Sunday, March 26, 2006

Misty Mistakes

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Misty Mistakes

The Great Indian National Crisis that can trace its origins to Allahabad, was brewed in Delhi and made ears tingle across the world, was sandwiched between two incidents. Entranced by the hype of the capital, no one had much time for Jharkhand or Orissa: starlit India can never really compete with neon-lit India. The news from the dark states flitted through a few columns of newsprint and disappeared into that great cyberspace of indifference which India reserves for the unwanted.

A friend who was in Brazil during the week of the seismic sacrifice was startled to discover that Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from the Lok Sabha was rubbing sleep out of his jet-lagged eyes in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil’s media has even less international news than America’s, but 10 Janpath was staring at him from the television screen, Sonia Gandhi at the microphone and Rahul Gandhi waited literally in the deferential shadows. Since the information came without much context, my friend had no idea of either the reason or the consequences of the resignation.

He felt a bit flat therefore when I suggested that the truth was far less dramatic than the news. It begins in the shallow waters of personal animosity, and ends in the swamp of political trivia. This story has no legs. The Congress wrote the first chapter when it used a much-ignored technicality to get Mrs Jaya Bachchan unseated from the Rajya Sabha. Power is the sibling of complacency and first cousin, arrogance. It must have been a combination of both that fooled the Congress into believing that there would be no second chapter. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s name was written in the second chapter, since she too held an office of profit while being an MP. In fact there emerged a third chapter, with smaller players tumbling out of safe cupboards and sending their resignations. And there might be a fourth chapter since there is at least one Congress minister from Andhra Pradesh who believes he can brazen out the turmoil if he keeps his mouth shut and his purse open. But of course all eyes are stuck on the second chapter.

A power behind the throne has a distinct advantage over the throne. A king must be always seated on the throne, because that is the demand of office, or risk being dethroned. The power behind the throne can sit anywhere and remain as powerful. Whether Sonia Gandhi is inside the Lok Sabha or outside it makes no difference to the power structure of the Congress or the Congress-led coalition. She remains the primary decision-maker in the dispensation of political assignments and favours; the real dealer in any Cabinet shuffle or reshuffle, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an advisory (or possibly cautionary) capacity. Just to reinforce her supremacy the Congress puts on daily shows of breast-beating and has said that she will remain leader of the party in the Lok Sabha even though she has quit the House, and the vacancy she leaves behind in the National Advisory Council will not be filled. The government was just being its normal obedient self when it adjourned the budget session in order to issue an ordinance to enable Mrs Sonia Gandhi to remain an MP. Such fidelity tends to make your eyes watery, so naturally no one could see what the future held. Watery eyes are a slippery disease. You never know which misty mistake will suddenly cause the slippage that leads to a sudden general election. I am not suggesting it will happen. I am merely pointing out that it could happen.

Certainly no one in Delhi, whether government or its many courtiers, had any time for the two events on either side of the Great Indian National Crisis.

On Monday 13 March, the Maoist Communist Centre of India hijacked a train in the Latehar district of Jharkhand, the 628 Down from Barwadih to Mughalsarai, which had about 50 passengers on board. I call them troops because they were in uniform; they were wearing battle fatigues. They stopped the train, took the radio communication systems from the guard and driver, detached the vacuum pipe between the bogies and the engine, locked the compartments from the inside and ordered the passengers to remain calm. The railway authorities only realised that a train was missing when it did not reach Kumandi railway station, a distance of half an hour from the previous stop, despite seven hours having elapsed. Apparently anything less than that is still considered a "normal" delay. They did not even bother to investigate when the driver of a goods train informed them that he had seen a stationary train with its lights off. The police eventually reached the spot. Details are hazy but the local administration has given out the story that the Maoists, or Naxalites, melted into the forest at the arrival of the police, which is now apparently launching a vigorous hunt. You may have heard tales of such vigour before.

The vigour was certainly on the other side in a town called Udaygiri in Orissa on Friday the 24th of March. Some 80 Naxalites, including a contingent of women revolutionaries, launched a multiple offensive at dawn. The jail was their main target, from which they freed more than 40 prisoners; but they also attacked the police station, a camp of the Orissa Special Armed Police, the treasury office, the tehsildar’s office and a telecom tower. The district collector, Binod Bihari Mohanty, lived to fight another day by taking shelter in his neighbour’s home. His official residence was presumably less safe. The police lost two men in a two-hour battle, and three Naxalites were apparently killed, but we cannot be sure since they took the bodies with them. They also took, as live hostages, the officer in charge of the local police station, Ranjan Mallick, and the jailer, Rabinarayan Sethi. They also looted enough arms to sustain themselves in the future. The police, naturally, have launched yet another vigorous hunt, this time in the Gajapati forests.

Two completely different narratives are being played out in different worlds, over a common timeframe: the story in the neon lights has absolutely nothing to do with the story in starlight. Disparity has been a timeless part of Indian life, and has not disappeared in the shine of either Atal Behari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh. But it is the duty of the politician to link the two worlds. The bridge will be heavier on one side; but it will not break down as long as the other side is buoyed with hope: the hope that sheer and heartless poverty is not going to be a permanent fact of life. A democracy is designed to keep hope alive, but it needs democrats who understand that this is their fundamental responsibility. If hope cedes ground, then the vacant space will be filled by violence.

While Delhi contents itself with the theatre of the absurd (and sometimes the audience of courtiers is more hysterical than the principal actors), violence increases its domain across the breadth of India. It was once a thin belt, with occasional bulges, running through the middle of the country. It is now a fat belly, spreading north and south, growing obese on despair.

The drama of Delhi has no legs because it is running on empty: empty rhetoric, simulated slogans. There might be some forward movement if the law of unintended consequences takes over and drives mistakes that lead to accidents, which damage the relationships that keep an alliance together. Why do I consider this forward movement rather than regression?

Once, government was meant to bring the starlit world into the concern-structure of the neon-lit world. These days only a general election creates a meeting point between the two.

The elite rule India. But the poor rule the ballot box.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Air Power

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Air Power

Just keep your windows open in the capital of the world’s only superpower, and lots of bits and pieces tend to filter through. Here is something that might be of particular interest to those who have built the nuclear deal between Delhi and Washington on the basis of a separation of civilian and military assets.The key is the American "concession" to leave Indian military reactors outside the inspections regime.

The catch is that our civilian and military reactors are within the same complex. Two reactors at Tarapar, for instance, are civilian; the other two will probably not come under inspection. Two reactors in Rajasthan are already under safeguards, but four are not. And so on.

The inspectors, if they come, will not be permitted to enter the military facilities. That is the good news. The bad news is that they now rely heavily on environmental sampling techniques, and work with instruments that work over a radius of four kilometres. They can, and surely will, therefore be able to intrude into neighbouring reactors without actually entering them. Improvements in inspections technology are taking place all the time. There is a "beetle" being manufactured that is designed to curb nuclear proliferation, and can provide details of military significance. It is called a "beetle" because of its miniature size.

Since Pakistan has signed nothing, its facilities will not be under any Vienna or multilateral inspection. Pakistan too has civilian and military reactors, and has indicated that it will multiply its nuclear power generation capacity forty times by 2020. It would be naïve and even counterproductive to dismiss this as fancy or fantasy. Nuclear power is synonymous with national security and therefore nationalism, so Pakistan will find the resources and the technology to do so. A Pakistan-China nuclear deal to counter the India-US agreement is already evident, with this difference that Pakistan will not be under any international obligation to display any card in its hand.

Nicholas Burns, who negotiated the deal with Delhi on behalf of Washington, has gone on record to say that by 2015 up to 90% of Indian nuclear capacity will be under inspection (by which time even the "beetle" will probably be passé). Since the substantive part of our nuclear technology in the future is going to come from the United States, the US administration will have further knowledge of our programme through non-IAEA inspections. The US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has indicated that India will buy eight nuclear reactors from America at an estimated cost of $14.4 billion. According to one Indian expert this is more than we have spent on our entire nuclear programme so far.

On the plus side, this is the best technology we can get. Moreover, everyone knows that the assurance that has been demanded, and been obtained, that "civilian" technology will not be transferred to the military side is pure hogwash. Both Washington and Delhi know this to be bunk. While it may not be possible to transfer parts from one reactor to another, there is no way to prevent the transfer of a scientist who has learnt how to make the most sophisticated parts by working on the civilian side to the military side.

This self-evident fact also destroys a hypothesis being currently pushed in decision-making circles. It accepts that China’s response to the India deal will be aggressive technological assistance to Pakistan, but suggests that China might not be equally willing to weaponise Pakistan. I do not buy this argument, since China’s self-interest is best served by letting Pakistan engage India in an arms race. In any case, once Pakistan gets the technology it can do its own algebra. As noted before, it will not have to worry about nuclear inspectors in the process.

One happy consequence of the India-US deal, irrespective of shades and tints that may alter the picture, is that non-proliferation as a comprehensive international objective has been buried by President George Bush. They are calling this realism in Washington, and they are right. Thrusting a non-proliferation treaty down the world’s throat was the Second Last Passion of Bill Clinton (his Last Respectable Passion was the peace treaty between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat: both passions ended in failure). The world according to George Bush is tougher, meaner, leaner and divided between friends and enemies. Friends of a certain stature will be permitted entry into the nuclear club. America has accorded Israel this special status for a long while, and Britain actively helped Israel create a nuclear arsenal. India now joins this elite group.

But while Pakistan has been denied the pleasures of American technology, it has not been excluded from the nuclear club. There is no proposal in Washington to curb or eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Pakistan is not Iran, which is still waiting to get its cascading (a critical stage in the development of nuclear capability) right. Pakistan has at least fifty atomic weapons if not more, and will soon have the capacity to increase the annual production rate. The United States has for all practical purposes recognised both India and Pakistan as nuclear weapons states, and placed a restrictive regime only on its friend India, rather than its ally Pakistan. This might not seem the way it looks now, when trumpets are blaring in Delhi and Washington, but this is the way it will be when the fanfare dies down. The new nuclear policy is to accept proliferation from friends but come down hard on proliferation by enemies. Iran heads the second list.

On Thursday the White House released a 49-page National Security Strategy, the first since 2002, the gap year between 9/11 and the Iraq occupation, in which pre-emptive war became the official doctrine of the Bush administration. The focus this time is on Iran, and unambiguously. Bush described Iran, at a press conference in January, a "grave threat to the security of the world". The document informs us what he proposes to do about the threat if diplomacy becomes inadequate: "…under long-standing principles of self-defence, we do not rule out force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction, of course) are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialise."

Washington is a city of power. Power has many manifestations. One of them is information. The word is out that there will be an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities within six months. It will be a limited air offensive, if for no other reason than that America simply does not have the ground troops for another occupation. America might have to go it alone, without the support of its most loyal feudal spirit, Britain, as Britain seems to have lost its appetite for world supremacy. Loneliness will not deter Bush. He might also be tempted by the view that war is the only issue on which he still retains some standing with the American voter, and there are crucial elections scheduled for November which the Republicans will lose badly if nothing is done to change the environment. Bush’s popularity is at an all-time low. One reason why the nuclear deal might be affirmed with bipartisan support by Congress is because India’s credibility is at the moment significantly higher than that of Bush.

George Bush will need a friend when he attacks Iran, and will ask Delhi to reciprocate. That is why Iran is already so heavy in the rhetoric of India-US relations. And that is probably why, incidentally, Mani Shankar Aiyar lost his petroleum portfolio: the articulate, America-sceptic could not be trusted with anything more than panchayati raj and the Commonwealth Games (in neither of which Bush has shown any interest).

I could have written "if" Bush attacks Iran rather than "when". But the sound that wafts in through open windows in Washington has a definite ring to it.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Quiet Indian

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:The Quiet Indian

If you want to hear the Indian story, listen to the sound of silence once the roar of the explosion has ebbed away into time.

India’s weakness is institutional. We have not found the means, although doubtless there is the will, to prevent terrorist action of the most brutal sort, in the cavernous heart of our most vaunted cities, whether it is aimed at shoppers in a public bazaar in Delhi on the eve of Diwali or worshippers at the Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi. India’s strength is the reaction. One is referring to the reaction of the people, for the reaction of the authorities is almost perfunctory: a lot of initial bustle, and then the hope that yet another tragedy will disappear, unwept, into the misery of dusty files. There is anger in the popular reaction, for only the supine do not get angry. But this anger does not degenerate into hysteria.

The terrorist has two objectives. The first is immediate: he seeks to leave pools of blood on the streets. The second is strategic and perhaps more important: he seeks to lace the lines, the thin lines that separate communities, with poison. The Indian people know that communal peace is the best answer to vicious terrorism, and the only way to frustrate the strategic design.

A self-proclaimed separatist group from Kashmir has claimed responsibility for the terrorism in Varanasi. The simple response is that the future of Kashmir cannot be determined by injecting fear in Varanasi. Those who think they can weaken the resolve of India do not understand the depth of India. This depth is not just geographical and demographic; India also has great reserves of psychological depth. That is what both Hindus and Muslims of Varanasi displayed when they were tested.

The test is becoming more difficult of course. There has been what might be called a fundamental change in the level of provocation. There is nothing new about Hindu-Muslim tension. Where there is a relationship, whether individual or collective, there will be both amity and the occasional spot of tension. Islam came to India through merchants and traders from the earliest days of the new faith, as it did later to South-East Asia, and Muslim communities appeared not only along the coast of Gujarat and Kerala but also in the interior cities of the North. Since then Hindus and Muslims have interacted commercially, socially — and politically. The first Arab-Muslim armies appeared in Sind in 711, the same year that the western momentum took Arab armies into Spain. But while Spain fell comparatively easily, the expansion of what might be called political space froze in the deserts of Sind. The Thakur principalities of Rajasthan, Punjab and Afghanistan maintained their power for another four centuries until Prithviraj was defeated in the second battle of Tarain (Prithviraj won the first battle of Tarain).

The story of kings is different from the narratives of people. The communal riot in its present manifestation is, by and large, a phenomenon of post-feudal India. Its causes form a pattern from the trivial to the significant, but are familiar enough to suggest that it is more often fomented rather than natural. What is undoubtedly true is that politics has been a principal agent provocateur, including the politics of democracy.

But whatever the cause, popular conflict very rarely extended to attacks on places of worship or deities: there was a sense that the sacred should be kept above conflict. This is not completely true, but it is largely correct. But the violence of terrorism is significantly different: it is aimed as much against the sacred as it is against the people. It does not require a degree in nuclear physics to appreciate that the Sankatmochan temple in Varanasi was selected in order to incite Hindu anger against Muslims, and inspire perhaps a Gujarat-style reaction. The variance is another clue in the argument that this attack has been planned by un-Indian if not non-Indian elements.

What the people preserve, so often the government manages to squander.

Let me note a second institutional weakness: the remarkable tendency of governments to sound triumphalist long before any real victory is evident on the nearest horizon. The trumpets are always out to herald a mirage. In Delhi a mirage is neither a desert phenomenon nor a fighter plane; it is a working philosophy, a way of life.

For a few weeks now it has been commonplace to hear, including from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that Indian Muslims have rejected violence thanks to the therapeutic virtues of Indian democracy. As a proposition it has the merit of not only being virtuous but also broadly accurate. But what is largely true should not be misconstrued as being wholly true. There is also the danger that someone with an agenda might want to prove the opposite. But it seemed that this proposition was not put into circulation accidentally, or only because it was true. President George Bush’s entourage joined this catechism in preparation of their leader’s visit to India. While this was of course a just and justified tribute to India, it was also part of the wider discourse to sell the future of Iraq as a democracy and thereby to rationalise the occupation of Iraq. President Bush is searching for democracy these days in Iraq, rather than weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, democracy in Iraq is beginning to look more and more like a weapon of mass destruction.

Be that as it may, Varanasi brings the agenda back to India, and its unsolved problems.

India is a nuclear power straining to become an economic giant with seriously solid military muscle, and with the proven capability of reaching its ambitions within a believable timeframe. It has a growing right to a place on the high table of world affairs, and the world, now led by the United States, is taking this claim seriously. But India also faces a grave danger, one that could sabotage its dreams.

This danger is internal, not external. It is a problem of governance, not of the people. It is the danger of an institutional ego that sends the government’s head into the heady superstructure of nuclear clouds, and, through an opposite of the gravitational pull, lifts its feet high above the harsh realities on the ground. The ground is swarming with cancerous problems. Varanasi is only an instance: security is so porous that terrorists who operate out of Kashmir can disdainfully slip into Varanasi and set off blasts that kill and maim hundreds. The real tragedy is that the perpetrators will never be found. The police has now become accustomed to alibi punishments: a few scapegoats to be sacrificed for public consumption in the hope that immediate passions are assuaged.

There is a parallel network of violence operating in India. No one really knows if Naxalites, spread across the breadth of the country, have linked up with separatists in Kashmir and Assam or not. All of them certainly have a common purpose, which is the destabilisation of government and governance.

Poverty feeds violence, and subsistence-level poverty is still the fate of four hundred million Indians. Communal anger is always hovering as a menace over stability, its noxious fumes wafted by despair. This too is shrouded in silence, but it is a different kind of silence. The story of India can be heard in both kinds of silence.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Separate Deal

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:Separate Deal

Trouble is, ma-in-law ain’t approved of history yet. Arms-wide-open George Bush and simple-but-hardly-simplistic Manmohan Singh summoned history to witness their alliance. "We have made history today, and I thank you," Dr Singh told his guest in Delhi. Very coy, very nice. But it isn’t legal yet. Marriage awaits mother-in-law’s approval.

Mother-in-law is the Congress of the United States. She is particularly watchful about errant sons who declare victory before she has checked the fine print.

Once upon a time, long long ago, a President of the United States of America offered the President of Pakistan a whole bunch of F-16s, and even collected cash on the deal. Pakistan is still waiting to put those fighters to some historic use.

I don’t want to be a party-pooper at a particularly cosy love-fest, but here are a couple of quotes printed in the March 3 edition of ma-in-law’s favourite newspaper, the Washington Post. Republican Ed Royce, chair of the International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Proliferation, thought the Delhi deal had "implications beyond US-India relations" and that the "goal of curbing nuclear proliferation should be paramount." Democrat Edward Markey, co-chair of the Bipartisan Task Force on Non-proliferation, called the agreement "a historic failure of this President to tackle the real nuclear threats we face".

When ma-in-law talks from the side of her face she can be a tough old bird.

If history is made, then it will be certainly made in one respect: it will be the first time that India will sign an international protocol that has implications for its nuclear programme and nuclear military assets. A series of Prime Ministers, cutting across party lines, has resisted the most serious pressure to sign on any dotted line. The potential to build a nuclear weapon was created by Jawaharlal Nehru; the ability to build it was confirmed by Indira Gandhi; the decision to go public was made by Atal Behari Vajpayee. The one thing they, and others in between, knew was that any signature became a commitment that might fetch flexibility in the present but could become a prison in the future.

Since this is the first agreement that India might have to sign, unless the American legislatures sabotage it or the present government in Delhi makes way for a more sceptical successor, I hope those who have drafted it have read every line, checked the top line, bottom line, underline and then checked the little comma hidden in the fine print that discusses the separation of 14 civilian nuclear plants from eight military ones.

This is a marriage built on separation, in more senses than one.

The two constituencies, Delhi and Washington, are offering distinctively separate narratives.

Here, in sum, is what the spokesmen of Dr Manmohan Singh will be telling us as they take their message to the country:

This agreement will permit India to produce fissile materials for its nuclear military needs, despite the fact that the recognised nuclear powers have halted, voluntarily, such production.

The fast-breeder reactors, which can make super-grade plutonium when fully operational, will not be under international inspection or safeguards.

India can now hope to make up to 50 nuclear weapons a year, for the availability of imported uranium frees local supplies for use in military reactors.

India gets the latest technology long denied to its scientists.

Listen to the narrative on the American side, some of which has already begun to be articulated, even by the extremely sophisticated and persuasive American negotiator, Nicholas Burns.

India enters the inspection regime, a far better situation than the zero-influence that existed so far. (It needs to be pointed out, of course, that India rose from drawing board to major nuclear power, without indulging in theft, only because of this zero-influence, a status that the Manmohan Singh government is in the process of bartering away.)

The fast-breeder reactors that India possesses will be isolated, and unable to get new technology, thanks to the inspections regime, ensuring, over time, stagnation or decline. Implication: India has been sold a lemon thanks to a gullible government.

The deal brings India into the American zone of influence, and turns it into a virtual ally with a potential for assistance in American strategic interests (that is code word for American intervention). India’s conventional arms programme now shifts dramatically into the supply chain of the American industrial-military complex. If the Indo-Soviet treaty kept India within the Soviet camp till the Soviet Union collapsed, then this agreement will keep India in the American parlour for the foreseeable future.

There is a great bonanza to American industry of arms sales (this will be the most persuasive argument in the Senate, because the one thing a legislator does not want to be accused of is preventing jobs). The starting figure, according to Pentagon officials who admittedly have not dealt with Indian bureaucrats so far, is nine billion dollars. That is a lot of dollars. Keep counting, Senator!

There is no political quid pro quo. The Soviet Union intervened when necessary to protect India’s position on issues like Jammu and Kashmir with a veto in the Security Council. America has given no such commitment. Indeed, Delhi’s leverage with Moscow is reduced with the shift in arms purchases. China will never support India over Pakistan in the Security Council and the West will have the pleasure of balancing Pakistan’s interests with India’s on issues like Kashmir.

With time, the narrative in Washington will doubtless take on other hues, since emerging questions will demand creative answers if the agreement is to be pushed through the Congress. Senator John Kerry publicly worried about fissile material during a visit to Delhi. Others are wondering whether such a reward for a nation that has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not a signal for others to risk going nuclear. And then of course there is the weight of Pakistan’s pressure to which there may not be any immediate give, but which will make its play in the coming months. Pakistan remains a frontline state in Bush’s war on terror.

Such voices may not be consistent, or even necessarily logical, but they will demand to be heard. Some will pick up claims made in Delhi and ask the Bush administration for clarifications, as for instance on the delicate matter of how many nuclear weapons India is capable of making.

If Pakistan is truly lucky, it will have the extraordinary good fortune of escaping the Bush embrace. The indications are that Bush will not offer the terms of the deal with India to Pakistan. What does this mean?

It means, first, that while India will sign a limiting commitment on its nuclear programme, Pakistan will sign nothing. Pakistan can, therefore, be held down to nothing. Bush is going to be in power for only another two years, and that as a terribly lame duck. His approval ratings are below freezing point, and his own party is distancing itself from him, raising the question as to whether he has the political capital to push anything through Congress.

What are Pakistan’s options? Pakistan’s nuclear programme has been created with China’s help. China may not have technology as good as America’s, but it isn’t a junkyard either. As a friend, China will be much more reliable than America. This is not because of any character defect. America is a democracy, and therefore always vulnerable to democratic discourse. China is a dictatorship.

China, most crucially, will not be propelled by mere goodwill or friendship; its policy will hinge on self-interest. Since a critical rationale for the Bush shift is to help India become a counterweight to China, Beijing will respond by playing the Pakistan card against India. China has already assured Pakistan three more nuclear reactors, and you never hear of any fuel shortage problems in Islamabad. President Pervez Musharraf has gone on record to say that Pakistan has its options. Is this what he meant?

We may never know what the complete truth is. But keep your ears open when the mother-in-law starts asking questions on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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