Sunday, July 30, 2006

Yo, Singh!

Byline by MJ Akbar: Yo, Singh!

Ever since the G-8 summit at St. Petersburg in Russia in late July, I have had a recurring nightmare. This summit will surely go down in history as the Open Microphone Extravaganza. We learnt how precisely President George Bush talks to his friends and fellow leaders when an open microphone conveyed his conversation to the world. He was on neither a protocol nor a grammar leash. He addressed Tony Blair, surely his best international ally and certainly his most obedient poodle, thus: "Yo, Blair!"

Normally, friends tend to be on first-name terms in private and often in public. Bush, in a sign of unconscious superpower superiority, sticks to the surname. "Yo!" is New York street diction, always one syllable short of respectful. But there it was, loud and clear: "Yo, Blair!" It was a summons. Tony Blair obediently cringed, washed his hands with dry air, and talked to "George". A little later Blair asked "George" whether he could go to the Middle East. George chattily told "Yo Blair" not to bother; Condi (the well known nickname of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice) is going, and that should be good enough for a mere Prime Minister of Britain. Blair was suitably obsequious. Bush was at his cheesy best with the microphone live. He told anyone who was listening (unfortunately, the whole world) that Russia was a big country (Gosh!) and at one point, in the friendliest way possible, with no malice whatsoever, used a four-letter word, making life easy for cartoonists for at least one day. It is only fair to report that Bush did not massage anyone’s neck at St. Petersburg. He did that when he stopped in Germany to meet Angela Merkel on his way to the summit. The staid German Chancellor, caught by surprise, looked horrified in the subsequent pictures. We are not privy to her private comments, but Bush seemed very pleased with himself.

India was rising when I was awake, but had risen in my nightmare and had displaced Canada to become a full member of G-8. Washington ignored the Canadian threat to walk out of the North American Free Trade Area, and welcomed Dr Manmohan Singh’s India. This G-8 summit was held at Agra. Dr Manmohan Singh was now Bush’s best buddy rather than Blair, who had disappeared from the picture. Dr Singh, as ever his meek and humble self, was sitting in a corner, a happy smile lighting up his visage. All the microphones were alive. Indian journalists sat in row after endless row in the hall, clutching immobile pads, pens and tape recorders. They had no questions, for they were even happier with Bush than their Prime Minister. The only journalist to ask questions was a teenage reporter from a television channel, who asked three rapid-fire questions and turned to her cameraman to check whether they had enough sound bites for the single minute that had been allotted to non-criminal news on their top-rated television news show. The cameraman nodded in the affirmative. She turned back to Bush and asked if he could please identify himself, and explained with a full sense of responsibility, that she did not want to make any mistakes. Bush grinned, looked back into the half-visible corner, and shouted, "Yo, Singh!" Dr Manmohan Singh shuffled up, washing his hands with dry air, and said in a soft small voice, "George, do you think I could go to Iran?"

"Yo, Singh!" replied Bush, slapping the Indian Prime Minister’s back hard enough to make the latter wince. "India is a big country." Dr Singh smiled profusely at the compliment. "India has nine time zones," said Bush, as he got up to massage the Indian Prime Minister’s shoulders, adding a neck-rub in honour of the special relationship. "I am going back to America tonight, Singh! Gotta sleep in my own bedroom, ya know. Afraid I can’t go to see that old tomb with a baseball cap that you wanted to take me to in the moonlight. Your old Mughal kings made love in tombs, did they? Strange people. We don’t have kings in America! What do you want to go to Iran for? Condi is going. Anything you want to know about Iran or Pakistan, just give her a call. She’s good, Condi. Asks all the right questions." He then gave the sweetest of grins to Condi, and my nightmare ended in streaming sweat.

Thank God it was only a bad dream. Thank God it’s all untrue. Dr Manmohan Singh would never behave like this; never. He is India’s Prime Minister, not Britain’s! If he wants to go to Iran, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, he will tell Air India to keep two jumbo jets ready and off he will go. He will never make India’s foreign policy congruent to Washington’s foreign policy, or, worse, the US Congress’ domestic policy. He will never cap India’s fissile material production just because the White House or the Democrats, willing advocates of the non-proliferation treaty lobby, want him to do so. He will never waste forty or fifty billion dollars in nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes just because Republicans want for their nuclear industry customers with more money than sense. Dr Manmohan Singh sits in a chair once occupied by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He will never bargain away India’s nuclear defence interests. That was a stupid nightmare. It is daylight now, and the coffee he likes is an excellent brew from South India. There is no way India’s foreign policy is going to be outsourced to legislators on a hill in Washington.

George Bush seems, by the evidence from St. Petersburg, to have slipped into some twilight zone where the real world has been replaced by a portrait painted by self-serving sycophants. What else can explain his comments on the war in Lebanon, heard through that deadly open microphone? (Just a thought, which you should dismiss: did the steely Vladimir Putin’s steely intelligence operatives deliberately keep a microphone alive? After all, there is no condemnation quite like self-condemnation.)

Live microphones have trapped American Presidents before. When Jimmy Carter was in Delhi a generation ago, and Morarji Desai was Prime Minister, he told us precisely what he thought of India’s ambitions. Mrs Indira Gandhi certainly did not need any reminding. Then there was the classic instance of Ronald Reagan threatening to bomb the evil empire when he thought only his pals were listening. The muscle in Reagan’s policies was persuasive enough to unravel the Soviet Union.

But Bush exposed himself as clueless of the complexities that determine war and non-war (there never has been any peace) in the volatile Middle East. At the very least Bush might want to read the Stratfor report (posted on 25 July and available very easily on the web) on the current war in Lebanon. It has not been written by Mullah Longbeard but by George Friedman. I do not know George Friedman, or his ethnicity, but I could give long odds that he has no beard at all. Bush policy in the Middle East has all the forethought of a knee-jerk. It used to be "I know best." That has been replaced by "I know all."

There are people in Washington who see and think, and can detect reality in the cocoon or when it emerges from the shadows of an embryo. Condoleezza Rice is among them, according to those who know anything about her. But it is hard to conduct rational policy when it is constant headbutting irrational conviction. An analysis of the Lebanon war will have to await, at the very least, more than the length of another column. But even a few sentences are sufficient to convey that this, Israel’s longest modern war, will not reach a ceasefire that brings much satisfaction to Israel for the very good reason that Hezbollah will be stronger at the end of the fighting than it was at the beginning. The depletion in its ranks will be more than compensated by new recruits; its arms replenished, and its ability lauded. At least one section of Washington now wants to engage Syria again in Lebanon. This is implicit recognition of what anyone could have predicted, that the vacuum left by the departure of the Syrian Army from Lebanon was not going to be filled by the Lebanese Army.

Dr Manmohan Singh used the correct phrase when he informed Parliament that India was sending Rs 10 crores for Lebanese rehabilitation. He called the region India’s extended neighbourhood. When there is conflagration in the neighbourhood, the last thing to do is make your foreign policy congruent with the whims of an administration that cannot distinguish between a fire extinguisher and firecracker.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reinvention is the mother of necessity

Byline by MJ Akbar: Reinvention is the mother of necessity

Governments tend to begin to lose the plot in the third year of their terms. That is predictable and comes with the calendar. The trouble with Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is that more than one plot is meandering out of control. In fact, there are so many plots around, that Delhi is in danger of looking like a colony.

The nuclear deal with America has been a principal focus of the Prime Minister. From 18 July last year, every step along the way has been greeted with relief and applause in Delhi, and all scepticism brushed aside as prejudice, every question dismissed as bias. When the committees of the American legislatures endorsed the enabling Bill in June, the reception in Delhi’s establishment was triumphant. If he has done it once, he has done it a dozen times, but foreign secretary Shyam Saran led the cheers. It was clear to the blind that new conditions had been imposed, but this was airily shrugged off as non-binding. This was the term used.

What were the conditions?

From 31 January next year, the President of the United States would provide the US Congress with a report on the rate of production of fissile material useable in nuclear weapons, the assembly of "nuclear-explosive devices" as well as the amount of uranium mined in India. Currently, these are secrets that the Prime Minister is not obliged to share with every member of the Indian Cabinet, and indeed does not. But from next year, we were ready to share it with every member of the US Congress! The deal needs annual approval, and that approval is dependent on Congress getting this report. I may be short of the kind of IQ required to run the Government of India, but one hopefully has basic common sense. What is non-binding about this condition?

The American President also has to tell his legislatures what he has done to "encourage India to identify and declare a date by which India would be willing to stop production of fissile material". What could be more specific than this? Other voices, including that of secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, have confirmed that America does not recognise India as a nuclear-weapons state and that this deal is a process by which India’s nuclear capability can be monitored and kept under control. The exact phrase used by the US Congress is "reduction and eventual elimination".

It soon became evident, that not only were the conditions binding, but the binding was going to begin pretty soon. According to a commitment given by Dr Manmohan Singh to Parliament, India would not accept inspections until all restrictions had been removed. That sequence has been turned upside down. The inspections come first. But the triumphalism of Delhi did not wane.

Suddenly, on the eve of Dr Singh’s visit to St. Petersburg in late July, word was put out that he would express some reservations about the deal to President Bush when the two met. What happened in the three weeks between Delhi’s welcome to the House committee conditions and Dr Singh’s visit to St. Petersburg?

In terms of public perception, the most important event was the anger of scientists who had fathered our nuclear programme, and the support they received from those who were still serving but could not, by the terms of their employment, speak out. Dr Homi Sethna cannot be accused of being partisan, or of bias, or ignorance. Ditto Dr P.K. Iyengar, another former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Suddenly, they were not alone. But the Prime Minister has ignored criticism before, unwavering in his conviction that this is the agreement that will protect the nation in the foreseeable future. He also surely sees it as a historical achievement (as probably does the Bush administration, although for entirely different reasons).

The most credible assumption is that President Abdul Kalam has either written to or had a word with the Prime Minister, and that Dr Singh carried to Bush not his concerns but the President’s concerns. President Kalam has built up extraordinary credibility with the country, winning the affection of its children and the trust of its adults. There is nothing false about his humility, nothing artificial about his simplicity. If our presidential elections were direct, rather than indirect, President Kalam would be re-elected by a substantial margin. Add to this his professional reputation as a scientist and the leader of the team that gave us Pokhran 2 on 11 May 1998 (there are fascinating details in former foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s fascinating new book of memoirs, A Call to Honour, published by Rupa). Such stature is difficult to ignore. The President does not have executive powers in our polity, but he has every right to advise his government. President Kalam’s moral authority is his strongest weapon.

It is bad news for a government when a President has to intervene.

The Prime Minister clearly had to be convinced about the drawbacks, but the problem is elsewhere. Dr Singh has been very poorly served by his administration, and in particular the foreign office. It is India’s ambassador to Washington and the foreign secretary who should have flagged the problems, instead of placing their personal reputations above the common interest. Professionals lulled the Prime Minister, which is why the concerns took so long to reach him. We do not yet know what objections he has raised, but the need for vigilance has increased.

The nuclear deal is the key element of a foreign policy that is drifting in the shallows. The government has lost the plot on economic policy and domestic security as well, as is apparent from any day’s headlines. The Natwar Singh episode indicates that the government even tends to lose its balance. After months of completely disproportionate harassment in the name of investigation, and more than one jolly trip abroad, the authorities have found nothing. It is probable that the Pathak enquiry commission will exonerate both Mr Singh and his son very soon. The Prime Minister still cannot find a replacement for a foreign minister who could hold his own, and has no response to faintly-disguised taunts from Islamabad on the subject.

What should a government do when it has lost its way? Actually, the simplest solution is to stand still and ask for directions, but governments are terrified that they might be caught doing the obvious thing. Complication is more their style.

A reshuffle is not the recipe. The UPA government has to reinvent itself. Two years in power have separated the theoretical from the possible, and the possible from the practical. The basic doctrine of the Manmohan Singh government is a common minimum programme full of good intentions that no one quite knew how to put into practice. The Prime Minister needs to reinvent the route map. We all want economic growth with a human face, as it was quaintly called. But more attention should have been paid to the contours of the human face. Words are used at the highest levels of government, with no effort to flesh them out. You get the sense that the partners in this coalition do not have a common agenda, but a dozen private ones — including saving up for that very rainy day called a sudden general election.

The politics of options has begun two years before it should.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Terror and Sensexocrats

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Terror and Sensexocrats

Mumbai now has three major religions: Hinduism, Islam and Wealth. These broad categories may have soft edges, allowing much seepage, but the contours are valid.

The anguish of terrorism breeds a thousand questions, each troubling, one more difficult than the other. Anger is inevitable, but insufficient. Judgment is necessary, and retribution essential, for a state cannot be impotent against those who seek to destroy its peace. But it is equally vital to understand the problem, if only to better understand the enemy. Solutions are eventually found not by the judge but by the scholar. The hunt for villains is incomplete without the hunt for answers.

The answers do not belong to easy questions. A parade of the usual suspects is necessary to police work. Pakistan has topped just about every list of suspects that I can recall. Let us agree that some intelligence agency in Pakistan is clever enough to be guilty each time. We then also have to agree that we have been able to do nothing about it.

There is a pattern. Delhi accuses, Islamabad responds with denial and a request for hard evidence. Threats follow from Delhi; cease, or else. Sometimes the "or else" is accompanied by the rattle of sabres. In 2001, after the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building on 1 October and the Parliament building on 13 December, the rattle of sabres was heard across the world. Then? Then nothing happened. On 25 August 2003, bombs left 40 dead in south Mumbai. On 29 October 2005, 59 died in Delhi’s markets which till that moment had been humming with Diwali joy. Each time the Prime Minister dressed wounds with rhetoric about Pakistan. What happened?

A lot of nothing.

Why do the usual suspects remain usual? Who are the fifth columnists of our country? "Suspect" is a word as wide as the horizon since hard evidence is rarely offered to back up the suspicion. Is suspicion a device to appease media frenzy, to buy time, to ensure that the people are diverted from asking hard questions from their own government?

Why are the usual suspects not penetrated, exposed and uprooted during the fallow months between terrorist outrages? The latest on the list of regular suspects is SIMI, the Students’ Islamic Movement of India. The mention of SIMI certainly encourages some television channels to fill their screens with caps and beards. SIMI is a public organisation with office-bearers. If they are guilty why cannot the police destroy them while the conspiracy is being hatched instead of waiting for the violence to blast our lives? Their name has been fed to the media before. What did the police do after that? "The usual suspects" is a phrase from the film Casablanca and is used by a cynical police chief who knows that suspects are obligingly expendable during a crisis.

Of the thousand questions that trouble me, two leave me helpless.

Who and where are tomorrow’s terrorists?

Why did yesterday’s terrorists in Mumbai target first class railway compartment?

The answer to the second will offer clues to the first.

Terrorists succeed because they keep ahead of those on their tail. Mumbai’s terrorists are now mining the many layers of anger in a complex metropolis vulnerable to innumerable forms of misery. Examine the events that preceded the train terrorism in July and you can see the seismic tremors building, whether connected or separate, in advance of the earthquake. Even nature intervenes to rev up the Misery Index.

Mumbai now has three major religions: Hinduism, Islam and Wealth. These broad categories may have soft edges, allowing much seepage, but the contours are valid.

The rich were always a separate culture. Now they have their own gods, their own demons, their own rituals, their own prayers and, naturally, their own sacrificial goats. In this respect, as in so much else, Mumbai is only the advance face of India.

India is dividing into two worlds: a political democracy, where the poor live, and an economic sensexocracy in which the rich and the rising middle class bow to consumerism, salaries and a stock exchange. The Sensexocrats are the new Brahmins, the new ruling caste. It is not an accident that the finance minister of India, Palaniappan Chidambaram, declared, after the train terrorism, that the Mumbai Sensex had survived. The Sensex was safe and therefore his India was safe.

The Democrats of our serfocracy are permitted the privilege of voting once every five years. That is their only relationship to power. Very suitably, they are given a holiday to celebrate such a festive occasion, which of course also serves to reinforce our image abroad as a free nation. But the freedom of the poor ends with that vote. Other freedoms are the privilege of the Sensexocrats, a prominent sub-caste of the group, equivalent possibly to the Kayasthas, being the media. (I am a Sensexocrat of the media sub-caste.)

Sensexocrats periodically offer Democrats economic crumbs from a Barmecide’s Feast (a feast in which food is an illusion). When Democrats get angry, the Prime Minister, whoever he may be, gives a speech with a carefully depressed face. When Democrats get desperate, and resort to violence — as the Naxalites are doing — Delhi, lost in dream world delirium, selects a response from Alice in Wonderland. Off with his head, said the Queen!

The terrorists of Mumbai are expanding their theological base. Marx thought religion was the opium of the masses. He never paused to consider what religion might one day think of Marx. The mixture of communal venom with Marxist anger is just the kind of acid that the desperate need to set off a deadly conflagration. Some politicians will of course never resist encouraging such fires.

Is this where the next terrorist is coming from — from the despair of the underclass of Mumbai? Is the Naxalite a terrorist? Is the Naxalite a fundamentalist? These questions are urgent and relevant. Terrorism is born in the mind, and that is where any battle for prevention has to take place. The police and the Army can take charge of the cure. But if prevention is better than cure, then it becomes the responsibility of political class and its surrogates, including media. It is they who must engage in the tough task of reducing despair, and spreading social justice along with prosperity.

Why do I feel helpless? Because the answers lie in nuances and the Sensexocrats are blinded by headlines.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

High-flying Rumours

Byline by MJ Akbar:High-flying Rumours

Every lie must be denied; otherwise it becomes an attachment to the truth. I am not equally sure that rumours deserve similar attention, because a denial tends to live in the same haze as the rumour. The smoke-and-fire axiom begins to operate: could there be smoke without fire? Prime Ministers must be particularly careful about smoke.

What is a rumour? It is much more than repetition of a lie, for a lie rarely travels very far. A rumour finds legs only because it has the possibility of being true. The success of a lie depends on the credibility of the perpetrator. A rumour succeeds because of its persuasive ability, because those who hear it are amenable, consciously or subconsciously. Why are they amenable? Because there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to give credence to the rumour.

Could there be denial without some, however fleeting, truth in it?

Spread a rumour that Manmohan Singh has taken money in the growing Navy scandal, and no one will believe it. There is no evidence that in a lifetime of public service Manmohan Singh has taken an illegitimate rupee.

No one would have believed a rumour in July 2005 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was about to resign. In July last year he was in full command of his Cabinet, and had the determination of a leader with an agenda, focused around what he believed would be a historic deal with the United States. The process began with an agreement signed by defence minister Pranab Mukherjee on 28 June last year, and gathered momentum during Dr Singh’s visit to the White House later last year.

Is it irony, or merely poetic justice, that Dr Manmohan Singh’s political credibility began to waver after President George Bush’s pseudo-historical visit to India, and his announcement that Washington was ready to go ahead with the nuclear deal? Euphoria, particularly of the premature kind, tends to breed errors, even among the most balanced of men. Dr Singh had a significant lapse of judgment when he dismissed opposition to the Bush visit as "communal". Suspicion about what was being cooked in the cavernous kitchens of Delhi and Washington was not a by-product of latent communalism. In any event, to call Marxists, who led the demonstrations against Bush, communal is apolitical if not absurd. The government quickly stopped parroting this line, but even this small self-inflicted wound created an opportunity. For the government was up against something far more potent than communalism: nationalism.

Suspicion became a worry when the terms of engagement were revealed. Dr Homi Sethna, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and a founding-father of India’s nuclear programme, read the details and said that what Dr Manmohan Singh was about to sign was worse than joining the NPT regime. No government in Delhi of any colour ever dared to compromise India’s independent nuclear assets by joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. We are now on the verge of surrendering our independence, and all we can hear is the sound of silence. Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, has outlined how precisely commitments made by Dr Singh to Parliament and the people have been blatantly undermined and notes that if the deal goes through in its present form, it will "compromise the sovereignty of this country for decades to come". He has exposed the very enormous financial price that India will have to pay as well: between Rs 300,000 to Rs 400,000 crores in nuclear reactors that will be totally dependent for their existence on a yearly audit of our policies by the US Congress. Dr P.K. Iyengar, another former chairman of the AEC, has called the deal "giving up sovereignty". These men have spent their lives translating an Indian vision, crafted by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, into reality. They do not have a political or personal agenda.

It is in the nature of coalition politics that the first people to exploit weakness or uncertainty at the centre are partners and allies: the Opposition, depressed and moribund, wakes up much later, if it wakes up at all. It is axiomatic that a politician will, at some point in his term of power, give priority to the politics of re-election over the demands of governance. This is accepted, and even acceptable towards the end of a term of power. But if there is the slightest doubt about how long a Prime Minister will stay in office, politicians will grab any chance to appease their constituencies instead of appeasing the Prime Minister.

Democratic politics is a terribly uncertain game at the best of times, and only the very complacent waste opportunities. Arjun Singh sent off the first, powerful, signal that the time for political expediency had arrived. He brought reservations back to the forefront of debate, for in conflict lay votes. It was known that the Prime Minister was unhappy, but his unhappiness made no difference. If a Prime Minister cannot assert his authority, authority simply latches on to anyone who will. Dr Ramadoss, nationally unknown but influential Tamil leader, who leads a small party of just six MPs, has bull-charged his way into centre space by converting his regional needs into a national dilemma. The Prime Minister cannot restrain his "Backward castes" activism, since the only way to do so is to either sack him or change his portfolio. Dr Singh can do neither. The senior party from Tamil Nadu, the DMK, is happy to go for the jugular on behalf of the workers of Neyveli, and once again the Prime Minister is helpless. In a fit of pique, Dr Singh responds by halting all disinvestments across the country. The trouble is, this hammer will not kill the fly.

Two years ago, when the world was young and every horizon just a footfall away, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised reform with a human face, a curious phrase, but one whose meaning was nevertheless clearer than its grammar. It meant that economic reforms would not be pushed through at the cost of the working class or the peasant. That policy has now been stood on its head. If this were by the collective will of the government, it would be understandable. But both the Prime Minister and the finance minister have become hostage to office, and the allies know it.

There is a perceptible sense of drift alternating with freeze, as the axle of power is challenged by the spokes: the wheel cannot turn in a predetermined direction. Dr Singh has made the nuclear deal with the United States his highest priority. There is something sincere about this, since a fulltime politician would have hedged his bets and left wiggle room for escape if the deal began to unravel. But sincerity is no substitute for being right. As details have begun to emerge, there is unease in the highest quarters of the Congress as well, because, if eminent Indians like Sethna, Gopalakrishnan and Iyengar are right, the Congress will pay a very heavy political price.

It was the accumulation of such internal tensions that gave wing to the rumour on Friday. The rumour was not total speculation, or the idea without precedent. It is not widely known that Dr Manmohan Singh once sent his resignation to P.V. Narasimha Rao. Rao ignored it. But this time Dr Singh is the Prime Minister.

Have you ever seen straws floating in the wind? They are like rumours: no one knows where they come from and where they are headed. But they do predict a storm.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Summer in Moscow

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:Summer in Moscow

Moscow seems shamefaced about summer. Thirty degrees centigrade in the forenoon of last Wednesday is forty degrees higher than during my last visit in December. Moscow then was a grey world flecked with snow white. The wind screamed at the fur hat and taunted the ear muffs. Local faces had the confident serenity of a winter people, and a mild chuckle in the eyes at the visitor’s bewilderment at winter. Summer heat has surprised men and disoriented technology. The air-conditioner in my fancy, new hotel room leaks like an overburdened tarpaulin in monsoon. Complaints evoke genuine sympathy and the occasional mechanic, but no solutions. If the heater had been giving trouble in December they would have known precisely what to do. The male dress code for summer is linen half-sleeves. For women, it is a bit of an undress code: they peel off as much as they dare and store up the sun in their skins for the long dark winter just around the corner.

I wonder if the side-to-side and back-to-back traffic at noon is another sign of summer, with people finding any excuse to get out of office. This is not office-rush; this is out-of-office rush. By Friday afternoon this escalates into out-of-town mass escape. The weekend is sacrosanct from Siberia to California: as they put it, only thieves and policemen work on weekends. Not even newspapers are published on weekends. Information is an unnecessary intrusion on tranquillity. If a world war broke out on Saturday Muscovites would probably not know until Monday. On the other hand, they did fight a world war, albeit a cold one, for five decades — with both sides taking the weekend off. Very civilised. I wonder what would have happened if the Soviet Union and the West had fought each other on all seven days.

The role model for new Russia is a former KGB agent, Alexander Lebedev. A fortnight ago he threw a party in England at the 8,500 acre estate in Northamptonshire where Princess Diana was born and now lies buried. When Lebedev throws a party, it travels very far indeed. His idea of entertainment was a volatile mixture of Russian Wild East, Hollywood, confused Arabian Nights and high art. Extras in 18th century dress lounged among the distant trees. Others wandered around leading wolves on a leash. Cossacks charged across the English landscape. A camel or two sauntered by. The Christ Church Cathedral schoolboys’ choir sang from the balcony to shift the mood. One of Russia’s finest pianists, Andrei Gavrilov, soothed guests along with oysters and champagne. After dinner dancing was in charge of the Black Eyed Peas (a band) with help from a videolinked U2.

The guest of honour was former Comrade Mikhail Gorbachev. The cause: funds for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation to help children suffering from cancer. Money was raised by auction (of a ride in the world’s fastest MiG, for instance). Salman Rushdie was among the guests, but I have no idea whether he coughed up anything. One million pounds were raised in a single night. How much money was spent on that single night? £1.3 million. Lebedev could have saved everyone the trouble and handed his bill for the party to the foundation, but that wouldn’t have been any fun, would it? Charity begins at home.

How did Lebedev become a billionaire, starting from a KGB salary? He resigned and set up an investment company during the heyday of Gorbachev’s glasnost. He stood on the same side of the barricades as the reformers when the old established order nearly pulled off a successful coup in 1991. In 1995 he was rewarded with the chairmanship of the National Reserve Bank, which was struggling to stay in business. It stopped struggling after Lebedev got the account for Gazprom, the massive state-owned energy conglomerate. Lebedev now owns 31% of Aeroflot, among other things. He also contested for mayor of Moscow and semi-secretly dreams of becoming President of the Russian Federation one day.

Watch the news.

I gather that the new international corporate mantra for upwardly mobile management types is to look each morning in the mirror and call yourself a rock star. This apparently provides enough of an ego boost to send your competence soaring. But take your time about behaving like Lebedev, or indeed any other rock star. Here is what I gathered from one article in a magazine abandoned at an airport. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt went to Namibia to have their baby in the mother of all nations, they demanded, and got, a no-fly zone over their villa. Foreign journalists were permitted to enter the country during their stay only if the Jolie-Pitt gang had cleared their arrival. A South African journo who violated this ban ended up in prison for three days. Namibia declared a national holiday to celebrate the birth of the infant Jolie. What makes you laugh-cry more? Rock-star stupidity or Namibia’s idiocy? Elizabeth Taylor wanted Buckingham Palace swept for security when she went to collect the gong that made her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (It exists. Britain still rules a couple of tiny islands in the West Indies.) Tom Cruise’s servants had to sign a contract that punished them with an escalating series of fines if they were caught passing on information to the media. A nanny could, theoretically, end up with a bill for a million dollars. Any management trainee with a hint of such airs is likely to get the sack rather than a promotion.

Maxine Maters, my Dutch friend who lives in Moscow and is the publisher of Moscow News, thought it a big relief that Holland had not qualified for the World Cup. It gave her the liberty of being neutral. Modestly, I pointed out that I had the same freedom. India had not qualified either. I changed the subject before she could ask me at what point of the tournament India had been eliminated.

I had the liberty of being neutral while watching Argentina play Germany on the big plasma screen set up in the hotel foyer. The commentary was in Russian, and it did not matter. There is no verbal commentary that can match the swooping cameras darting upon faces, on the field, on the sidelines or in the stands. Cameras create the ratings in sport. If the cameras had been inside our hotel at that hour, they would have dwelt I suspect on the undress-code ladies occupying the sofa between me and screen. I did wonder though if the real game of these ladies was football.

Since neutrality is anaemic, I have tried out a variation of historical determinism in order to find out who I should support. This system might also be called Losers’ Ladder. It is based on empire and colonies. As an Indian, my first preference was for the old colonies: Australia, Ghana, Togo. The whimper-exit of Ghana eliminated that option. My sympathy should, logically, have then transferred to the comparatively underdeveloped world, and thus to Latin America. The Latins also play great football. But, frankly, it is difficult to support a continent one has never visited. You can’t put a context to your cheering. Logic took me to the next category: the countries in which one had good friends. I am pleased to report that some of my best friends are English, but England ruled itself out because it had made the mistake of ruling India once. That left me with Germany and Italy.

Both won on Friday night. Thank you, Moscow.