Sunday, January 29, 2006

Grey Area

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Grey Area

A politician cannot live above politics. Politics is a buyer’s market. A voter will not accept short change once he has made his bargain.

Whoever thought that the uses of adversity are sweet was never in Indian politics and must have been a Trappist monk of the more depressed sort. Indian politicians do not smile in adversity; they shrivel and turn suicidal. This is generic. Look anywhere, at nation or region, ideology or personality.

The Shiv Sena, once the roar of Maharashtra, now shrunk to a whimper by nepotism, has all the buoyancy of Napoleon’s army after a winter vacation in Moscow, feeding on the carcass of horses on which it once rode to victory. The rise of the Shiv Sena was once considered an astonishing and definitive fact of contemporary politics. Its collapse is equally astonishing, and equally definitive. Its fate is proof that the politics which dominated the decades between 1985 and 2005 is dead, and those who cannot rise above this past will wither in its aridity.

The Shiv Sena claims to be an ideological outfit. Its complete disarray makes a nonsense of such claims. Its success, it is now obvious, was built on more traditional pillars, of which anger against the establishment was paramount. Bal Thackeray’s personal charisma helped, but the victories of Narayan Rane prove that it was not a dominant charisma, in the sense that Mrs Indira Gandhi’s was. Leaders like Rane added significantly to the pool without getting anything like adequate credit. Bal Thackeray may have lost the game when he refused to become chief minister after the Sena-BJP alliance won Maharashtra. Thackeray is no Mahatma Gandhi or Jayaprakash Narayan. He was a politician who made promises. When the voter believed those promises, Thackeray backed out from personal responsibility and passed the buck to lieutenants with less than memorable names. A politician cannot live above politics. Politics is a buyer’s market. A voter will not accept short change once he has made his bargain.

The BJP has been overtaken by an epidemic of sulks, and undertaken by black humour. If it doesn’t watch out, it could hiccup itself to insignificance. The BJP doesn’t need a new president, although it has bothered to find one. It needs, first, to hire Greg Chappell, along with a clutch of Australian physiotherapists, who would do good at multiple levels. Chappell has a basic doctrine: Discipline above all else. Discipline in adversity begins with physical discipline. L.K. Advani is the only senior BJP leader with any discipline, so naturally they removed him. Adversity has unique ways of reinforcing itself.

Adversity is a transparent fact. The just-concluded AICC session in Hyderabad was a lake of lively wavelets with just one patch of gloom. The saddest face in the country today is that of Dharam Singh, the short-lived Congress chief minister of Karnataka.

The Congressman is the Brahmin of Indian politics. He believes that he rules by divine right, and occasional spells of misfortune constitute the arbitrary impact of Kaliyuga that might befall the best of the twice-born, and can be ameliorated by the requisite number of yagnas. Other castes, in this self-image, are welcome to share power, but as secondary or even subservient players. Now that the gods had restored the skewed balance of the world by restoring them to power in Delhi, the mood in Hyderabad was one of smug satisfaction. This may be perfectly acceptable when the party is having a party, but does not work on the morning after, as Karnataka showed.

The culture of alliance demands, for starters, respect for the ally. This is more important than the importance of portfolios. There may be give and take in portfolios, but there is no give and take in respect: that has to be a permanent foundation. But respect is the one thing that the Congress does not have on offer, to either friend or foe. Foes can do little about it, but friends can. Dharam Singh is in Bangalore’s departure lounge because he thought he could break an ally, Deve Gowda’s party, from within and occupy space thus made freshly available. Lalu Yadav is in a political dispensary in Patna because the Congress first tripped him badly enough to ensure that his leg was broken, and then offered a crutch in the sure knowledge that he could never hobble to victory. Sharad Pawar is shrewder at protecting his interests, but surely he can see the Congress elbow hammering away at his ribs. He may not feel the pain now, or pretend not to, but he will later. These stretching exercises by the Congress, ratified by the "Only-Congress" mood at Hyderabad, are logical, because the Congress is trying to reclaim space that was once its sole territory. However, it needs to be in power to expand its base at the expense of its allies. The loss in Karnataka is therefore a setback. Sour are the uses of adversity.

Assuming that the Trappist monk had not gone insane from prayer, guilt, self-imposed solitary confinement, silence and the awful grey cold of Europe, we need to consider why he thought the uses of adversity could be sweet. He clearly meant that sorrow and affliction were good for the soul. When out of power you have the opportunity to ponder over mistakes, correct deviations, find a new path forward even as you rediscover the will to return to primary objectives like service to man (and, if you are a monk, obedience to God). The last person to discover such virtues (including obedience to God) in adversity was Mahatma Gandhi, and not all the time, one may add. But now, alas, adversity only tends to encourage perversity. No front is free from dissension, and no back free from a bite.

In such conditions, you can hardly blame political parties from standing still and hoping for the best. This is fatalism, perhaps, but other options seem to them to be fatal. This wait-and-see philosophy emanates out of the principle that no one wins an election but someone loses it. Normally — unless, that is, you are Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or Congress in Bengal — this works. The AGP is waiting in Assam and will probably win the next Assembly election. However, it is not foolproof. The Akalis are waiting in Punjab, and Captain Amarinder Singh might keep them waiting awhile. But the best that can be said about waiting is that it is brain-dead politics. The sharp politicians are those who can see adversity approaching and have the skill to pre-empt it. Witness Deve Gowda.

So what is the best strategy for life in adversity? Honestly, I don’t know any that might be considered practical. However, I have just been reading about the worst possible one.

The ultimate book about adversity is surely a history of the Black Death, as the plague that wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century was known (The Great Mortality, by John Kelly). The plague started in Mongolia and reached, via the trade routes, the port of Caffa on the eastern edge of the Black Sea, controlled by the Genoese and rich with the wealth of silk from China, timber and fur from Russia, slaves from Ukraine, diamonds from Golconda and spice from Kerala and Ceylon. The overlords of the region were the Mongols, who had become Muslims by then in central Asia and south Russia. Tension between the Genoese and the Muslims sharpened into conflict and in 1343 Janibeg Khan drove the Italians to the point of surrender in the port. Just then the plague hit the Mongols. The Genoese went down on their knees to give thanks to the Almighty. They were premature. Janibeg Khan proved to be something of a germ-war strategist. He loaded infected corpses on to his catapults and flung the corpses into Caffa. The Genoese were decimated, and he ensured that both sides lost. That was how the Black Death entered Europe.

The image is drastic, and I certainly do not want to be taken too literally. But it seems to me that in the laissez faire mood currently prevalent in Indian politics, there is great danger of one side’s corpses infecting the body of the host. This is easier when there is no anti-body like ideology to fight against infection. Does a politician who has been worse than Narendra Modi in his invective against minorities suddenly become a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi because he can win on a Congress platform?

I hope the answer is more optimistic than my pessimism.

-Back to Main Blog

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Bangalore Virus

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: The Bangalore Virus

Five questions sum up the breadth of news: What, When, Where, Why and How. The breadth of politics is spanned by a single question: Why? What, When and Where become largely irrelevant because you can hardly undo the past; and How helps with the gossip but does not interfere with facts. "Why" is crucial because its answer is the only means by which you can try to pre-empt a similarly unpleasant surprise in the future.

If you manage to get surprised by H.D. Deve Gowda, then you have not been in touch with his astrologer. On the scale of political mistakes, that is the full twelve inches of the ruler. The Congress, which was shocked rather than surprised when Gowda brought down the coalition government in Karnataka, has itself to blame. Anyone with an ear open in Delhi or Bangalore knew at least a fortnight back that Deve Gowda had placed his hands firmly on the carpet and was going to pull it from under Dharam Singh’s chair. Our newspaper had suggested as much in the political diaries we publish, and we were hardly alone. But ever since it came to power, the Congress has been floating in a delirium. It is hard to see clearly with eyes wide shut.

Five questions sum up the breadth of news: What, When, Where, Why and How. The breadth of politics is spanned by a single question: Why? What, When and Where become largely irrelevant because you can hardly undo the past; and How helps with the gossip but does not interfere with facts. "Why" is crucial because its answer is the only means by which you can try to pre-empt a similarly unpleasant surprise in the future.

So why did the former Prime Minister of India sabotage his own coalition with Congress in Bangalore?

The easy answer is: to satisfy the ambitions of his son, H.D. Kumaraswamy. That is correct as far as it goes. But that proposition makes two assumptions. The first is that the Congress would not have been amenable to making Kumaraswamy chief minister if pressed. As post-mortem flutters indicate, any deal would have been a better alternative to Congress than life in arid wilderness. The Congress is ready to accept Mr Kumaraswamy as the new leader even as I write.

But a deal is unlikely, even in the name of secularism, which brought the two together after the elections of 2004. Instead Gowda and BJP MLAs are off on the familiar countrywide package tour (a resort outside Bangalore for a day, then to the comparative safety of Jayalalithaa’s Chennai, before onward to the protection of Fortress Jaipur, under the pleasant but beady watch of Mrs Vasundhara Scindia) to keep them together, and out of reach of any possible enticement from the Congress.

The second assumption is that we are only dealing with the hopes of a son. You also have to factor in the ambitions of the father.

It is perfectly logical that those who became Prime Minister through the good graces of fortune should be confident that the astrologer who was, quite against the odds, right the first time should be correct again when he predicts a second successful tilt at the windmill. I don’t know who Deve Gowda’s personal astrologer is, but he would not be worth the sandal paste on his forehead if he had not studied the stars and predicted that Deve Gowda would become Prime Minister again.

It is now established that the way to Delhi is through the states. Deve Gowda has set in motion a process that, he hopes, will not only make his son chief minister of Karnataka but also make him either Prime Minister or at the very least deputy prime minister in Delhi. Hope is not quite the same thing as fulfilment but it is the first step towards achievement.

Any coalition in power has two principal strategic objectives. The first obviously is to keep the existing coalition together. The second, no less important, is to prevent the emergence of an alternative coalition. Very often the survival of the first lies in the success of the second.

Untouchability plays an important part in the psychology of coalitions. For a long while the Congress was treated by most smaller parties as untouchable. The riots in Gujarat gave Congress its opportunity to turn the BJP into the untouchable. Mrs Sonia Gandhi used the chance, with remarkable finesse, to put together a rainbow partnership that was very effective, electorally. Such was the pressure of success that Deve Gowda, who had not aligned with the Congress before the 2004 elections, was forced to join a Congress-led government after equilateral results made it possible for any two sides to keep the third in Opposition. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu broke his partnership with the BJP. In less than two years, Deve Gowda has quietly undermined that untouchability. That process may have started when Nitish Kumar stuck with the BJP in Bihar, and proved that he could still get at least a part of the Muslim vote. But Deve Gowda has taken it a decisive step forward.

To return to the basic question: Why? The Congress has not made any serious political miscalculation or appropriated too much more than it deserved. One could argue that it is hitting above its weight in Delhi, keeping all the key centres of power, but that is a reality which junior partners know they have to live with. The problem is not the present, but the future. The smaller parties in the coalition know one indisputable fact, that the Congress can grow in their states only at their expense. This is glaringly true in a state like Maharashtra, and only marginally less valid in Karnataka. There is only one point on which Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are agreed in Uttar Pradesh, that they would rather be defeated by each other than be defeated by the Congress. Chandrababu Naidu has only the Congress to worry about, which is why he cannot be in a Congress-led coalition. Nor can Om Prakash Chautala in Haryana. The Left is less worried because it is confident that it will defeat the Congress in both Bengal and Kerala. Others cannot be as sanguine; and the Left might try a quick look over the shoulder just in case there is a de facto understanding between Congress and Mamata Banerjee in Bengal during this summer’s Assembly election.

This is the fundamental problem before the Congress, whether its leaders formally address it during the Hyderabad AICC or not. They might content themselves with pretty slogans rather than real issues, because an AICC has now become the Christmas party of a political party, a happy jamboree of sentimental reunions fuelled by pretty good food. The logic of a coalition permits no encroachment. The logic of power demands encroachment. The history of the Congress demands it as well. That is the dilemma.

Successful politics is the combination of personal ambition with unsentimental reality. Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy’s decisions will be influenced by what they want now as well as what they want ten years later. If the price of power now is elimination in the next elections, they will seek other options while they can.

One reason why the Left Front works in Bengal is because the various partners have, over two decades, established their territories: the Forward Bloc, for instance, knows that it will get this many seats in any election. The Congress-led coalitions are new, and no one knows what they will get in any future seat-sharing arrangement. Nor is it possible to know, for all political parties are personality-oriented. The presence or absence of the leader becomes a huge variable.

The political map of India is a stack of coalition governments: a straight line of coalitions from Delhi to Bengal via Patna and Ranchi, followed by a straight line from Kolkata to Trivandrum via Bhubaneswar and Chennai and back again to Mumbai via Bangalore. Andhra may not look like a coalition government, but it is one. The Congress is in power on its own strength only in small states like Punjab, Haryana and Assam. There is always the danger of a virus moving from one stack to another.

We are in a transition phase of Indian politics, and 2006 could be so transitory it might even bypass Deve Gowda’s astrologer.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Somalia Notebook

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar :A Somalia Notebook

War is a great boon to technology. A cruise liner defended itself against heavily armed Somali pirate boats last year with the LRAD, Long Range Acoustic Device. It emits a sound from a long range that the human ear cannot tolerate and has proved a brilliant answer to pirate guns. So as long as pirates are human they can be driven. I am told that the device is being used in Iraq to disperse unwanted crowds. For more details on LRAD check Google. The Almighty, Omnipotent Google knows all.

How many guns make a warlord? 25 technicals, so about 250 armed men with Russian AK-47s and Belgian pistols make you a lord, and you can go up the hierarchy to viscount or marquis or earl or proper baron if you include a couple of anti-aircraft guns and artillery pieces.

But there are no kings in Somalia. A top of the line AK-47 costs between 400 and 500 dollars; many of the weapons are below the line. I picked up one, while we were lunching off chunks of dry roast camel in a dhaba, lent to me by a young man in a shy smile and a lungi. It was heavy, a little less than ten kilograms. I gave it back after making appropriate noises, carefully avoiding even passing contact with the trigger. At a rough glance, my benefactor had about a million and a half Somali shillings worth of ammunition in his belts: a dollar fetches three bullets.

Three great symbols of modern civilisation are available in Somalia: the AK-47, Coca Cola and the mobile phone. Three mobile phone companies, Nationlink, TelecomSomalia and Hormut, ensure proper competition. An international call costs only 30 American cents. They also double up as money-transfer operations and one of them (defunct after landing up in the suspect category) sent Washington into paroxysms after 9/11 with a word that previously did not exist in a western dictionary but was perfectly understood in much of Asia, hawala. Americans were in Somalia a decade before 9/11 but never picked up this word. Maybe that is why they never stayed. You have to understand Somalia to stay in Somalia.

War is a great boon to technology. A cruise liner defended itself against heavily armed Somali pirate boats last year with the LRAD, Long Range Acoustic Device. It emits a sound from a long range that the human ear cannot tolerate and has proved a brilliant answer to pirate guns. So as long as pirates are human they can be driven. I am told that the device is being used in Iraq to disperse unwanted crowds. For more details on LRAD check Google. The Almighty, Omnipotent Google knows all.

Their present having been stolen, Somalis take comfort in the past. Ancient Egyptians imported cinnamon, frankincense, tortoise shells and "slaves of a superior sort" from Somalia and conceded that Somali civilisation matched their own. If the Magi were kings from Africa, then it is at least plausible that the one carrying frankincense for the infant Jesus came from Somalia. Ibn Batuta, the 13th century Tunisian traveller who did not waste time on inconsequential places, found Maqdashaw a "town of enormous size" where "a single person … eats as much as the whole company of us would eat … and they are corpulent in the extreme". The only parallel I can think of is a Kashmiri enjoying his wazwan in front of us mere mortals, but of course the Kashmiri is not corpulent. The waters of Chashm e Shahi keep him slim.

How many clans make a nation? The Arabs found 39 when Mogadishu became one of their principal trading colonies in the tenth century. This was the breakdown: Mukri (12), Djidati (12), Akati (6), Ismaili (6) and Afifi (3). The Mukri, who also had a dynastic ulema, were in the ascendant when Ibn Batuta visited the port. The nation state is a recent idea. Nomadic Somalis lived across a far wider region than their present borders, including Ethiopia and Kenya. European colonisation came only towards the end of the 19th century. The British came to the north because, as they put it, they wanted guaranteed meat supplies for their garrison in Aden. The Italians wanted the fruit groves of the south. The French were tempted, typically, by temptation and occupied Djibouti. The clans did not wait to be conquered. They took the easy way out and sold their rights, most often for less than a hundred dollars. The treaties were remarkable for their three-point simplicity. Point 1: All rights are yours. Point 2: I get 70 or 100 dollars. Point 3: You have the last word in all disputes. Neighbours could hardly resist exploiting such weakness. In 1891 Emperor Menelik II, founder of modern Ethiopia, wrote to European powers: "Ethiopia has been for 14 centuries a Christian island in a sea of pagans. If Powers at a distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to remain an indifferent spectator." He did not. He sent word to Amir Abdullahi, ruler of the historic city of Harar and pivotal to Muslim east Africa, to accept his suzerainty. The Amir, heir to a dynasty of 72 generations, sent presents and a helpful suggestion, that Menelik should accept Islam. Menelik promised to conquer Harar and turn the principal mosque into a church. The Medihane Alam Church, in front of the Galma Amir Abdullahi, or the old palace, is evidence that Menelik kept his word.

The mosque was converted but not the people. While Ethiopia proudly and correctly claimed to have become Christian at the time of Constantinople, lands like Kenya changed only during the wave of missionary activity that accompanied colonisation in the 19th century. As Jomo Kenyatta, first President of independent Kenya, famously said, "When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible in their hands and we had the lands… We closed our eyes to pray and when we opened them, we had the Bible in our hands and they had the lands…"

Harar has the feel of a city that has travelled a long way through history but now has nowhere left to go.

Unesco has recognised Harar, about 450 kilometres east of Addis Ababa through land rich in the local addiction, chat (or khat), a mildly intoxicating but stimulating leaf that is chewed slowly, as a heritage city. There is some excitement among the educated elite that Unesco may do more for Harar than all the rulers since the defeat of Amir Abdullahi at the battle of Chelenko in 1887. There is hope but not too much trust. As a sociologist who did his post-graduate studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai some twenty years ago, told me over mercato in the lovely café in the courtyard of the city, "We have been living too long on a diet of pledges."

Little was done for the people, who are of Somali origin, but bitter wars were fought over them. In the Seventies, Siad Barre of Somalia invaded Ethiopia to take back the Ogaden region, where Harar is. Talk that Ogaden possessed huge reserves of oil and gas might have encouraged the invasion. Siad Barre’s tanks penetrated deep into the desert before they were defeated by Cuban soldiers who acted as mercenaries of the Soviet Union (Ethiopia had a Marxist-Leninist regime then, a fact that merely Socialist Siad Barre forgot). Hararis remember the Cubans as a wild lot, shooting donkeys playfully even after being told how valuable these pack animals were. A few Cuban faces in a traditional and conservative society are more evidence that "liberators" make their own rules.

The elders, gradually losing their eminence as a new anger slowly seeps through the young, are resigned to stagnation, and the eyes flicker with old zeal only when they dream that Menelik’s church will once again become a mosque in their lifetime. The people, as elsewhere in Ethiopia, can be strikingly good-looking. The girls wear embroidered head scarves or, rarely, the hijab with jeans. The boys are in the ubiquitous football T-shirt. One bearded young man had EBAMA, San Jose, California, Badr 2004 written on his T-shirt. It stood for Ethiopian Bay Area Muslim Association. Had he lived in America, I asked. No, he said. Few leave Harar. Those who go send T-shirts along with cheques, but do not return.

The mansion in which the Lion of Judah, Haile Selassie, was born is in the old city, called Jubal, and was built by an Indian. You walk down a narrow stone alley full of shops and tailors with Singer sewing machines. Indians, particularly Bohras from Mumbai, dominated commerce during Muslim rule in Harar. Haile Selassie was born here because his father, Menelik’s brother, was made governor after the defeat of Amir Abdullahi. Unesco has allocated funds for the restoration of the mansion, but ten families have made it their home and will not move. The most interesting occupant is a healer.

He sits, erect, on a mattress at the centre of one end of a spacious drawing room on the ground floor. His fame is recorded for posterity in a notebook where his literate patients describe their miraculous recovery, and attach passport-size photographs to add a face to their identity. He is 52 and learnt his skills from his father, whose picture is framed on the high wall behind him, above a carpet with a drawing of the holy mosque at Kaaba, and a much-extended string of prayer beads which he uses for dhikr, a Sufi form of devotion, at night. A woman enters, kisses his extended hand twice while he continues talking to us, and joins another with a child in a corner. There is a telephone on a table, and two small tape-players, one broken. The telephone rings once during our visit, and is picked by an aide lounging on the side who, we realise later, also speaks English. A notice board indicates that the healer cures all the tough diseases, including gynaecological problems, but, alas, back pain is not on the list. He assures me that he can repair nerves that wrack your back as well, and there has been a cancer patient or two who has gone home happy. He explains that he uses herbs and plants, and not shaman-style magic. Perhaps he tells villagers, who crowd around him in the mornings since they have to return by nightfall, something different; perhaps he is equally candid with them. He asks about herbal medicines in India and I include Tibet’s fame in my response.

The notice outside affirms that the healer does not accept fees, but donations for the cause are not unwelcome. I do not use his expertise, but my donation is not unwelcome either.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Who Said This?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ AkbarL Who Said This?

‘Children nowadays love luxury, have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for elders."

Who said this?

One of the more educative joys is to read intelligent book reviews. The success of a review is generally measured by the speed with which you order the book afterwards, or cancel any such intentions. Very occasionally there appears a review that is so intelligent that it makes purchase of the book redundant. This is hard luck upon the author and the publisher, and my heart goes out to both for predictable reasons. I saw one such review in the Christmas issue of the Spectator. The unfortunate publisher is Hodder and Stoughton, and the unlucky compiler of Keeping My Words: An Anthology from Cradle to Grave is Magnus Magnusson. The review did nothing more, or indeed less, than string together a selection of the best quotes; in the flavour was the dish.

The quotation recorded above is from this collection. Proof of its relevance appears wherever you look, although its defining words need to be understood more clearly. Luxury does not mean buying Louis Vuitton shoes or Cartier watches. It simply means buying what your parents cannot afford. A pair of Diesel jeans for an insistent child therefore is a serious luxury for any middle-class Indian parent. (When the child stops being a child, earns a salary and buys himself something he cannot afford, he is being self-indulgent, which is no one else’s business.)

Bad manners is a similar disease: it is doing what your parents do not want you to do, like misbehaving with boring relatives or being nasty to their spoilt children.

On the other hand I rather like the idea of children having contempt for authority. This is surely one of the redeeming features of youth. Respect for authority is designed to make you a carbon copy of the establishment, ending all hope of change and progress.

So who said this?


Socrates was born in 469 BC and committed suicide in 399 BC at the venerable age of 70. It confirms my theory that but for electricity life hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half thousand years.

I was familiar with only three of the quotations offered in the review. Of them, Mark Twain’s take on sons and dads finds a place in just about any anthology: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." As Einstein pointed out, everything is relative, but nothing is more relative than relations between father and son.

Those who have read Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, the terrible twins of the old Esquire magazine, a brilliant monthly offering of wit and fiction that has been modernised to suit the tastes of kids of 14, will surely recall Vidal’s remark upon learning that his friend and rival Capote had died: "That was a good career move." Cats cannot begin to compete against New York’s literary elitists.

And if you have not for some odd reason read a non-elitist American called Ogden Nash, then I urge you to rush to the nearest bookstore, for the long-dead author is still alive in reprint. Here are his considered feelings on the complex tiers of age:

Senescence begins

And middle age ends

The day your descendants

Outnumber your friends.

I suppose the point of such an anthology is to provide a working philosophy for the reader, but trust the Russians to take it too far. Since Anton Chekhov is 19th century Russian I expect gloom, but this is life with a permanent overcast: "If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t get married." How do you recognise a married couple in a restaurant? They are the two who aren’t talking.

Americans, unlike Russians, are not gloomy, but when their hearts break you can hear the sound all the way in India. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is as American as his name, gets Chekhovian on another slant: "It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won’t save us any more than love did." But, honestly, who falls in love to be saved?

The French, naturally, have a very different take on friendship; the Frenchwoman being in a class by herself. The author Colette sniffs: "My true friends have always given me supreme proof of devotion, a spontaneous aversion for the man I loved."

The Frenchman has a justified foreboding of the Frenchwoman. Alexandre Dumas (of Musketeers fame) is certain that "It is only rarely that one can see in a little boy the promise of a man, but one can almost always see in a little girl the threat of a woman".

Bertrand Russell, who could not have been less French, was not talking of Dumas, but he could have been: "Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact." Check out the content of any male conversation. If it isn’t about what has gone wrong, then there is no conversation. If there were no bad news, men would go home, presumably to sleep badly. This is one of the few aphorisms that seems to me to be of universal application.

It is remarkable how poignant the stiff-lipped English can get when they are helpless. When they can help themselves, they help themselves to an empire on which the sun never sets. When they become helpless, they can’t see beyond the White House. Two British politicians experience adolescence and infirmity. John Prescott, the large, bluff, gruff deputy prime minister of Tony Blair’s Britain, recalls, "The 11-plus split me from the girl I carried a torch for. She passed, I failed. She went to grammar school, I sent her a love letter telling her I missed her — she sent it back with the spelling mistakes corrected."

If you are on the edge of tears already, let them flow freely in the company of Alec Douglas Home (pronounced, naturally, Hume), who became Prime Minister of Britain after Harold Macmillan only to hand over power to Harold Wilson and the Labour Party.

To my deafness I’m accustomed,

To my dentures I’m resigned,

I can manage my bifocals,

But O, how I miss my mind.

As Alan Bennett, the acerbic British playwright notes, "In England, you see, age wipes the slate clean… If you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve the Nobel Prize."

Being a nationalist, I began to wonder why an Indian was not being quoted. Even the Chinese got a look-in, albeit in the form of a proverb. ("I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." Very inscrutable.) The book is clearly littered with wisdom from all manner of nationalities. The Chinese have built up a terrifying reputation for wisdom: is our international reputation limited to the Kamasutra, which requires expertise in gymnastics rather than intellect?

Or was the Indian quota filled by Socrates?

Hear anyone over fifty in India and all you hear is moans about the younger generation: they don’t listen, they want everything, they don’t care.

Thank God for such children. India’s future is bright.

-Back to Main

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ Akbar: Conflict, Corruption, Cricket

What do we really celebrate when we usher out the old year and cheer in the new — birth or death? I get the politically incorrect feeling that we are far happier about the death of the past than the promise of the new. The last twelve months have generally had little to recommend them. The wish that the next twelve months might be better is the usual triumph of optimism over reality.

Politics has its own calendar. Its seasons, controlled by human nature rather than nature, are whimsical and arbitrary. But December is too often dominated by that demon hovering over the Indian nation state, terrorism, as if those who hate what we have achieved cannot bear to let a moment of goodwill pass without tainting it with innocent blood. The attack on the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore was particularly heinous because a house of learning has been protected from ancient times by respect and honour. Only a savage violates values that are synonymous with civilisation.

Scientists are one of the great success stories of modern India, pioneers who have led momentous revolutions that might be the envy of a Marx or a Mao, for the struggle against hunger is more important than the struggle against class. The fact that killers were able to hit our premier campus in Bangalore indicates not only the depth of their reach, but also underlines how vulnerable we have become.

Terrorism is a dirty war fought at many levels in the bleak and arid ambience of a fog. Its perpetrators measure success by the level of fear they have created, for they know that fear feeds both rational and irrational responses. Since, so often, the enemy is a phantom, you can define him according to your prejudices. A proposition is proved by assumed objective. Assumptions are not necessarily wrong, but anger so often over-rides right and wrong. The terrorist wins when he can sow fear and confusion. The politician and the policeman know that fear can become a key to more votes and more funding. There are layers of evil, deception and exploitation that sustain one another.

The three staples of news in 2005 were conflict, corruption and cricket. Worthy things also happened in 2005. The government introduced a rural employment scheme which the Opposition helped pass with solemn assent: who in his right mind in Parliament is going to oppose a populist idea when it is the government’s job to find the money for it, and take the risks of almost inevitable mismanagement and deflated hopes? Does anyone remember that bill, which will demand a substantial chunk of the budget when it is implemented? No. However, a fair number of news addicts would probably be able to sketch out Monica Bedi’s features, and recall the year in which she met Abu Salem.

They would also know how many MPs were expelled from Parliament for taking cash to ask questions, and the correct spelling of Paul Volcker’s name. At this point, I cannot but pause for an irony. There is an MP from Bengal called Adhir Chowdhury who is accused of murdering 12 people, and has seen the inside of a jail more than once in his rich and varied life. He continues to be an Honourable Member of Parliament because while there is clearly great anger at getting caught with your hand in the till, there is no clarity about what to do in the case of a man with a knife at someone’s throat.

Volcker and Monica Bedi would pale in comparison to cricket. Cricket is the true religion of our times, with various sects protecting the omnipotence of their leaders with a fervour that was once reserved for the Almighty’s affairs. The worshippers at the Temple of Sourav Consciousness rather overdid it, actually. If I were the chief executive of the Saint Greg School of Thought, I would insist that Sourav Ganguly open the innings in Pakistan, and let him face the onslaught of the Shoaib Akhtar Brotherhood, rather than hide him at number six.

One of the finest combinations of artistry, theatre and Mongol-style mayhem was the sight of Sachin Tendulkar and Sehwag taking apart Shoaib during the World Cup semi-finals in South Africa. The runs were not really the issue. It was the brilliance of craft and absolute fearlessness of the batsmen that made those five-odd overs so memorable. That is the standard, in character, we expect from cricketers now and if Sourav is in the team then he must deliver at that level in Pakistan.

Cricket, conflict and corruption will provide the bridge stories between 2005 and 2006, and the paying public will probably get better performance levels in all three areas. The Pakistan tour by the Indian team will look after the mass-frenzy needs of January and February. Any sensible planner would make sure that George Bush’s India visit takes place after the cricket is over: Bush and Manmohan Singh don’t stand a chance against live coverage of Sachin vs Shoaib.

There were two ways in which MPs could have reacted to the expulsion of their errant brethren. They could all have decided to stop taking bribes. They chose the second option: one gathers that anti-surveillance electronic equipment has sold out in Delhi’s black market. If there is a market for intelligence, there is a bigger market for counter-intelligence. Jamming devices are fetching a high premium. This will doubtless encourage the sting-masters of journalism to take their search-and-destroy missions to more complex and lucrative levels. Justice Pathak’s enquiry report will resurrect Volcker in Delhi. The government is in a bit of a bind on this one actually. If it exonerates former foreign minister Natwar Singh it will be accused of bias; if it suggests guilt, there will be consequences for the Congress.

Conflict, and its handmaiden, terrorism, will, alas, remain the burden on the shoulders of an India ready to spring to the high table of the world’s economy. It is important to recall that before China launched its economic miracle, it took a deliberate decision to resolve border conflicts by placing them in the storehouse and getting on with the rest of life. The key dilemma for Delhi will not be terrorism itself, but the degree to which the Pakistan establishment is involved in encouraging it.

Over the last 12 months the view of the Manmohan Singh government has changed; it now believes that Islamabad has not lived up to its promise to curtail terrorism within India. But there will come a political chance to reverse regress, since Dr Manmohan Singh is likely to visit Pakistan before the middle of 2006. If that visit proves a failure, then conflict levels could touch flash-point again. Hawks in both Delhi and Islamabad, who have been condemned to a miserable diet ever since they drove South Asia to war fever but could not take it to war, are back in business with their hands on the menu.

New Year greetings and thoughts are flying at a furious pace through SMS: there is nothing like commerce to generate goodwill. One friend with a particularly devious mind suggested that life had got it all wrong: we should be born old and die young. He provided graphic reasons for his theory, many of them unprintable. But the point is worth considering. A new year is always born old, muddied by the hangover of so many yesterdays, and gets older. Youth means the birth of a new idea, or a new reality; and those are few and far between. We may have been young only once, in 1947, and that birth was a painful Caesarean, which resulted in twins separated at creation and condemned to compete, contest, combat, conspire but rarely to cooperate. Would it have been better if India and Pakistan were born old, and had become young by 2006?

It’s a thought.

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