Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reserved for Politics

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Reserved for Politics

I wonder if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh realises how effectively he has maimed the legacy of Finance Minister Manmohan Singh by an ill-intentioned reservation policy that seeks to restore the primacy of political manipulation over rational economic evolution. The British protected their empire by the effective use of a Roman principle of political management: divide and rule. The British divided Hindus and Muslims in order to survive. Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is pouring acid on the divisions of Hindu society in order to protect its power.

Caste is a fact in India; casteism is an evil. There was early recognition of this evil when the basic structures of a modern Indian state were being established by the generation that won us freedom from the British. Coincidentally, I am writing this on the day Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin who challenged the inequities of Indian society, died. Nehru understood the need for affirmative action. But none of these terms — caste, casteism or affirmative action — is a stagnant reality.

Nehru, and the Constituent Assembly, followed their leader and mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, and extended affirmative action to those who had suffered the greatest injustice, the Dalits. They did not raise the bar to the Backward castes. Was Nehru an enemy of the Backward castes? He dreamt of and founded the great institutions that have become the pride of India all over the world. Reservations were not an unknown concept: why didn’t Nehru, or his daughter Indira Gandhi, allot half the seats in educational institutions for select castes? You cannot accuse them of being indifferent to India or its realities. In fact, the inequity was much worse sixty years ago, and thirty years ago, than it is today.

But Nehru and Indira Gandhi knew that, if it is to succeed, social policy in a democratic polity must be held together by reason and consensus. When there is reason, policy is reasonable; when it is reasonable, there is consensus. Casteism, and the domination of the upper castes, was much, much worse in 1950 and 1967 than it is in 2006. But there was no anger when reservations were made into law in 1950. The upper castes that would not permit the shadow of a Dalit to cross their path suppressed their bloated egos and kept their mouths shut. Reservations were accepted as a necessary step towards a better India. Today, excess is on the verge of destroying the necessary. Reservations are now the interest — collected by pick pocketing the future of India — paid by politicians for loans from their vote banks.

Students and doctors are out on the streets not because they reject the need for social justice. They are out because politicians are stealing the future of the young in order to preserve the power of the old.

Does Dr Manmohan Singh understand why these young men and women have suddenly become so disillusioned with him? It is because Dr Singh gave them their most recent illusion. He promised the young release from the shibboleths and knots that had curdled India for too long.

A child who was five in 1991, when Dr Manmohan Singh became finance minister and guardian of economic reform, is twenty today. He, and, thank God, she, have grown up in the belief that India won political freedom in 1947 and discovered economic freedom in 1991. Perhaps the latter could not have come earlier. It needed the confidence of a state that had been able to protect its political independence against the encroachment of neo-colonisation. It may also have needed the failure of theories like state-entrenched socialism. It was certainly spurred by the humiliation of Indian gold reserves being placed in hock to London bankers to maintain foreign exchange liquidity. Since then, through the vicissitudes of democracy, Dr Manmohan Singh has represented a virtue that has disappeared from politics: integrity. He was the true hero of the new Indian dream. There is heartbreak on the campus. Arjun Singh cannot be the source of any disillusionment because who could possibly have any illusions about him?

The true tragedy is that Dr Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms were, imperceptibly, beginning to heal sordid divisions like caste by luring the young towards an urban mindset. Government is not the only source, or catalyst of change, a proposition surely endorsed by Dr Singh. I would argue that market-driven urbanisation has done as much to obliterate the worst elements of casteism as any law passed by Parliament. Check out the BEST metaphor: it might be a weak attempt at a pun, but it is useful. When a Mumbaikar gets into a public bus (run by BEST) does he worry that the person he is rubbing against might be a Dalit? How do you recognise a Dalit in Mumbai? You don’t. Caste flourishes in the frozen geography of a village, since areas are allotted by caste.

There seem to be worse dangers ahead as this government wilts under the pressure of militant Cabinet ministers with a single demographic support-base and rising ambitions. The constituency needs of Meira Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan could end up holding the government, and then the country, hostage. Both are telling the private sector, via television (which also informs their voters) that it is only a matter of time before there are reservations in their factories. This is always accompanied by a threat: or else.

Muslims started the politics of reservations, long before Independence, demanding their own seats in legislatures. The British were only too happy to concede to such logic. The Congress argued that community-based reservations were only a prelude to a division of the country, and when Pakistan was formed this argument seemed to have made its point. However, the Congress accepted this logic for Dalits, presumably on the grounds that Dalits were, socially and economically, far worse than Muslims. Implied, but never stated, was the confidence that no other community would extend an economic demand to partition.

The tension is churning out the innumerable contradictions in a policy line that refuses to adapt itself to new realities. Statistics are a much more sophisticated science than they were in 1950, as is demographics. It is possible now to take affirmative programmes towards those below the poverty line, rather than return to the bane of India, the caste line. It amazes me that a government headed by an economist refuses to consider this option. There would not be a murmur from students if an economic criterion were applied. An economic criterion has justice on its side; a caste criterion merely politics.

One of the more interesting facts about the anti-reservations agitation is the significant presence of Muslim students. These students have broken through powerful barriers of discrimination in order to reach where they are. Everyone in six decades of politics has come to Muslim doors for votes, but there is no quid pro quo; no one has given them an assured percentage of jobs or a place in educational institutions. The Manmohan Singh government may consider itself the paradigm of secularism, but it does not talk of reservations for underprivileged Muslims. (As statistics prove, the inclusion of Muslims in certain Backward castes is nothing but a hoax.) Those Muslim students who are becoming young doctors and managers are proof that there are other methods by which discrimination can be challenged. They are also painfully aware that when you divide Indians, you run the danger of dividing India.

Economic reform was beginning to unite the young. Politics is once again turning a crack into a chasm.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Redress Code

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Redress Code

A Da Vinci week should be a good one for rumination.

One of the most exquisite passages in the New Testament is the eighth chapter of St. Mark. A crowd of some 4,000 — astonishingly large, and soon to be astonished — had been following Jesus (Peace be upon him) for three days, without having eaten. The compassionate Prophet wanted to feed them. His disciples had only seven loaves and two fishes. Jesus offered thanks to God, and there was enough food for everyone. Jesus’ miracles were never ostentatious. When he cured a blind man at Bethsaida by rubbing over the victim’s eyes, Jesus told the fortunate man: "Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town". At Caesara Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, "Whom do men say I am?" Some compared him to John the Baptist, others to Elias; all agreed he was a Prophet.

Jesus turned the question around to his disciples: "But whom say ye that I am?" Peter answered: "Thou art the Christ."

Jesus "charged them that they should tell no man of him", for "the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." Then followed some of the most moving words in the literature of any faith: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

There is a key phrase: "Son of man". Jesus repeats the phrase in the last verse of the chapter: "Whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels".

One of the fundamental differences between the brother-faiths, Islam and Christianity, is that while the Church believes that Jesus was the son of God, Islam insists that Jesus was human.

The Quran venerates Jesus, places him on the highest of pedestals and calls him Christ 11 times. Verse 45 of Al-Imran (The family of Imran) says: "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ (Maseeha) Jesus. The son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah". He is not only a servant of God, and a messenger of God, and a Prophet: in the chapter on Mary (Maryam) Jesus is thus described: "I am indeed a servant of Allah; He hath given me revelation and made me a Prophet." More remarkably, seven times in the Quran Jesus is said to possess the ruh, or spirit, of Allah: "We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit…" Incidentally, it is perhaps revealing that while the New Testament mentions Mary 19 times, the Quran mentions her 34 times. According to certain interpretations, it is Jesus who will descend to earth a second time, before the hour of judgment. Maulana Yusuf Ali translates verse 61 of Surah 43 as "And (Jesus) shall be a sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of judgment)".

But the Quran categorically rejects the divinity of Jesus, or that he died on the cross and was resurrected; the crucifixion was a "counterfeit": "But they killed him (Jesus, son of Mary) not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them…" Commentators like Sayyid Ahmad Khan have explained that Christ did not die on the cross, since the piercing of palms and feet is not necessarily fatal, and that Jesus’ body was taken down after three or four hours by his disciples and concealed till he recovered. In Sufi tradition, Jesus is the greatest model of the wandering preacher, particularly during his life after his punishment on the cross. There is even a belief, not substantiated, that Kashmir was the last resting place of Jesus.

But what about the miracle of his birth? The Quran is as insistent as the Bible on the virginity of Mary. But that, says the Quran, does not make Jesus divine. Adam had neither mother nor father, but we do not consider Adam divine. It is up to God, who created us all, to choose the means of His creation.

And of course, the Quran is categorical that Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is the last Prophet of Allah, the "seal" of the Prophets. A traditional saying of Muslims puts it neatly: "Our Lord Abraham is the beloved of God. Our Lord Moses is the voice of God. Our Lord Jesus (Issa) is the spirit of God. But our Lord Muhammad is the Prophet of God."

These are the great issues of faith that divide billions of people who, otherwise, have so much in common. Jews, Christians and Muslims are "people of the Book", owing allegiance to the same God, but differing on the messenger. Islam predates its last Prophet, but naturally, and Muhammad restored the monotheism of Abraham and Moses from which the faithful had so often deviated. There is a lovely hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad: "My brother Moses had only one eye, it was the eye of the law. My brother Jesus had only one eye, it was eye of compassion. God has given me two eyes, both the law and compassion." In other words, society is best ruled through a combination of law and compassion.

What is interesting, in the context of the furore over the bogus Leonardo da Vinci code, is the strong, if often suppressed tradition of what might be called the "human Jesus" within the various strands of Christian belief. Dan Brown is only a terrible writer with a terrific sense of pace who has won an unbelievable lottery. We should not take him more seriously than that. But if he has hit a nerve in these godless times, it is only because the Christian world — or should we say "post-Christian" communities are trying to turn religion upside down. Instead of faith lifting man towards salvation in the after-world, they are pulling down the supernatural into the straitjacket of explicable behaviour. Jesus needs to do explicable things like getting married and having children: how else can he be claimed by a middle class that finds religion to be such a bore? Dan Brown is a graceless, if inevitable, child of Darwin.

The film apparently achieves what the book adroitly avoided: it ends in titters rather than jitters. But the most interesting reaction to the film was surely from those Muslim imams who joined many Christian priests in demanding a ban in India. The imams were following their ethics, for Jesus does not belong to Christians alone. If you demand a ban on a book that slanders Muhammad then it is equally logical that you should demand a ban on a film that slanders Jesus.

Hollywood is the ivory tower of globalisation. Satellite television, freer trade and increasingly unipolar tastes may be turning the world into a single marketplace. But it is not yet a market without exit routes.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Step Forward

Byline by MJ Akbar:Step forward,Buddha Babu

We must not lose what we have achieved through economic reform. But it is equally true that the next phase of economic growth is going to be impossible without a far greater commitment to equity and social change.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has buried the ghost that hovered over Jyoti Basu’s table for two decades — that his remarkable run of victories was tainted by rigging. It was an easy accusation to make, and an easier one to believe outside Bengal, precisely because India had never witnessed anything like the democratic miracle engineered by Basu and the CPI(M). The facts of course did not quite justify the accusation. Marxist support was anchored in solid economic benefits for the underprivileged, and lifted by the unique charisma of Jyoti Basu, a charisma that magnetised the Bengali voter. But it was the only accusation that a hapless, and then a hopeless, Opposition could make.

This charge was essential to the self-esteem, and therefore survival, of the Congress and its truculent child, the Trinamul. Without self-esteem you cannot offer hope; without hope, you cannot have a cadre. Mamata Banerjee can sustain her individual self on a diet of negative and near-hysterical cacophony. But why should the young, or even the old, person in search of a political career invest in her if all she can offer is forty years in the wilderness?

It is a fair bet that, after Moses, the Congress family in Bengal is the only leadership that offers forty years in the wilderness and hopes to survive. The journey to nowhere began in 1977. For 29 years the Congress family has been staring at a lost horizon. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has now set course for at least another eleven years. We shall check horizons again after the elections of 2016.

And Buddhadeb Babu has done it in style. The Election Commission pulled out all the stops in its determination to prevent any rigging. This election was as clean as it gets. The results were as overwhelmingly one-sided as possible. The difference was so huge that even the opinion polls could not get it wrong. Every government tries to use state machinery to its advantage, but no government has been able to change the course of a tide.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s great achievement is that he corrected the course of the tide when he found that it just might go the other way, and set about this task almost from the moment he inherited Basu’s extraordinary legacy. He introduced the dialectic of change into Marxist terminology. Like any Marxist, he is a child of ideology, but he rescued dogma from dogmatism.

He was ahead of the youth curve.

The biggest danger for any establishment is to run adrift of the shifting perception of the young. Every generation rewrites the rules of economic aspiration, within the context of new technology and emerging opportunity. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee saw the future in the Chinese model, but not quite in the way we imagine. There was a subtle variation, even as he understood that Communism had to integrate with market forces. He realised that the Chinese Communist Party could survive a Tiananmen Square because the system was essentially despotic. But in a democracy such an upsurge would have been sufficient to unseat a government in the subsequent election. His responsibility and challenge therefore was to prevent disillusionment, and ease the anger of the young before it erupted.

He did not succeed in isolation, as is sometimes made out to be. He was not a voice outside the party’s Politburo. The CPI(M) is now led by younger men and women with a vested interest in the future. And they are going to find that future with the steely determination of the generation that has provided them with an invaluable legacy. Till yesterday, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was a chief minister of Bengal. Today he has become a leader of his people.

Obviously he has been helped by the fact that the Trinamul and Congress had nothing to offer except emotional, non-intellectual and often unintelligible mishmash. Mamata Banerjee is the headmistress of the tired school of clich├ęs. She confuses street theatre with politics. Bengalis may love jatra but they don’t vote for drama queens. And as drama queens go, Mamata Banerjee is no Suchitra Sen.

But she also emerges from a political tradition in Bengal. Marxist historians must never forget to thank three Bengalis for the rise of the CPI(M): P.C. Sen, Ajoy Mukherjee and Pranab Mukherjee. Sen was Congress chief minister after Dr B.C. Roy, and led his party to defeat almost as surely as Dr Roy led his party to victory. Sen fell in the elections of 1967 to a United Front crafted by Ajoy Mukherjee, the ageing Congress rebel, Pranab Mukherjee, the rising young tactician, and Jyoti Basu. (Pranab Mukherjee is an ageing tactician now, but still a tactician.)

1967 marked the beginning of a decade of struggle and trial for the Marxists: through the fires of Naxalite havoc, Congress repression in the state and then the nationwide Emergency. In 1977 the Emergency was lifted and the mood of the north was passionately anti-Congress. Sen, now leader of the Janata Dal, did the Marxists an unparalleled favour. Basu offered an alliance. Sen arrogantly rejected it. The Left Front swept to power in 1977 in Bengal. No one has discovered the means to remove it in three decades.

A historic blunder (the phrase is Jyoti Basu’s) in 1997 prevented the Marxists from taking a quantum leap forward in their political evolution. The CPI(M) Politburo prevented Jyoti Basu from leading a coalition and becoming the first Marxist Prime Minister of India. No party has used power to expand its base better than the CPI(M). Today, the Marxists have been restricted to two and a half fortresses (Tripura would be the half), and only one of those fortresses is under permanent possession (Bengal). With Jyoti Basu in Delhi, the party would have had a unique chance to take its message, as well as its management style, across the country. The results might not have been immediate, but they would have come.

A decade has passed since that historic blunder, and generations have changed. Can Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Prakash Karat reverse that blunder?

They have one great advantage, which was not so evident a decade earlier. When Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh ushered in economic reforms in 1991, they promised emancipation to all. Their work was carried forward by governments that were hostile to the Congress: the Vajpayee coalition was as committed to those reforms as its originators. In a sense, these policies were endorsed by a Right Coalition, which could have evolved into a Right Front. Fifteen years later, it is obvious to everyone but the blind that economic reforms have been only a partial success. The Maoist insurgency is violent evidence of the despair in the darker side of India — the moonlit India, as opposed to neon-lit India.

We must not lose what we have achieved through economic reform. But it is equally true that the next phase of economic growth is going to be impossible without a far greater commitment to equity and social change. If the first phase of economic growth was sustained by a Right Front, then the next phase will need a non-dogmatic Left Front in power. The poor will not wait much longer. If they are not included in rapid progress then they could even destroy what has been achieved.

The only political party with any credibility among the poor within the democratic ambience is the CPI(M). The Maoists are a splutter of anger, an important alarm bell, but they are not the solution to this growing problem. Their relevance is limited. The CPI(M) can seed a Left Front that re-establishes Delhi’s equation with India.

Step forward, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Look before you don’t leap

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:Look before you don’t leap

The strife-ridden battleground of Indian politics has entered a phase of curious and paradoxical stalemate: the government is ceding space but there is no one to occupy it. In a sense, the government is losing the battle with itself. There is no one else to lose it against.

This fits in with a standard operating law of Indian politics: no one wins an election but someone loses it. But sequence must not overlap with consequence. We are still in the sequence stage. A wit might add that power is such a con that it takes no time at all to attach itself to sequence.

It is an old joke that the only success ever achieved by a government-appointed committee was the King James 1 Bible. The new, wry and sardonic joke in Delhi is that there is no one left to appoint to any more committees. Everyone is a member of some committee or the other. The ruling class of Delhi has three components: the has-beens, the wannabes, and those stuck in the middle. The has-beens are politicians and bureaucrats who have retired from government. But despite being closer to seventy than sixty, they have not yet tired of power and continue to exhibit an athletic hunger for minor perks and privileges. Even the has-beens, in other words, are wannabes.

Dr Manmohan Singh, the most successful bureaucrat in history, has found the perfect solution to this problem. He has converted governance into hundreds of committees. Tell him about any problem, from Kashmir to a shortage of knitting needles, and a committee is born out of the conversation. It is axiomatic that nothing gets done. But that, presumably, is the point. The point of existence is survival, not service.

It is entirely in character that the most successful bureaucrat in history has become Prime Minister of Delhi after being appointed Prime Minister of India. Dr Manmohan Singh understands Delhi. He is comfortable in Delhi. He knows the dance of the faithful in Delhi: two steps back and one step sideways keep you at a safe distance from trouble. The absence of trouble is the first principle of survival.

The governance of India is a different story and requires a different mindset. India needs a leap of imagination. Dr Manmohan Singh’s motto is simple: look before you don’t leap.

Delhi is not a single fact. There are at least two Delhis, and I am not talking of the old city built by Shahjehan and the new one crafted by Lutyens. There is one Delhi in which Indians live, and another Delhi where the men and women who rule India live. Sheila Dikshit is the guardian of the first Delhi, of real people, and a pretty capable one too. Dr Manmohan Singh is the presiding spirit of the other Delhi: of ministers, bureaucrats, and their service providers, from the humble dhobi to the obsequious magnate.

The Prime Minister of Delhi has extraordinary, even great, virtues. He is, to begin with, ruthlessly honest. Wisely, he never lets his personal morals extend to his ministers, who can be as corrupt as they want to be, as long as they don’t get caught. Dr Manmohan Singh is even more ruthlessly diligent. Prime Ministers normally leave three quarters of the files to their Principal Secretary; Dr Manmohan Singh’s ratio is the opposite. He gives his personal attention to virtually every file. But that is not the virtue needed of a Prime Minister of India, because all problems are not equal. When everything is sought to be done, there is the great danger that nothing might be done. The government of India is structured to look after all problems, which is why it has so many departments. The Prime Minister of India must concentrate his vision on the vital organs that keep a nation in the best of health during his temporary possession of office. At this point of time, the three great priorities should be, at least in my view, security, Naxalites and power.

Each one of these issues could demand twenty hours of work each day. Security means not only the elimination of terrorism and communal riots, but also a mature peace with Pakistan, negotiated with persistence. Instead we have a fits and starts policy. Every so often, without any particular reason or explanation, Kashmir jumps up on the calendar, shapes headlines for a day or two, and then melts away into indifference. There is no engagement. The Naxalites get perfunctory lip service, but in fact are treated like someone else’s headache: as a law and order problem to be dealt with by chief ministers. Power needs massive, concentrated, one-horizon, national and nationwide investment. Instead, the problem has been outsourced to the general managers of power plants. If they can raise output, very nice. If not, tough luck: the golden age of Indian civilisation did occur long before air-conditioning, isn’t it? If Chandragupta Maurya could do without electricity, who are you to complain about power cuts?

If this drift to nowhere has not induced any sense of panic (the panic of the lost) then it is largely because there is no Opposition. Indeed, if any political party displays the panic of the lost then it is the BJP. Those who have become used to positions, take time to adjust to opposition. That much is understandable. But two years? Getting on top of a chariot is not the best method to find your mind. You have to be on top of issues. The other political formations are like the Indians looking at Rumi’s elephant: you can never be quite sure whether it is a water pipe, a fan, a pillar or a throne. "Had each of them held a lighted candle," writes Rumi, "there would have been no contradiction in their words." But illumination commands too high a premium in our befuddled times.

Voters, generally, though not always, are kinder to the Opposition than to the government. If the Opposition is lost, it only hurts itself. If the government is lost, it hurts the people. It is really as simple as that.

Voters have faith and respect for the office of Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the voice of Parliament, and often the voice of India. A Prime Minister who devalues his office betrays this great trust. The King James Bible does tell us that the meek shall inherit the earth. Indeed they might, and probably should, but it were best if they were kept out of the office of Prime Minister of India. Meek so often blurs into weak.

The temptations of Delhi are magnetic. Let me leave those who prefer Delhi to India with a sobering thought. The Mughal empire never really survived the shift from Agra to Delhi. Shahjehan moved halfway through his reign; and his heir, Aurangzeb could barely hold what he had inherited, as he himself realised on his deathbed. Does the Mughal empire seem too remote? The British announced the change of their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911, but effectively moved in 1931. For more than two hundred years the British had continuously expanded their possessions and their influence, from Burma to Persia, from their base in Calcutta. Sixteen years after the Viceroy of India became the Viceroy of Delhi, the British packed their bags.

The attractions of Delhi can be fatal.