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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