian communities get jobs on command. Indian Muslims get commissions. The Rajinder Sachar Committee, appointed soon after Dr Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, is the latest one.

The communities who benefit from job and educational reservations are better off than Muslims, financially, socially and psychologically. There are no riots against Other Backward Classes, for instance, that are aimed at terrorising the community and destroying entrepreneurs who may have set up a means of survival.

The Sachar Committee has done a good job of exposing implicit and explicit discrimination. But this has been said by other commissions before. My question is to others: does the political class really need another commission to tell them the facts? Don’t ministers and MPs see the truth on a million faces when they go to beg and plead for Muslim votes?

Muslims have a special claim on the government led by Dr Manmohan Singh. Whatever the statistics might say, and I don’t think they will say anything particularly different, Muslims believe that it was their focused energy, and their anger against the Gujarat riots that helped create a decisive swing of thirty to forty seats and brought the present dispensation into power. Their expectations from Dr Manmohan Singh are therefore higher. So far all they have got from this government is the usual dollop of rhetoric, and there isn’t much time left. There is a suspicion that after the Uttar Pradesh elections, even this rhetoric might die its usual death. The tensions within the Congress when Dr Singh suggested that Muslims needed the first right on resources were visible to everyone. The Prime Minister was forced into a fudge, tempting one wag to suggest that he lost the Hindu vote on the first day and the Muslim vote on the second.

The Prime Minister has a problem with the history of paper-secularism in his own party: the Congress takes Muslims for granted. Since Muslims will vote against the principal anti-Congress party, the BJP, in any case, what option do they have at the ballot box? So all you need is to sprinkle some sincere-sounding phrases in their way, and string together pious intentions in a garland of fifteen points. There will always be a convenient excuse to postpone anything specific and substantive.

A fiction, that Muslims are also beneficiaries of the reservations regime, is the veil that protects the face of paper-secularism. Articles 340, 341 and 342 of the Constitution deal with "backward classes", Scheduled Castes and Tribes. According to the Constitutional (Scheduled Caste) Order of 1950, a convert to Islam or Christianity from the Scheduled Castes, the poorest of the poor, cannot claim any of the privileges of reservation. In 1956, this was amended to include Scheduled Caste converts to Sikhism within reservation quotas, and in 1990 this facility was extended to Buddhists. No one has explained why Muslims and Christians are still excluded, and of course no one talks about it either. Silence is so helpful when there is a conspiracy of injustice.

Muslim converts from the better-off "OBCs" are, in principle, entitled to reservation benefits. But no one ever mentions how many Muslims have actually got jobs against these reservations, because facts will reveal another hoax. The answer is: minimal. Take state government jobs. The facts are shocking. West Bengal, by any measure a state with a progressive government, has a Muslim population of 25.2%, next only to Assam, with 30.9%. But only 2.1% of state government employees are Muslims. Delhi, which has secular governments on both tiers, regional and national, has 3.2% Muslims in government jobs despite an 11.7% Muslim population. Kerala has the best numbers: 10.4% jobs for 24.7% of the population, but only because the provincial Muslim League has made effective use of its partnership in power. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have 18.5% and 16.5% Muslims, but only 5.1% and 7.6% Muslims in state jobs.

There is as much economic inequality among Muslims as in any other Indian community, but Islam has no place for caste. There is no one who is backward or forward in a mosque; everyone is equal. Past caste distinctions therefore have got blurred. Moreover, many of the traditional crafts that defined the "backward" status, as for instance the jobs of weavers or julahas, have been made obsolete by the progress of modern technology. These people have moved to urban areas and are labourers in a non-traditional environment. Third, Muslims do not retain caste appellations like "Yadav", which they may have had before conversion, and so proof of their "caste status" is difficult if not impossible to find. Only Kerala has done something to ameliorate the problem by setting aside a guaranteed 10% to 12% quota for Muslims within the OBC category. The other states make no such provision.

Hence, as the Sachar Committee reports, "Muslim OBCs are significantly poorer than Hindu OBCs" and "land holdings of Muslim OBCs is almost one-third of that of Hindu OBCs".
The most revealing statistics are written on the faces of impoverished Muslims eking out a marginal existence in the bylanes of Kolkata, the slums of Mumbai, the illegal sprawls of Delhi and thousands of villages of Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.

Will reserving seats for Muslims as a category help? The instant answer is yes: if this is the way the political game is being played, then why should Muslims and Christians be excluded from the game? Almost everyone else has been allotted a piece of the cake, so why not them? Are they paying the price for being "foreign faiths", that is, religions that originated outside the Indian subcontinent? If that is the truth, then the establishment should change the truth before the people change the establishment. If that is not the truth, then someone should let us know what the truth is.

The reality is that there isn’t much of a cake left. The major growth of jobs is now in the private sector, not the public sector, which is excellent news for the country. To seek reservations in the private sector, as some backward militants insist on doing, would become a negative burden on growth. In a democracy, economics must occasionally pay a price to politics, but that would be a price too high. There have to be other means through which we can straighten the imbalance of decades.

Economic empowerment through credit to entrepreneurs is definitely more effective than a squabble over clerical jobs. Urban Indian Muslims have organised their economy into small businesses; this is one of the fortunate unintended byproducts of job discrimination. But the key to the future lies in education, and, more specifically, English education. Urdu is a beautiful language, but it is not a language in which jobs can be found anymore. Instead of creating Urdu universities from the budget allotted to Muslims, we need institutions that can make the young professionals in contemporary sciences like management, IT and media.

Where four-letter words are concerned, jobs is such an improvement on hoax.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bullet Bulletin

Byline by M J Akbar: Bullet Bulletin

Geneva: The last time Switzerland went to war was over five centuries ago. We are at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, in the sunlight of the Alps, to discuss what is politely called the "security" environment of South Asia. What they mean of course is insecurity, and South Asia extends up to the arc of Central Asia: the epicentres of the latest conflict are Afghanistan and Iraq with their echoes to the east and west. Geneva is arguably the world capital of peace, a safe haven for the United Nations and NGOs. Peace is a militant ideology of Switzerland, a far stronger virtue than morality for a country that has side-stepped the rough winds of high militarism, rampant imperialism and barbaric Nazism to place itself on the lofty peak of neutrality. When such a nation feels the surge of war at its doorstep, then the shadows have stretched far beyond the epicentre.

The sequence is lethal, the consequence bitter. War kills, maims and, perhaps worst of all, dehumanises, since it treats death, rather than life, as normal. It is a myth that the world has been at peace since the Second World War. War merely shifted its theatre of operations to Asia, Africa and Latin America. What is the corpse count of the last 60 years? No one knows, except that we are still counting in the bloodstained crevices of Rwandan memory, or the daily bulletins of Iraq. I have not checked the dictionary, but it seems logical that bulletin should be a philological cousin of bullet. How many have died in Iraq already? Half a million? Less? This much is certain: each dead man, woman and child, whether Arab, American or British, has relatives and friends who will live the pain and alchemise their anger into some stream of political lava. This lava has already scalded the principal architects of this war, George Bush and Tony Blair. Both have aged twenty years in five. Both have been defeated by Iraq, although their nations fight on. Both are in the process of handing over leadership of this conflict to a successor. Blair will go in a few months. Bush will struggle through a blinding mist for a little longer, having, in the words of Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the American Iraq Study Group, depleted America’s blood and treasure. And moral authority.

Sequence dominates the headlines, consequence rarely gets honoured by similar attention, since it kills deviously, in silence, with a slow poison that courses through the sinews of society. One of the most startling statistics I heard is that there are now five million heroin addicts in Pakistan. That means, roughly, that one out of 30 Pakistanis is an addict. Heroin is a war crop of Afghanistan, a by-product of a quarter century of invasion, turbulence, civil war and occupation. The Taliban have much to answer for, but in one respect they were right: they burnt out poppy cultivation. Before they were defeated Afghanistan’s share of the world’s drug supply was down to seven per cent. This year, Afghanistan will supply 90 per cent of the world’s street drugs, and production is at such a record all-time high that prices of heroin are going to fall in the dark alleys of America, Europe and Australia.

What is the cash flow of the Afghan drugs trade? Not billions, but trillions of dollars.

Who gets rich from this business? Not the Afghan farmer, who gets a pittance. The value addition from field to Amsterdam street is 500 times.

How does Afghan poppy reach every corner of the civilised world? On Aladdin’s flying carpet? In the secret pouches of medieval "Islamic fundamentalists" in the pay of some dreaded "Caliph"? The business and cash flows are run by men who drink gin and tonic, or bourbon and rye, or champers in their yachts before they write a cheque to political lobbies of their choice in flourishing democracies. This is the largest cash-flow of any business with effective supply lines, protection, managers, wholesalers, dealers, criminals and profiteers on various rungs of the ladder before it reaches the victim. Such a volume of trade cannot be hidden. It travels through land and sea, on trucks and ships. Can you name a single instance in which a supply operation has been busted by Nato, which has 37,000 troops in Afghanistan? When asked, Nato’s commanders blandly reply that destroying the drug trade is not part of their mission. Thus is the corrosive price of war paid, from the blood that flows on the battlefield to the heroin that courses through young veins.

Peace is impossible without security, which of course is the problem. Security has many dimensions: intellectual, historical, perceptual, basic, empirical, and even acquisitive. "Energy security" has brought armies to endless swathes of sand for a century, as hungry nations want to control the source of this resource. Michael Friend, an American expert, points out that India was the focal point of the Great Game played out between the superpowers of the 19th century, Britain and Russia. In the 20th, India was replaced by oil. Oil has no ideology: the Bush administration had no qualms about negotiating an oil pipeline with the Taliban before 9/11. "Islamic fundamentalism", a term which contains more inaccuracies within two words than might be found in a book, was never a problem. Energy is as much the concern of tomorrow’s economic powers: India imports 70 per cent of its energy needs, and the figure will rise to 85 per cent in 20 years. China’s foreign policy is crafted quite substantially by its energy needs. Boundaries are a more obvious definition of security, or its opposite: they remain the most turbulent lines of history. Only those regions who have made boundaries virtual have found peace. India and China found a formula, under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping, when they stored all claims in the locker rooms of the foreign office and committed their nations to peace and stability on the border. The claims did not disappear. They merely disappeared from view. That was the basis of the trade we see today. There was one kind of security that never appeared on any horizon: poverty security. How safe are resurrecting nations like India and China from the anger of their own poor? China recorded 86,000 "insurrections" in one year, and there are 170 districts in India that have become bases of a Maoist movement. This anger will not be kept at bay; it will seep into the comfort zones of the privileged unless it is assuaged by wealth distribution. That is the real, and common challenge, that faces India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. What is true of a nation is true of the world.

In my last column I made a brave, if naive, claim. I thought that the latest furore about exotic forms of killing, that of former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko by polonium 210 had nothing to do with the circumcised. On Thursday, he was finally buried in a radioactive-proof coffin. His last rites were performed in a London mosque. A few days before he died, Alexander converted to Islam. A fascinating story is beginning to emerge. He was a KGB agent in Chechnya, where he made friends with a leader of the rebels... Watch out for more details, but this is a story that will travel from the gloom of espionage to the imagination of innumerable minds. Wars are fought outside the headlines as well.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A London Diary

Byline by M J Akbar: A London Diary

The red edge of dawn woke me up at 15,000 feet above Zurich. We had risen through a floor of thick, dark grey cloud that was both still and undulating, a sky-sea of waves at 10,000 feet. To my left an astonishing architecture of Alps rose above this sea, the top of the highest peaks jagged, rough-cut, utterly beautiful skyscrapers, slowly beginning to absorb into their pristine white the warm colours of a sun emerging out of a high horizon to start another day. Every horizon is relative to the eye. The blood red softened, and the Alps took on a pastel hue before suddenly becoming part of the dazzle of sunlight. Those five minutes of nature’s magic will last a lifetime in memory.

It was a relief to land in London and discover that this month’s panic about sudden death had nothing to do with the circumcised. Instead the Cold War was back in business, on-screen and off-screen. The latest James Bond is a spectacular smash in Casino Royale and on the front pages of the newspapers is a story about a space-age murder in a sushi bar that Ian Fleming might have had difficulty inventing. On 1 November an ex-KGB spy — you can always get asylum in Britain if you claim to be "ex" — called Alexander Litvinenko had lunch in Piccadilly with Mario Scaramella, an Italian "security consultant," which is a pompous term for the same profession. The Russian ate fish, the Italian, more circumspect, drank only water. Both ingested a radioactive isotope called Polonium 210, derivable from radium and apparently available on the Internet. But you have to be rich if you want to kill ex-KGB spies. Less than a pinhead is needed to destroy the cells in your liver, kidney and bone marrow, but the Russian had enough to kill him a hundred times. The cost of his dose has been estimated at over 20 million pounds. The Italian is also contaminated, but not lethally. Among other things the Italian is said to believe that his Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, is or was a KGB agent. I don’t know who did it, but every columnist in Britain thinks it is the current version of the KGB which is poisoning Vladimir’s enemies everywhere.

I am here as a guest of the Guardian and the British Museum to participate in a discussion on Faith, nation, culture: What Bengal’s history tells us about living with multiple identities. There is a serious level of eminence on the podium: Amartya Sen, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum since August 2002, Joya Chatterji, the fine historian now teaching international history at LSE and the young and very bright Tufyal Choudhury, who lectures in international human rights law at Durham. In the chair was Jon Snow, who personifies Channel 4 news. Amartya Sen, a great liberal in the finest traditions of his region, led the discussions with a well-considered and even impassioned analysis of the great virtues of Bengali humanism. Not everyone was equally sanguine about Bengal’s past, although its present under the secular Marxists has done a great deal to erase memories. Without trying too hard to be contrarian, I did suggest that Bengali Muslims, now in Bangladesh, were victims of a double irony. Bengali Hindus did not consider them Bengali enough, and other Muslims did not think them Muslim enough. At the nodal moments of history, it was all Bhadralok versus Chotolok and Ashraf versus Atrap. Perceptions of class proved more relevant than faith or culture. The Muslim ashraf came in 1204 but conversion in eastern Bengal was not by the sword. The Mughals actually forbade forced conversions when they conquered Bengal during Akbar’s time. East Bengal became Muslim because of the turn of a river: the Ganga migrated east and opened up forest lands for cultivation with her silt. That is a story that requires more space than a column. But this much is relevant and can be said here. The three great political formations of the last two centuries were the province of Bengal in the British empire, India and Pakistan. None of the three could survive the explosive overlap between culture, faith, identity and the dream of power that partitioned Bengal, India and Pakistan. The Bengali Muslim was censured as a traitor thrice, in 1905, in 1847 and 1971; but the plain fact is that all three were unable to contain the tensions of the social history of one people: Bengalis.

The idea of India defeated the British empire. The idea of Pakistan defeated India. The idea of Bangladesh defeated Pakistan. I am delighted that all three ideas, or idealisms, won their geography and independence, otherwise reality would never have been able to bear the burden of fantasy. Bangladeshis now cannot blame Pakistanis; Pakistanis can’t blame Indians; and Indians, thank God, can’t blame the British for the fact that 500 million of us still sleep each night with stomachs that are only half-fed or worse.

Apology, or even "deep sorrow", about the past is a limited virtue, particularly when there is so much more to apologise for in the present. Even sincerity about the sins of your ancestors is only a variable balm. Tony Blair has set the mood for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slave trade in Britain (doubtless an occasion for much self-congratulation next year) with an expression of "deep sorrow" about this "shameful" past. Not quite an apology, which the right wing press is fiercely resisting, saying that slavery should be considered within the context of its times. That is why Blair added, "It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at that time". As a descendant of the first slave trader shrewdly told the Guardian, no one uses the excuse of contemporary mores to justify Hitler’s barbaric atrocities. Britain was responsible for carting around 2.5 million slaves in its trade ships, second only to Portugal. That the City should participate in profiteering out of human misery seems more understandable than the fact that the Church of England used slaves on its Caribbean sugar plantations and opposed abolition in Parliament. (The Church apologised earlier this year.) It needs to be stressed that there was nothing specifically Christian about this atrocity: Muslim Arab traders were equally guilty, and someone from there should consider an apology as well.

However, I would urge Blair and Britain to postpone the 200th anniversary by about ninety years to 2115. That would mark the genuine end of the slave trade by Britain. How? The Empire still needed slave labour for its sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations in remote, far-flung corners of the world. When it could not ravage Africa by law, it simply turned to its existing brown colonies. The new slaves were not called slaves; they were described as "indentured labour". Slavery by any other name still stinks. And so Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were shanghaied off across the "seven seas" to West Indies, Mauritius, Fiji. Where do you think a quarter of the present West Indies cricket team comes from, whether Hindu (Chanderpaul) or Muslim (Dave Mohammed)? Or where Mauritius’ Prime Ministers come from. India is going to get a base in the Indian Ocean on one of the Mauritian islands at least partly because of bonds that make Bhojpuri an integral part of the patois that is spoken in Mauritius.

When Blair’s successor in 2115 issues his semi-apology, he should thank a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The abolition of indentured labour was Gandhi’s first notable success against the British Empire.

In the meantime, could Tony Blair please apologise for Iraq?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eyeless in India

Byline by M J Akbar: Eyeless in India

If I was, God forbid, chief censor of world media there is one four-letter word that I would ban completely: doom. Doomsday is as dull a concept as one can imagine, for it represents the end of all action. Doomsday is the ultimate reaction. Whether therefore the end is nigh or far out, why worry about it, particularly since you can do nothing about it? It is far more sensible to explore options in the sunshine instead of sniffling through gloom, making a virtue out of misery.

But there are limits to optimism, and it has been crossed by those who have concluded that India is a superpower. A curious and crazy mania of self-congratulation has overtaken us in India.

Perhaps every word in the previous sentence needs some elaboration. First: who is "us"? I suppose every reader of an English newspaper would belong to "us". Broadly, "we" or the "us" are those who have crept, slithered, slimed or worked our way legitimately to that huge space above the misery index of India.

Poverty is only one of the lines dividing Indians. The poverty line is in fact the weakest line; it is the line of non-resistance. The truly impoverished do not have the strength to resist, or they would wreak havoc of a kind you might not deem suitable for a mere doomsday.

Above that comes the anger line. These are the Indians who have escaped from destitution, and discovered the courage to exercise their democratic right to anger. For them democracy is not a matter of a vote every five years; they test its flexibility as often as they can, and with a gun if they can find one. Call them Naxalites, Maoists, terrorists, whatever: they don’t care. They have no interest in categories. They know that Indian democracy’s methods of healing are to offer a Band-Aid when the disease is cancer. They have been told that the honey of economic growth will trickle down to them eventually. Try offering the mirage of a trickle to a man dying of thirst.

Then there is a hatred line. It is a thin but potent line, and consists of those who are the leaders of anger. They channel anger towards violence. It is not a moral line, for those who hate also know how to negotiate. The establishment exploits this weakness quite liberally, offering rewards which buy leaders out of their group. Parliament is full of those who have been purchased by the establishment.

Above hatred is the envy line, that huge mass of Indians who are almost there, seething through small towns and villages, anxious to join the long queues of upward mobility. Envy is a good spur for aspiration, as anyone in mass marketing, or indeed banking, will confirm. This is the target group of future consumers which will keep the growth rate at 10 per cent and possibly send it higher. Envy is good for the economy. May it always flourish.

And on top of it all sit the exalted "us": a mix of the smug, the complacent, the rich and the wealthy which now believes that it has arrived, and is totally convinced that because it has arrived India has also reached her historic destination. This is the hyper India class, the doctrinaires of Superpower India. This is the fairy-tale "middle class", the subject of international attention, which hates looking below, except of course to find servants. This class has reinvented the morality of caste. It believes that the less fortunate deserve their misfortune, just as untouchables once were thought to deserve their untouchability: karma is the curse of the inferior mind. But there is this difference. The new caste lines are not rigid. You can buy your way across the divide with a colour television set; and there are no questions asked once you reach the Maruti 800.

This great collective "us" has shifted night into day. India is already a superpower and cannot be defeated in anything, including cricket. Defeat in cricket wounds the self-esteem of this new India, and it howls like a banshee until its lollipop is restored. Cricket is no longer a game in which eleven men might play well one day, and badly the next. It is a drug fed with unimaginable wealth, and every cricketer must be on steroids all the time, or he will be banished into that dangerous pit called middle-class purgatory. At the same time as the Indian team was getting properly and deservedly thrashed in South Africa, the National Family and Health Survey report was issued. It told the truth about "Superpower India": three out of four infants in the 19 states surveyed were anaemic, as were more than half (54% to be precise) the pregnant women. Two out of five children were underweight, which, in a poor country like ours, means appalling malnutrition.

Parliament interrupted its regular interruptions in order to debate defeat in cricket and demand immediate action from Sharad Pawar, head of the Board of Control for Cricket, so that the hungry ticket-holders of the cricket amphitheatre could see their gladiators do what they were paid to do, kill the enemy. Parliament did not have time for the National Family and Health Survey which, frankly, is such a bore compared to cricket. Cricket is hyped by multinationals who produce lurid television spots screaming, in jungle rhythms, "Ha Ha India!" — the best one can say about the ad is that it is about as tasteless as the product. Any chorus for the Family Survey would have to keep its refrain to a more doleful "Hai Hai India!"

The new middle class has created its own deities. The new Mother India carries, in her ten invulnerable arms, a nuclear weapon, a share market index printout, a mobile phone, a cricket ball, a ticket from a low-cost airline, a job offer from an outsourcing company, a colour television set, patched jeans, an iPod full of superbly arranged dancing music from Bollywood and an English dictionary.

The high priests of this India are politicians and businessmen, two terms that encompass a wide variety of types. (Some of my best friends are politicians and businessmen.) Whenever high priests have taken charge of a nation’s destiny, they begin to tend towards corpulence and corruption, and the brightest minds are tempted into sloth. You can see the victory of fantasy over fact in the constant homage to the mirror, and the easy dismissal of everything that does not comfort or reinforce this self-image.

Back to our initial sentence: that this is crazy is obvious, but why should it be curious? The curious bit is the blindfold that all of "us" wear each morning as we head to work, and retain till it is time to go to sleep. It is not as if impoverished India lives in another geography. You can see poverty in the slums of Delhi, the stench of Mumbai, the peeling decay of inner Kolkata, in the thousands of street orphans and beggars that are a constant reminder of failure. The urban poor are the elite poor. Think of the tribal enveloped by fear outside Ranchi, or the rural Muslims stretched across the eastern curve of the Ganga. But we, all of "us", are Eyeless in Delhi. Who has time for the hungry at our doorstep?

I am not a Utopian who believes that prosperity must march in step with equity; economic growth will come in stages, and there will be inexplicable disparity as we seek a better future. But what is it with the successful Indian that makes him so criminally indifferent to the truth of our poverty?

We have certainly moved away from a hopeless past. India might become a superpower; India should become a superpower. But we are not there yet. We cannot call ourselves any kind of power as long as half of India still goes to sleep on a stomach that is only half-full.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Who will pay the Bill?

Byline by M J Akbar: Who will pay the bill?

Never underestimate the ability of a lame duck Senate to cripple any idea that appears in its path. However, the latest episode in the long-running effort to structure a nuclear deal between India and the United States is a bit of a non-event. The US Senate approved a bill that included all the clauses that India, speaking formally through its Parliament, had objected to, and added amendments that will raise more than an eyebrow in Delhi. I cannot see, for instance, India reading from the same page as America on Iran’s nuclear programme, or, more important, surrendering its independent right to test again. The rising star of the Democrats, Senator Obama, has lent his name to an amendment that prevents India from storing fuel for its imported reactors. Too much conciliation might be required in the next stage, when the bill will be "reconciled" between the Senate and House versions. Common sense suggests that reconciliation seeks to bridge the difference between what has been passed, rather than eliminate clauses wholesale. Come December, we shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, let us celebrate the return of calm and maturity to the foreign office in Delhi.

When the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill, a mild form of hysteria broke out, guided by mandarins in external affairs and contract-employees in the Prime Minister’s Office. Selected journalists were briefed to lead a media chorus. You might have thought that India had been elected member of the Security Council, and defeated Pakistan in both war and cricket on the same day. This time, the temper of the reaction is both realistic and reassuring. You can see the calm hand of foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon at work. The new message is clear and welcome: India wants a nuclear deal, but it is not going to be written with only an American pen.

Since there is a pause in the affairs of men, it might be appropriate to take a larger look. The basis of the nuclear deal is the agreement signed between President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 18 July 2005. Since then, there have been three important developments, at least two of which are certainly inter-related, and the third very possibly so. The consequence of these events is that the nuclear map of the world has changed one more time.

From July this year, there has been a growing feeling, now reaching certainty, that the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq has been a failure; that victory in Iraq is impossible, and the best scenario possible is an orderly, phased withdrawal in which power is transferred to a government in Baghdad that is not overtly hostile to the West. Such a transition is impossible without the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbours. There have been subtle, and not so subtle, shifts in the dynamic of America’s relations with most of the neighbours.

When George Bush was still in charge of events, he declared that three nations constituted an "axis of evil": Iran, Syria and North Korea. Now that events are in charge of Bush, the meaning of "evil" is being renegotiated. Bush accepts that Syria cannot be treated as an outcast, and while he will not yet extend that same consideration to Iran, any realist knows that a settlement in Iraq, if there is ever going to be one, is impossible without Iran’s cooperation. Iran has very sensible diplomats. They know that it makes no sense to tease a defeated elephant, but they also understand that it is a weakened animal. If the American mission in Iraq had gone according to Donald Rumsfeld’s dreams, Iran would have been vulnerable today. Now that the war has gone as per Iran’s expectations, America is vulnerable.

The first country to exploit this vulnerability was the third member of the axis of evil, North Korea. It is highly unlikely that North Korea would have dared to test three years ago, when the perception of American power was still in the "shock and awe" dimension. It is also moot whether North Korea’s principal, and sole, benefactor, would have permitted North Korea to do so. America’s muted response has justified the Pyongyang-Beijing calculation. The irony is multiple. America went to Iraq ostensibly to hold the nuclear line, and is emerging from the war with the nuclear line in tatters. A door that was pushed ajar by India and Pakistan in 1998 has been thrown open by North Korea and China eight years later. This eases the pressure on Iran significantly, since it would be a very brave, if not foolhardy, American President who would now plan an invasion of Iran.

China has been swift to exploit emerging opportunity. It is strengthening Pakistan’s capability dramatically, and has just signed up to provide Egypt with a credible nuclear programme. I presume no one with even marginal IQ indulges in the fiction that nuclear reactors are really meant for peaceful purposes. If Egypt needed them for peaceful purposes it would have invested in them at least a generation ago. Egypt knows that with Israel a nuclear power, and Iran on the verge of becoming one, it cannot be a regional player without similar capability. The Saudis certainly have the finances to become a nuclear power and Latin America is not going to remain obediently docile. Japan is nuclear in all but name. It will not deviate from its official, pacific line, but if its self-interest requires a degree of deception, so be it.

The next decade is going to be one of great flux in the nuclear game. This game will be played with the kind of dexterity, determination and patience that India showed during those long decades when we pretended that our nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes only. It is going to be a decade for building parallel alliances. It is not the moment in history when India should willingly tie itself down to any apron string, even if that apron has the enticing brand value of America. It is no accident that one of the conditions that American legislators want to impose upon India is that it must become part of American policy vis-à-vis Iran. China is free of any such encumbrance, and is playing the nuclear field with careful abandon. It is supplying nuclear fuel and technology to its friends, a point that is registering sharply with mature nations who now see such friendship as critical to their security concerns. Such nations will express their gratitude by encouraging the import of Chinese manufactures, giving China a double whammy. China’s eggs are being spread across the world, to fertilise and hatch at whatever pace the local climate will permit. India can see only one basket.

There is still time for contours to shift. And while there are still too many knee-jerk cheerleaders in the chorus surrounding government, the drums are thankfully silent inside government. Prime Minister Singh has made certain commitments to Parliament; it is now up to Washington to ensure that those commitments are honoured.

When the deal was at an incipient stage last year, I recall asking an American friend only one question: How much political capital does George Bush have left in reserve after Iraq, and how much of it is he willing to spend on a nuclear deal with India? More than a year later, reserves of capital have depleted further, and we will know the full answer to that two-part question soon enough.

Hollow Triumphs

Byline by M J Akbar: Hollow Triumphs

George Bush is still President of America, so who or what has been defeated in the electoral upsurge that gave Democrats a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives last week? The shift in power marks the defeat of triumphalism as state policy. What is triumphalism?

Its core is shaped by the triumph of the individual over the institution. Anyone who wins an election is tempted towards semi-divinity. When victory is unusual, or against heavy odds, the tendency is strengthened. Both George Bush and Tony Blair had to challenge more than just a ruling party to win. Bush, moreover, lost the popular vote and scraped through on the dubious strength of a few chads. He was re-elected by the amazing incompetence of an otherwise intelligent challenger. How much closer can you get to belief in a divine mission?
American government is shaped hugely by the character and predilections of an elected President, but George Bush could not have pushed through his Iraq war agenda without a compliant legislature. He conceived this war in fantasy and pursued it in illusion. The legislature could have acted as a reality check; it did not. Bush veiled illusion with aggressive morality. The logic was forceful: I have been invaded, hence I am sincere; I am sincere, therefore I am right; I am right, therefore I am good; I am good, therefore any opposition to me is evil. My war is God’s justice and America’s salvation. Any opposition to my occupation of a sovereign nation must be irrational, barbaric or terrorist.

The problem with triumphalism is that it collapses without triumph. The term derives from the triumphs that the Roman Senate accorded to military heroes. But to deserve a triumph you had to be a Caesar. There is no laurel that was ever designed for an empty head. Bush could afford the smile of a Caesar when Saddam Hussein was defeated three years ago and the insurgency had not begun. That incidentally was the moment when he could have negotiated a withdrawal with a new Iraqi government. He had ended the Saddam dictatorship. But he stayed on to conquer Iraq.

When success is elusive, politicians tend to console themselves with the illusion of success. From there it is one step towards selling a lie through manipulation of minds.War is a harsh environment. Death demands explanation and justification, There is collateral anger if death is seen as senseless. The pressures of democracy are corrosive. Governments always have to sell their decisions. But when they resort to communication malpractice they may buy the present but they inevitably sell the future.

Cleverness prevails over wisdom. Bush has been a master of the politics of democracy. He has exploited his personal weaknesses brilliantly: he has defined his naiveté as a form of sincerity. You never know what tricks the brainiacs are conjuring up to fool the ordinary voter!
Bush has won three elections by exploiting the power of the ordinary, but success has been sustained by a devious rhetoric.

Terrorism and Al Qaeda are critically serious threats, but they are also complex. A war against them needs commitment, conviction and above all honesty of purpose. It is honesty that enables parents to live with the coffins of dead sons and daughters, whether they are wrapped in the American flag or draped in an Iraqi shroud. Any dishonesty, or even the perception of it, extracts a terrible revenge. Bush was exposed gradually, in a dribble of news reports, articles and books which destroyed his thesis that he had occupied Iraq to save Americans from terrorism. Americans were ready for sacrifice against terrorists; they were shocked when they realised that their moral and military resources were being consumed by a different agenda. An intelligence estimate, on the eve of the elections, that the war in Iraq had actually increased the threat of terrorism rather than decreased it was perhaps the final straw that tipped the balance away from Bush.

The Bush linkage between Al Qaeda and Iraq was made through Islam. It was cheap tactic that had the lifespan of a tawdry lie. For a while it worked: for the American heartland the fact that both were "Islamic" was enough. Bush created an "Islamic" enemy because in that imprecise haze he could conjure up whichever demons he wished. Over time, the brew consisted of inaccurate history and demonic myth stirred in a large cauldron of fear. It was not just the use of "crusaders". That might have been a genuine slip of the mind, for all I know; and in any case it was the Church and Christian princes who drenched Jerusalem in knee-deep blood before they were defeated in a war that lasted two centuries. More relevant was the conscious and repeated use of terms like "Islamic fascism" and some mysterious Caliphate that hovered like a monstrous threat over western civilisation.

A cursory analysis would have revealed the weakness of the construct. Islam is 1,400 years old. Fascism appeared on the map of Europe with Mussolini in 1920. So whatever else fascism may or may not be, it certainly cannot be Islamic. Yes, it is absolutely true that there have been many Muslims who have been fascists. But why blame Islam for the sins of Muslims? No one blames the Vatican for Mussolini, or the Church for apartheid although the white racists of South Africa were churchgoers.

The Caliphate, like the Holy Roman Emperor, is a concept from the age of empire. It is a pre-nation state institution which has outlived its utility in the contemporary age of nationalism. It was abolished by a man who can justly claim to be the father of post-empire Muslim nation states, Mustafa Kemal Ghazi. It was Mustafa Kemal who saved Turkey from partition and virtual annihilation by the British after Turkey’s defeat in the First World War, even while the Caliph was trying to save his dynasty’s skin at the cost of his country. If Al Qaeda uses this term then it only goes to prove how distant it is from ground reality.

But the conversion of Islam into the enemy had another purpose: it obscured the fact that the principal — though not the sole — motivation of the Iraq insurgency was nationalism.
The answer to triumphalism is good, old-fashioned realism. It took defeat at home to wake up from what can literally be described as his dream-world. But he could be more formidable awake than he was when drugged by the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, if he accepts the rationale of realism in the remaining two years of his term. If he uses the undoubted power of his office to create a new balance across the world, he could seed a new order that his successor can nurture. (Blair’s successor will be in office within months.)

Bush has spent the last three years waging war against Iraq. He will need, at the very least, to spend his next two years doing something even more dramatic: discovering the difficult route to peace with Iran and healing the very deep, very painful wounds that Israel has inflicted upon Palestine. That would be a genuine triumph.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Bangla Heroine

Byline by M J Akbar: The Bangla Heroine

The collective noun is a poor cousin of the proper; the singular belongs to a higher caste than the plural. There was a crucial omission from this year’s list of Nobel Prize winners. Muhammad Yunus deserved the award for peace, but only half of it. The other half should have gone to the women of Bangladesh.

Yunus’ now famous micro-credit idea was considered "impossible" three decades ago only because no one trusted the poor. Banks are in the business of capital. Capital is the business of the rich. The rich have only one law: the business of money is to make money. Banks don’t mind being cheated by the rich, as any list of their bad debts will prove. But they will never permit themselves to be cheated by the poor. Trust, in their philosophy, leaves dark stains on the balance sheet. They would rather compromise with the greed of the rich than the need of the poor.

The poor are not mislaid angels. They are as vulnerable to temptation as any other class. The best decision that Yunus made was not to help the poor, but to help them through women. He trusted the right gender. His experiment might have collapsed if he had handed out little packets to men. Women prefer the human development index to the stock exchange. They know the value of food, cloth, education and healthcare. They give birth and understand death. If Bangladesh is slowly emerging out of the basket into which Henry Kissinger once dumped it (he called the country a "basket case") it is because women have become the prime movers of economic development. The Nobel citation confirms this: "Micro credit has proved to be an important liberating force in societies where women in particular have to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions. Economic growth and political democracy cannot achieve their full potential unless the female half of humanity participates on an equal footing with the male."

Spot on.

Ninety per cent of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim. It is these Bangla Muslim women who have made Yunus a Nobelist. They are also a visible challenge to the stereotyped image of Muslim women, particularly in America and Europe, as shrouded in veils. I hope photographs of women, who deserve all the credit they can be given, accompany all features on Yunus. None of them will have their faces covered.

Almost all of them will have their heads covered. The sari is an excellent example of modest dress. One piece of cloth covers all parts of the body, including the head. In all eastern societies, both men and women have traditionally covered their heads. Those who do not wear the sari, use a scarf or a dupatta. Men wore the burnoose, fez, skin or cloth cap. Men’s dresses, as much women’s, reached the ankles, and in neither gender were private parts flaunted in the manner in which, say, the codpiece stressed certain physical assets, or disguised liabilities, among men in the western middle ages. Eastern Christians followed eastern norms, as they do in Kerala. Hindus and Sikhs would never contemplate of entering a temple or gurdwara with their heads uncovered.

The full-veiled Muslim is a small part of the truth, and not by any means the whole truth. A valid argument can be made for change, but that argument will not be won through either legal compulsion or public contempt.

Jack Straw had every right to raise the issue of the full veil. The problem was not the message but the messenger. Muslims are loath to listen to lectures from a man who is one of the principal perpetrators of war and havoc in Iraq, a man of vast power who used a lie and defends many more in the pursuit of an immoral and unacceptable war in which hundreds of thousands of innocents have died. I don’t know how many of you saw the interview with former Iranian President Khatami on BBC on Friday the third. I suppose if he had said something hysterical media would have quoted him endlessly. But he supported a moderate form of dress, pointing out as so many others have that Islam insists on modest dress for both sexes. Mr Khatami was leader of a country which has a women’s wing in its armed forces, and can be seen marching in parades. The women wear scarves, not the face-veil. I suppose it is a bit difficult to shoot the enemy wearing a face-veil.

President Khatami made a much more important point, which Britain needs to address: that it is the politics of injustice, and not religion, that is fuelling anger among young Muslims in countries like Britain. They cannot understand the carnage in and international indifference towards Palestine. They feel demonised and alienated in their own countries. They believe that the legitimate war on terrorists has illegitimate by-products, like the use of demonisation to gain public support for quasi-imperial adventures. They want to be accepted as themselves, and not as clones of another culture. All minorities need space for identity. They should not take such need to excess, for the good reason that it is silly; but anger will breed a touch of excess. At least the veil is non-violent.

The question that should worry Straw is why British Muslim women, who have not grown up in a conservative environment — this perfectly serious pun is intentional — are asserting themselves increasingly in this manner. Perhaps the anger is greater because Labour was the natural home of the British Muslim vote.

Multi-culturalism is no longer just a national phenomenon in some countries; it is an international fact. The success of western colonisation was bound to leave its impact on the dress code. You may have seen a million pictures of Iraq by now. I hope you have noticed that the urban Muslim bride wears a wedding dress straight out of a western Christian ceremony. Western dress was a vital part of Mustafa Kemal’s reforms in Turkey, and the Arab regions of the old Ottoman Empire paid their homage to success in similar ways. One of the most remarkable facts of 20th century social history is the triumph of the trouser in male, and now female, dress.

Or maybe not. Maybe the real phenomenon is the necktie. Trousers are practical, useful and can be elegant or comfortable or even both. I cannot think of a single practical reason for wearing a necktie. It is no substitute for a muffler; it neither hides nor protects. There is no logic to its shape. And yet it has become the definition of formality across the whole world. Even Communism has succumbed to the tie: Mao jackets are no longer worn by the Chinese politburo.

I actually like wearing this utterly useless bit of hangman’s rope. I enjoy wearing ties in a range of colours, and take more of them than I need to on a visit to Britain. But I wonder what my reaction would be if the British immigration authorities passed an order that you could not enter Britain without a tie.

Marketing, persuasion and allure are far better alchemists of social change than political compulsion.

The most serious problem in so many Muslim countries is gender bias, and this can exist with or without the veil. Gender bias is hardly unique to Muslims; Europe corrected itself only less than a century ago.

I believe that the West could not have seen its dramatic rise in prosperity without eliminating gender bias, and I even more strongly believe that Muslim societies and nations cannot find a future without making women equal partners in economic growth. This is the challenge of the 21st century, and those who rise up to the challenge will find a proportionate rise in wealth, stability and the happiness index.

Bangladesh’s women should have shared the Nobel Peace Prize for more than one reason. The woman who saved her family with micro-credit is a heroine of her nation and an inspiration to the world.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

FM Music

Byline by M J Akbar: FM Music

FM must be music to Pranab Mukherjee’s ears. Defence is a curious ministry in Delhi, demanding responsibility without power. One former Prime Minister, whose experience taught him the value of subservience, and whose subservience taught him the value of revenge, used to dismiss defence as the toy ministry. The toy in question was the plane which is the minister’s personal privilege; the Prime Minister is the only other member of the Cabinet to get such high-flying transport. The sly joke was that you could keep a competitor for the top job at bay by gifting this toy to play with.

For a professional politician, the problem with defence is that it has no political constituency. Home is much in demand because it provides the greatest opportunity to influence events: Kargil was an honourable, defensive, limited engagement. The last defence minister who emerged with an enhanced reputation was Jagjivan Ram, who held the portfolio during the 1971 war. That was also the last real war which India fought and won. The best that an eminent politician like Sharad Pawar might say after a stint in the job is that he did not do any damage to himself. The defence minister’s principal job is to ensure that the capability of the armed forces is always a few regiments/missiles/planes greater than the enemy. He is therefore by far the biggest purchaser in the government.

The arms bazaar is arguably the world’s most corrupt legitimate business. Since security is such a holy cow, the arms dealer knows that he can get away with a pricing policy that would invite howls of derisive anger in any other deal. The efficacy of a product is no guarantee against corruption. If there is one gun that has proved its worth to Indian security then surely it is Bofors. The whiff of acrid fumes from that smoking gun still permeates through Indian politics. George Fernandes has discovered what can happen to a lifetime reputation for fiscal honesty. Accusations do not have to be proved to condemn a politician. Just making them is enough. There is simply too much sleaze, and very few strains of khadi are immune from dirt.

Pranab Mukherjee had reached that point in his tenure where mud had begun to leave a pattern upon his reputation. It was just the moment for a switch, for the next session of Parliament is likely to see a great deal of Scorpene mud flying across the hall. The switch is brilliant, because the new defence minister, A.K. Antony, is allegedly made of stainless steel. He will need all the stainless steel in his armour to deflect the mud. Dr Manmohan Singh has proved wiser than his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, who restored Fernandes when the latter, by any political yardstick, has passed his shelf-life in the ministry.

Is the foreign ministry lower in the pecking order of Delhi’s hierarchy? The question is odd, since the foreign minister not only has a crucial role to play in policymaking but also has a political job to do.

Pranab Mukherjee takes over at a moment when there is a serious job waiting to be done. Ever since Natwar Singh’s sudden departure, the foreign ministry has been an orphan. The Prime Minister’s efforts to play surrogate mother have merely exposed his inadequacies in a nuanced responsibility. Pranab Mukherjee is fortunate in his new foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, an excellent career diplomat without either baggage or, worse, pretensions. Together they might, as a start, consider clearing up three confusions.

There has been a historic tendency in Delhi to confuse a Pakistan policy for a foreign policy. It is perfectly rational that Pakistan should be a primary concern, since war, in hot, cold and intermediate forms, has always been an undercurrent of the Indo-Pak relationship. But India has to rise above turning Pakistan into an obsession. India has more than one neighbour; India should have a larger vision of its place in the world, and indeed the world’s place in India. Worse, Pakistan policy in the last year or so can best be described as legwork. When Delhi is in a mood for goodwill, its knee begins to jerk. When terrorism inevitably comes back into focus, anger turns into a footlash. There is often the absurdity of the knee jerking towards goodwill while, simultaneously, the foot begins to kick. It is not, to say the least, the most elegant form of diplomatic ballet. Pakistan policy needs greater balance, more composure, less romanticism and sustained engagement.

The second confusion is a direct by-product of Dr Manmohan Singh’s almost personal drive to create a nuclear deal with the United States. I have said this before, and it bears repetition: there is nothing wrong with the idea barring those little intrusive and unacceptable conditionalities that could compromise India’s independent nuclear military capability. But the management of this policy is flawed by a fundamental misunderstanding of foreign policy. We have made a basic mistake in confusing George Bush with America. We have a Bush policy rather than an America policy. Obviously, an American President is the key to many doors in Washington, but a more careful and professional approach would have calibrated the outcome by measuring, coolly, how much political capital Bush had left after the Iraq quagmire, and how much of this capital he was ready to spend on selling a difficult deal on terms that would be acceptable to India. I imagine that a few people in Delhi at this moment are as anxious about the results of the Congressional elections in the first week of November as Bush is. If Bush is defeated, he will spend the next two lame-duck years trying to rescue his Republican Party from the consequences of a military and political debacle in Iraq. He has already begun to admit, albeit reluctantly, that he did not quite know what he was doing.

The third on my list is possibly more self-delusion than confusion. For some months now, this government has been signalling, privately, that all opposition to the US nuclear deal, or to Bush, is "communal." Such an assumption comes easily to a non-political mind. It was surely fuelled by the sight of a hundred thousand Muslims demonstrating against Bush’s visit to Delhi. When Bush uses terms like "Islamic fascism" and is responsible for countless innocent deaths, it is hardly unnatural for Muslims to feel that they have been made victims of a powerful individual’s megalomania. As citizens of a free country they have every right to express their views. If Dr Singh had not confused Bush with America, he would have seen a larger reality: that the majority of Americans are liberal and democratic, and they would be fooled for only some of the time.

One of the great failings of our present foreign policy is that we have withdrawn from our traditional areas of influence for fear of upsetting George Bush. We are, most vitally, not engaged in the Middle East when great crises in that region will shape events over the foreseeable future. We have diluted our credibility by weakening our voice. Iraq has been a traditional friend of India but there is no evidence of history in the government’s policy towards the country or the region. India could have been, and should have been, a player in the conflict-resolution process that will be the next phase of the Middle East dynamic. That reservoir of goodwill for India is not completely empty. Pranab Mukherjee, who worked so closely with Mrs Indira Gandhi, should know that. He is now in a position to replenish that reservoir.

And he does not have much time.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some Happy Diwali, Id Thoughts

Byline by M J Akbar: Some Happy Diwali, Id Thoughts

The Eureka moment came at around four in the morning in Kolkata. I was in my room at the Sonar Bangla, one of the finest hotels in Asia, and had flicked open the television after sehri, the pre-dawn meal before the Ramzan fast. The screen came to life with Zee Music, and with my brain on full throttle I realised that it was the old Hindi films, which were really true to life. It is the new movies that are unreal.

Have you seen the ghost in the song Mere Mehboob Qayamat Hogi from the Kishore Kumar film Mr X in Bombay? The ghost in this song has a paunch. What could be more realistic than that? A ghost has a midway existence between this life and wherever we go to in oblivion. It retains elements of this life, as for instance the famous dancing girl whose anklets tinkled through the night in Warren Hastings’ haunted bungalow in Kolkata. (Haunted, that is, before it became a residence of the nouveau riche; which ghost can survive the cultural enthusiasms of black money?)

If you don’t believe me, get up at four in the morning and switch on Zee Music. That song comes punctually at 4. I can say this with some certainty since they do not change either the sequence or the selection of songs at that hour, safe in the knowledge that both shareholders and executive directors are fast asleep.

You might, in the bargain, end up also watching a song from Rajendra Kumar, who never used a word he could not describe with his fingers; or, at the other end of the scale, Bharat Bhooshan — the only part of his body that moved when he was singing moving songs was his hair, in response to either a river breeze or the studio pedestal fan. But our bygone heroines protected realism. Their body and body language belonged to the soil of India. Their fleshy contours are visible in any respectable Indian restaurant or market. I submit that it is the current crop of actresses who are utterly unrealistic. Who could have such slim, svelte and sultry bodies as they do? Their sex appeal is a figment of some marketing imagination, a page out of a glossy magazine that tells more lies than politicians in campaign mode. Modern Bollywood actresses are not allowed to have a posterior, and their exterior is pawned to motives that are ulterior. A Meena Kumari or an Asha Parekh was never embarrassed by the natural waves of soft flesh. Nobody ever caught them in a gym with latex underwear.

This air of unreality is seeping over all forms of entertainment. Take the Champions Cup coverage on television. There is a perfectly sensible anchor, Charu Sharma, but each time he gets to the third sentence he is interrupted by his co-host, whose principal virtue is huge assets everywhere except in the brain. Her most penetrating comment on the state of the game is "I told you! I told you!" I presume advertisers insist that she asks questions, so she restricts herself to the obvious, never making the mistake of mentioning either cover or mid-off in case she gets confused between the two. All the experts, and there are some serious heavyweights out there, play along, except for the majestic Geoff Boycott who insists on sticking dogmatically to the point. It is beginning to dawn on the other commentators that they are here on a well-paid picnic, so why not enjoy it.

There is one cricket commentator who is so unreal he is unworldly: Navjot Singh Sidhu. No marketing genius could have invented him. He is a natural. He used to whack the cricket ball quite a bit once. These days he punishes the English language. His technique may not have changed. In the old days he decided what he needed to do with a delivery before the bowler had bowled it. Now, he has a set of answers that are delivered irrespective of the nature of the question. The subject might be anything: Pakistan’s recovery, Ponting’s dropped catch, Lara’s back. The answer is the same, delivered in a rising lilt, rising from alto and ending in cracked tenor. "Character is the soul of wit! You can take the actor out of the character but you cannot take the character out of the actor!"

The curious thing is that Sidhu’s other job is as a full time Member of Parliament, representing Amritsar for the BJP. I have often wondered what would transpire at a meeting between Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Rajnath Singh, and the young guard of Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Sidhu.

A grim Rajnath Singh opens the meeting with bad news from Uttar Pradesh. The party could even sink to fourth place in the next Assembly elections. Vajpayee looks at his hands, silently. Advani looks thoughtful, then looks away. Joshi adjusts his scarf. The silence gets heavier by the second. Sidhu picks up the silence and smashes it into smithereens. "The grit of the earth is writ in the wit of the candidates. He who picks up the brick will kick defeat in the face!" Vajpayee is now engrossed in his fingernails; Advani is thinking about Shyama Prasad Mukherjee; Rajnath Singh’s mouth is ajar. Jaitley takes things in his hand.

"UP is difficult, but if we draw a parabola between Ferozabad and Lakhimpur Kheri, withdraw all resources from Allahabad and Kanpur, and concentrate on…"

Joshi splutters: how dare anyone withdraw resources from Allahabad, his constituency, which he would have won handsomely if everyone had not conspired against him!

Sidhu intervenes. "He who withdraws from battle, is going to get stuck with the cattle! Charge on, I say, and send the bill to Bombay!"

Vajpayee closes his eyes in deep meditation; Advani has shifted his thoughts to Deen Dayal Upadhyay; Rajnath Singh’s mouth is now open to the extent of two inches and Joshi is suddenly looking defeated. Sushma Swaraj looks at Jaitley and asks sweetly if there should be a fixed quota for cricketers in Parliament. Jaitley, conscious of his high status in the management of Delhi cricket, continues manfully. "You see, if West UP is lost and the East abandoned, then our strategy must be to outflank the Congress with a pincer movement in the Centre and South, with cross-border help from Madhya Pradesh, so that we can remain the Number Three party."

"Ooooooooooohaaaaaaaaaaaah!" exclaims Sidhu. "You can carry the cross to the water, but can you cross the water with the horse? That is the question, my friends, and unless India answers that question, I say, numbers are as numb as a dumb charade! You can make all your calculations, but three into one will only keep you third!"

Vajpayee and Advani look briefly at each other. Nothing is said, but their eyes indicate that they are utterly grateful that neither is president of the BJP at this fateful hour. Joshi announces his retirement from politics, but only after he has completed his current Rajya Sabha term. Rajnath Singh gets up and hands over charge of the UP elections to Sushma Swaraj. As the others leave, Jaitley stares dully at Sidhu.

"Ho ho ho!" says Sidhu, his voice at its excitable best. "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day! But the boy who stood on the burning deck was lost to flames but not to fame! Never lose heart before an enemy! Only lose heart to a lover!"

Jaitley leaves the party office and goes on a long Diwali holiday. Sidhu’s sidhuisms echo eerily across an empty hall.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mushroom Rice

Byline by M J Akbar: Mushroom Rice

Curiosity may be as injurious to the health of columnists as it is to cats, but there is much to be curious about these days.

Kim Jong Il, the not-so-mad dictator of North Korea, tests a nuclear device, his officials immediately begin threatening to use it, and President George W. Bush, the famed seeker of weapons of mass destruction, says that America’s "commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military". Is this the same man who refused to give the United Nations time for more diplomacy, the weapons inspectors time for more probing and started a catastrophic war that has taken more than half a million lives in search of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein never had?

Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who foresaw mushroom clouds in Iraq, grits her teeth in her best schoolmistress manner and threatens severe sanctions against North Iraq. Is this the same administration that spat on sanctions as a pathetic UN-type wobbly-knee answer to dictators and demons?

Is this the Bush-Rice partnership that keeps threatening to go to war against Iran for enriching uranium — and urging multilateral talks when North Korea becomes a nuclear military power? Or shall we put it another way: in Bush’s mind, nuclear North Korea can be trusted because it is not a Muslim country and Iraq and Iran could not be and cannot be trusted because they are Muslim nations?

Just asking, friends, just asking. I told you curiosity could be injurious to a columnist’s health.

It is clearly fine to be fascist in George Bush’s worldview, even a nuclear fascist. What you cannot afford to be, as long as Bush is on fire, is an "Islamic fascist".

Bush had a chance to act militarily against North Korea, in 2003, when Kim Jong Il withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and announced that it would go ahead with its weapons programme. A strike might have been successful because it was believed that all of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal was in one known location. What did George Bush do?

He invaded Iraq instead.

There is a simple explanation for what North Korea has done. It has called George Bush’s bluff. Three years ago Bush was not bluffing at the nuclear poker game. He had the strongest hand in the world, by all rules of this game an almost invincible hand. The United States had unquestioned military supremacy, in addition to the most powerful economy. One mistake, wrought by hubris, the stamp of one defect, has shackled American military ability and released competing powers to pursue paths that are alternative, if not hostile, to America’s.

It is foolish to think that North Korea was acting, or could have acted, alone. North Korea is a helpless non-entity without China’s support. China has been brilliant in the pursuit of its geopolitical interests while Bush rushed into Mission Self-Destruct. Look at the map of Asia. The two nations that can challenge China’s hegemony in Asia are Japan and India. China’s formal relations with both are worth of a place in the United Nations statute book. It talks trade and peace with India, raising border problems only when it seems that a problem-free relationship is too artificial a construct. Similarly, it talks trade and peace with Japan, dusting out memories of World War II only when it seems that a problem-free relationship is ahistorical.

China has simply outsourced the military confrontation with India and Japan to Pakistan and North Korea. Both are low-cost operations for China, with huge collateral benefits in terms of tying down India and Japan. Pakistan’s nuclear programme in any case had to mirror India, for reasons that China did not instigate. Neither Pakistan’s nuclear capability nor North Korea’s is a threat to anyone but China’s competitors, or past and potential adversaries. With North Korea aiming nuclear weapons at Japan’s head, the pieces on China’s chess set are in superb place.

The shadow of Iraq has travelled a long way while America is helplessly immobile.

Who has done the most recent expose of the Blair-Bush fiasco in Iraq? Step forward, General Sir Richard Dannatt, serving chief of the British Army. He does not pretend to give advice to his allies, the Americans, but he is clear that British troops, now down to around 7,000, should leave "sometime soon" because "our presence exacerbates the security problems". In other words, British and American troops are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Sir Richard has provided an honest explanation of their dilemma, and one that should be read in every nook and corner of Washington. He says: "We are in a Muslim country and Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear. As a foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited into a country, but we weren’t invited, certainly by those in Iraq at the time. Let’s face it. The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in."

No Iraqi could have put it better.

Another question, out of that itchy curiosity. Why hasn’t Sir Richard been court-martialled? He is a serving officer. He has been put in charge of a virulent war by an elected government. His views on the war are totally different from his Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Why doesn’t Blair stop him or sack him? Or is it that General Dannatt has been told to prepare the ground for an imminent decision by seeding the public discourse with thought of departure? Just asking.

The price of departure will be much, much higher than the cost of arrival. What the Iraqis have suffered because of Bush-and-Blair’s malign war is already in the realms of the unbelievable.

Johns Hopkins is not a madrasa. It is one of the most respected universities in America, based in Washington. Bloomberg is not an "Islamic fascist"; he is the billionaire mayor of New York who is thinking of using his billions to attempt a run at the White House in 2008. A study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimates that over 600,000 Iraqis have died of violence between March 2003 and July 2006. That makes it 15,000 a month, or 500 a day. There is no media covering this horrendous tragedy. Those rabid dogs of war extend far beyond soldiers in uniform. Chaos has become the playground of violent passions escalating in a poisonous spiral. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in neighbouring countries. Iraq is emptying out of people, as despair overwhelms people who had no control over the decisions that have destroyed their existence.

One is often asked: what will happen if the Anglo-American occupation forces leave Iraq? I can imagine many scenarios, none of them pleasant in the immediate aftermath. But what could be worse than what is happening now?

When the British left India, between two and three million Indians died in a frenzy of unparalleled ferocity for this subcontinent. This did not mean that either Hindu, Muslim or Sikh wanted the British back. We picked up our lives from the desolation of that moment, and slowly moved on. To withdraw from Iraq does not mean that America needs to withdraw from the world; in fact, quite the opposite. It is Iraq that has isolated America from the world.

Alarm clocks are normally harmless, except for the nerves. The North Korean nuclear alarm clock is radioactive. If this does not serve as a wake-up call for George Bush, what will? The old order is dead; disorder is rife. Maybe Iraq has deleted the super from superpower, but there is still power and it needs to be used with discretion to create a shared world, ruled by values and law, not shock and awe.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Soft Sell, Hard Luck

Byline by M J Akbar: Soft Sell, Hard Luck

Aamir Khan is surely the finest actor in contemporary popular cinema. His oeuvre, spread across nearly two decades, stretches from chick lit romance (hugely successful), to rebel-with-a-cause (superhit), to hero-by-accident (hum-haw). His latest rebellion, Rang De Basanti, has so enchanted the establishment that it is the official Indian nominee for next year’s Oscars.

The only Indian film that came close to winning an Oscar in the foreign films category was Mother India, released in 1958. It lost to Federico Fellini’s Nights of the Cabiria by a solitary vote. One filmmaker who believes that he could have easily won the Oscar, had he but put in the effort, is Dev Anand, for Guide. But instead of going to Los Angeles to campaign for his film, Dev Anand, heady with the unexpected commercial success of an absolutely brilliant film, started work on his next movie, Jewel Thief. Great entertainment, that gentleman thief, straight out of the Cary Grant mould, but no Oscar. Since India is now the big buzz around the world, there is a good chance that 2007 might be the country’s lucky year.

But surely the easiest way to get Aamir Khan an Oscar for best acting would have been to enter the latest advertisement he has done for Coca Cola. There has been no finer bit of acting. Aamir Khan looks deadly serious in a deadly blue plastic cap and a deadly white shirt talking to a scientist in a deadly white laboratory apron holding what might even be, in your subconscious, a test tube. The great weakness of the ad, unfortunately, is the dialogue, which is more dead than deadly. But Aamir Khan, as he has done so often while working for lesser mortals in Hindi cinema, triumphs over the script in his attempt to sell the distortion that Coca Cola is a wonderfully healthy drink, that it has no impurities (as alleged by some dirty politicians and filthy NGOs) and so on and so forth. The ad is flush with symbols of purity: that plastic cap! It must be there to ensure that not a single strand of the actor’s well-oiled hair gets into any Coke bottle. That chemist’s frock! Coke is clearly produced in sanitised laboratories that use their extra capacity to produce cancer-destroying drugs. That grim face! It is Aamir Khan taking personal responsibility for the good health of anyone gorging on Diet or Fat Coke.

Honestly, I don’t get it. Who is Coke trying to fool by using Aamir Khan to spread a silly sanitised image? There is of course history: Coca Cola has been trying to dupe the consumer ever since it was created. It was first marketed as a medicine, and after a century it has been forced back to a laboratory environment to survive in India. The managers of the company are smart. So far they have paid Aamir Khan vast sums of money to look like, among other things, a Japanese tourist with a swollen face and a penchant for samosas, Coke and a curious sense of humour. It must have worked or they would have stopped the cheque. But they also know that Aamir Khan has been crafting a "serious" sideline in his image, by turning up suddenly to promote the Narmada dam agitation. He left as suddenly, of course, when irresponsible journalists started asking uncomfortable questions, but that is another story. Between Narmada and Rang De Basanti an alternative image has been created, quite consciously. Coke has paid, therefore, for a double role: Aamir Khan the Japanese tourist when Coke wants the kids to laugh, and Aamir Khan the social activist when it wants the kids to quote his wisdom in their homework.

Does such marketing work? It has not stopped the agitation against both Coke and Pepsi in Uttar Pradesh for depleting groundwater levels by unchecked exploitation around the Mehndiganj Coca Cola plant in Varanasi. Dr Sandeep Pandey, who has won the Magsaysay award, believes that nearly 90 per cent of the wells and over 40 per cent of hand pumps within a radius of three kilometres of the plant have been affected. He adds that the plants contaminate water by producing cadmium, chromium and lead. These are serious issues. The epicentre of the anger against the cola giants has been in the South, but it is now becoming a nationwide movement. This anger is not going to be assuaged by dressing up an actor. The cola companies have to engage in a debate with activists who know what they are talking about, and people who believe their health and interests are being damaged by companies more concerned with profit than the consumer. These concerns are not unique to India, although India does have problems that may be unique.

The best option for the cola companies could be to banish the pretence and stick to the Japanese tourist and samosa. Consumers are generally an intelligent lot, and they know that there is generally a price to be paid for fun. (The most intelligent consumers of colas, however, might be the Andhra farmers who soaked a small area of their farms with the stuff. Ants, attracted by sugar, made an ant-line to the spot, and could be killed in heaps.)

Coke and Pepsi sell because they are the modern mass-produced sherbets, with oversized doses of sugar, gas and at least some kind of narcotic, if that is the right word in these heavily legalistic age. In fact, the most money is made these days by industries that do not waste their mindspace worrying about your health. The cash flows in the alcohol industry are pretty racy, thank you, and no one has yet shown an advertisement of beer being produced in a medical factory. Cigarettes have to place a pretty grim warning on every packet. What could be more terrifying than a notice that what you are about to consume could kill you? Have you seen any cigarette company that has died of hunger? Coke and Pepsi don’t even have to suggest that too much of either could make you obscenely fat. They can also spend a fortune on advertising that has absolutely nothing to do with the product, and get away with it. Pepsi, for instance, has chosen to answer its problems in India by shoving cricket-patriotism down your throat till you are blue in the face. It doesn’t talk about Pepsi at all: how brilliant! On the other hand, you can’t truly support the Indian cricket team in the Champions’ Trophy if you don’t have a Pepsi in your satchel. But this is friendly manipulation. If there had been consumer brands in Moses’ time instead of merely locusts and honey, the cola companies would have lobbied hard, and possibly effectively, to prevent the Ten Commandments from becoming law. Coke is good for wandering in the desert.

There is better news for the big cola boys: the competition might be even more harmful. The most successful new soft drink has been an energiser from Austria, Red Bull. An eight-ounce can contains 80mg of caffeine and about five teaspoons of sugar. Try that for size. Your size.

The most famous "medical" endorsement for any product is surely the ageless pseudo-dentist telling you that Colgate is good for your teeth. But that is a believable claim, if only because no one has been able to prove that Colgate is bad for your teeth. The anonymity of that dentist is oddly reassuring; toothpaste is not a glamour product. Aamir Khan, the classy actor, wants us to suspend disbelief (the first requirement of theatre or cinema) when he assures that despite all the controversies around Coke, he has tried and tested it and confirmed that it is full of joy. Thank you, Dr Khan. But do put that sermon tone away and say the same thing in song-and-dance. We might as well be entertained while being sold a pup. And you might get an Oscar.