Sunday, October 29, 2006

FM Music

Byline by M J Akbar: FM Music

FM must be music to Pranab Mukherjee’s ears. Defence is a curious ministry in Delhi, demanding responsibility without power. One former Prime Minister, whose experience taught him the value of subservience, and whose subservience taught him the value of revenge, used to dismiss defence as the toy ministry. The toy in question was the plane which is the minister’s personal privilege; the Prime Minister is the only other member of the Cabinet to get such high-flying transport. The sly joke was that you could keep a competitor for the top job at bay by gifting this toy to play with.

For a professional politician, the problem with defence is that it has no political constituency. Home is much in demand because it provides the greatest opportunity to influence events: Kargil was an honourable, defensive, limited engagement. The last defence minister who emerged with an enhanced reputation was Jagjivan Ram, who held the portfolio during the 1971 war. That was also the last real war which India fought and won. The best that an eminent politician like Sharad Pawar might say after a stint in the job is that he did not do any damage to himself. The defence minister’s principal job is to ensure that the capability of the armed forces is always a few regiments/missiles/planes greater than the enemy. He is therefore by far the biggest purchaser in the government.

The arms bazaar is arguably the world’s most corrupt legitimate business. Since security is such a holy cow, the arms dealer knows that he can get away with a pricing policy that would invite howls of derisive anger in any other deal. The efficacy of a product is no guarantee against corruption. If there is one gun that has proved its worth to Indian security then surely it is Bofors. The whiff of acrid fumes from that smoking gun still permeates through Indian politics. George Fernandes has discovered what can happen to a lifetime reputation for fiscal honesty. Accusations do not have to be proved to condemn a politician. Just making them is enough. There is simply too much sleaze, and very few strains of khadi are immune from dirt.

Pranab Mukherjee had reached that point in his tenure where mud had begun to leave a pattern upon his reputation. It was just the moment for a switch, for the next session of Parliament is likely to see a great deal of Scorpene mud flying across the hall. The switch is brilliant, because the new defence minister, A.K. Antony, is allegedly made of stainless steel. He will need all the stainless steel in his armour to deflect the mud. Dr Manmohan Singh has proved wiser than his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee, who restored Fernandes when the latter, by any political yardstick, has passed his shelf-life in the ministry.

Is the foreign ministry lower in the pecking order of Delhi’s hierarchy? The question is odd, since the foreign minister not only has a crucial role to play in policymaking but also has a political job to do.

Pranab Mukherjee takes over at a moment when there is a serious job waiting to be done. Ever since Natwar Singh’s sudden departure, the foreign ministry has been an orphan. The Prime Minister’s efforts to play surrogate mother have merely exposed his inadequacies in a nuanced responsibility. Pranab Mukherjee is fortunate in his new foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, an excellent career diplomat without either baggage or, worse, pretensions. Together they might, as a start, consider clearing up three confusions.

There has been a historic tendency in Delhi to confuse a Pakistan policy for a foreign policy. It is perfectly rational that Pakistan should be a primary concern, since war, in hot, cold and intermediate forms, has always been an undercurrent of the Indo-Pak relationship. But India has to rise above turning Pakistan into an obsession. India has more than one neighbour; India should have a larger vision of its place in the world, and indeed the world’s place in India. Worse, Pakistan policy in the last year or so can best be described as legwork. When Delhi is in a mood for goodwill, its knee begins to jerk. When terrorism inevitably comes back into focus, anger turns into a footlash. There is often the absurdity of the knee jerking towards goodwill while, simultaneously, the foot begins to kick. It is not, to say the least, the most elegant form of diplomatic ballet. Pakistan policy needs greater balance, more composure, less romanticism and sustained engagement.

The second confusion is a direct by-product of Dr Manmohan Singh’s almost personal drive to create a nuclear deal with the United States. I have said this before, and it bears repetition: there is nothing wrong with the idea barring those little intrusive and unacceptable conditionalities that could compromise India’s independent nuclear military capability. But the management of this policy is flawed by a fundamental misunderstanding of foreign policy. We have made a basic mistake in confusing George Bush with America. We have a Bush policy rather than an America policy. Obviously, an American President is the key to many doors in Washington, but a more careful and professional approach would have calibrated the outcome by measuring, coolly, how much political capital Bush had left after the Iraq quagmire, and how much of this capital he was ready to spend on selling a difficult deal on terms that would be acceptable to India. I imagine that a few people in Delhi at this moment are as anxious about the results of the Congressional elections in the first week of November as Bush is. If Bush is defeated, he will spend the next two lame-duck years trying to rescue his Republican Party from the consequences of a military and political debacle in Iraq. He has already begun to admit, albeit reluctantly, that he did not quite know what he was doing.

The third on my list is possibly more self-delusion than confusion. For some months now, this government has been signalling, privately, that all opposition to the US nuclear deal, or to Bush, is "communal." Such an assumption comes easily to a non-political mind. It was surely fuelled by the sight of a hundred thousand Muslims demonstrating against Bush’s visit to Delhi. When Bush uses terms like "Islamic fascism" and is responsible for countless innocent deaths, it is hardly unnatural for Muslims to feel that they have been made victims of a powerful individual’s megalomania. As citizens of a free country they have every right to express their views. If Dr Singh had not confused Bush with America, he would have seen a larger reality: that the majority of Americans are liberal and democratic, and they would be fooled for only some of the time.

One of the great failings of our present foreign policy is that we have withdrawn from our traditional areas of influence for fear of upsetting George Bush. We are, most vitally, not engaged in the Middle East when great crises in that region will shape events over the foreseeable future. We have diluted our credibility by weakening our voice. Iraq has been a traditional friend of India but there is no evidence of history in the government’s policy towards the country or the region. India could have been, and should have been, a player in the conflict-resolution process that will be the next phase of the Middle East dynamic. That reservoir of goodwill for India is not completely empty. Pranab Mukherjee, who worked so closely with Mrs Indira Gandhi, should know that. He is now in a position to replenish that reservoir.

And he does not have much time.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some Happy Diwali, Id Thoughts

Byline by M J Akbar: Some Happy Diwali, Id Thoughts

The Eureka moment came at around four in the morning in Kolkata. I was in my room at the Sonar Bangla, one of the finest hotels in Asia, and had flicked open the television after sehri, the pre-dawn meal before the Ramzan fast. The screen came to life with Zee Music, and with my brain on full throttle I realised that it was the old Hindi films, which were really true to life. It is the new movies that are unreal.

Have you seen the ghost in the song Mere Mehboob Qayamat Hogi from the Kishore Kumar film Mr X in Bombay? The ghost in this song has a paunch. What could be more realistic than that? A ghost has a midway existence between this life and wherever we go to in oblivion. It retains elements of this life, as for instance the famous dancing girl whose anklets tinkled through the night in Warren Hastings’ haunted bungalow in Kolkata. (Haunted, that is, before it became a residence of the nouveau riche; which ghost can survive the cultural enthusiasms of black money?)

If you don’t believe me, get up at four in the morning and switch on Zee Music. That song comes punctually at 4. I can say this with some certainty since they do not change either the sequence or the selection of songs at that hour, safe in the knowledge that both shareholders and executive directors are fast asleep.

You might, in the bargain, end up also watching a song from Rajendra Kumar, who never used a word he could not describe with his fingers; or, at the other end of the scale, Bharat Bhooshan — the only part of his body that moved when he was singing moving songs was his hair, in response to either a river breeze or the studio pedestal fan. But our bygone heroines protected realism. Their body and body language belonged to the soil of India. Their fleshy contours are visible in any respectable Indian restaurant or market. I submit that it is the current crop of actresses who are utterly unrealistic. Who could have such slim, svelte and sultry bodies as they do? Their sex appeal is a figment of some marketing imagination, a page out of a glossy magazine that tells more lies than politicians in campaign mode. Modern Bollywood actresses are not allowed to have a posterior, and their exterior is pawned to motives that are ulterior. A Meena Kumari or an Asha Parekh was never embarrassed by the natural waves of soft flesh. Nobody ever caught them in a gym with latex underwear.

This air of unreality is seeping over all forms of entertainment. Take the Champions Cup coverage on television. There is a perfectly sensible anchor, Charu Sharma, but each time he gets to the third sentence he is interrupted by his co-host, whose principal virtue is huge assets everywhere except in the brain. Her most penetrating comment on the state of the game is "I told you! I told you!" I presume advertisers insist that she asks questions, so she restricts herself to the obvious, never making the mistake of mentioning either cover or mid-off in case she gets confused between the two. All the experts, and there are some serious heavyweights out there, play along, except for the majestic Geoff Boycott who insists on sticking dogmatically to the point. It is beginning to dawn on the other commentators that they are here on a well-paid picnic, so why not enjoy it.

There is one cricket commentator who is so unreal he is unworldly: Navjot Singh Sidhu. No marketing genius could have invented him. He is a natural. He used to whack the cricket ball quite a bit once. These days he punishes the English language. His technique may not have changed. In the old days he decided what he needed to do with a delivery before the bowler had bowled it. Now, he has a set of answers that are delivered irrespective of the nature of the question. The subject might be anything: Pakistan’s recovery, Ponting’s dropped catch, Lara’s back. The answer is the same, delivered in a rising lilt, rising from alto and ending in cracked tenor. "Character is the soul of wit! You can take the actor out of the character but you cannot take the character out of the actor!"

The curious thing is that Sidhu’s other job is as a full time Member of Parliament, representing Amritsar for the BJP. I have often wondered what would transpire at a meeting between Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Rajnath Singh, and the young guard of Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Sidhu.

A grim Rajnath Singh opens the meeting with bad news from Uttar Pradesh. The party could even sink to fourth place in the next Assembly elections. Vajpayee looks at his hands, silently. Advani looks thoughtful, then looks away. Joshi adjusts his scarf. The silence gets heavier by the second. Sidhu picks up the silence and smashes it into smithereens. "The grit of the earth is writ in the wit of the candidates. He who picks up the brick will kick defeat in the face!" Vajpayee is now engrossed in his fingernails; Advani is thinking about Shyama Prasad Mukherjee; Rajnath Singh’s mouth is ajar. Jaitley takes things in his hand.

"UP is difficult, but if we draw a parabola between Ferozabad and Lakhimpur Kheri, withdraw all resources from Allahabad and Kanpur, and concentrate on…"

Joshi splutters: how dare anyone withdraw resources from Allahabad, his constituency, which he would have won handsomely if everyone had not conspired against him!

Sidhu intervenes. "He who withdraws from battle, is going to get stuck with the cattle! Charge on, I say, and send the bill to Bombay!"

Vajpayee closes his eyes in deep meditation; Advani has shifted his thoughts to Deen Dayal Upadhyay; Rajnath Singh’s mouth is now open to the extent of two inches and Joshi is suddenly looking defeated. Sushma Swaraj looks at Jaitley and asks sweetly if there should be a fixed quota for cricketers in Parliament. Jaitley, conscious of his high status in the management of Delhi cricket, continues manfully. "You see, if West UP is lost and the East abandoned, then our strategy must be to outflank the Congress with a pincer movement in the Centre and South, with cross-border help from Madhya Pradesh, so that we can remain the Number Three party."

"Ooooooooooohaaaaaaaaaaaah!" exclaims Sidhu. "You can carry the cross to the water, but can you cross the water with the horse? That is the question, my friends, and unless India answers that question, I say, numbers are as numb as a dumb charade! You can make all your calculations, but three into one will only keep you third!"

Vajpayee and Advani look briefly at each other. Nothing is said, but their eyes indicate that they are utterly grateful that neither is president of the BJP at this fateful hour. Joshi announces his retirement from politics, but only after he has completed his current Rajya Sabha term. Rajnath Singh gets up and hands over charge of the UP elections to Sushma Swaraj. As the others leave, Jaitley stares dully at Sidhu.

"Ho ho ho!" says Sidhu, his voice at its excitable best. "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day! But the boy who stood on the burning deck was lost to flames but not to fame! Never lose heart before an enemy! Only lose heart to a lover!"

Jaitley leaves the party office and goes on a long Diwali holiday. Sidhu’s sidhuisms echo eerily across an empty hall.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mushroom Rice

Byline by M J Akbar: Mushroom Rice

Curiosity may be as injurious to the health of columnists as it is to cats, but there is much to be curious about these days.

Kim Jong Il, the not-so-mad dictator of North Korea, tests a nuclear device, his officials immediately begin threatening to use it, and President George W. Bush, the famed seeker of weapons of mass destruction, says that America’s "commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military". Is this the same man who refused to give the United Nations time for more diplomacy, the weapons inspectors time for more probing and started a catastrophic war that has taken more than half a million lives in search of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein never had?

Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who foresaw mushroom clouds in Iraq, grits her teeth in her best schoolmistress manner and threatens severe sanctions against North Iraq. Is this the same administration that spat on sanctions as a pathetic UN-type wobbly-knee answer to dictators and demons?

Is this the Bush-Rice partnership that keeps threatening to go to war against Iran for enriching uranium — and urging multilateral talks when North Korea becomes a nuclear military power? Or shall we put it another way: in Bush’s mind, nuclear North Korea can be trusted because it is not a Muslim country and Iraq and Iran could not be and cannot be trusted because they are Muslim nations?

Just asking, friends, just asking. I told you curiosity could be injurious to a columnist’s health.

It is clearly fine to be fascist in George Bush’s worldview, even a nuclear fascist. What you cannot afford to be, as long as Bush is on fire, is an "Islamic fascist".

Bush had a chance to act militarily against North Korea, in 2003, when Kim Jong Il withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and announced that it would go ahead with its weapons programme. A strike might have been successful because it was believed that all of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal was in one known location. What did George Bush do?

He invaded Iraq instead.

There is a simple explanation for what North Korea has done. It has called George Bush’s bluff. Three years ago Bush was not bluffing at the nuclear poker game. He had the strongest hand in the world, by all rules of this game an almost invincible hand. The United States had unquestioned military supremacy, in addition to the most powerful economy. One mistake, wrought by hubris, the stamp of one defect, has shackled American military ability and released competing powers to pursue paths that are alternative, if not hostile, to America’s.

It is foolish to think that North Korea was acting, or could have acted, alone. North Korea is a helpless non-entity without China’s support. China has been brilliant in the pursuit of its geopolitical interests while Bush rushed into Mission Self-Destruct. Look at the map of Asia. The two nations that can challenge China’s hegemony in Asia are Japan and India. China’s formal relations with both are worth of a place in the United Nations statute book. It talks trade and peace with India, raising border problems only when it seems that a problem-free relationship is too artificial a construct. Similarly, it talks trade and peace with Japan, dusting out memories of World War II only when it seems that a problem-free relationship is ahistorical.

China has simply outsourced the military confrontation with India and Japan to Pakistan and North Korea. Both are low-cost operations for China, with huge collateral benefits in terms of tying down India and Japan. Pakistan’s nuclear programme in any case had to mirror India, for reasons that China did not instigate. Neither Pakistan’s nuclear capability nor North Korea’s is a threat to anyone but China’s competitors, or past and potential adversaries. With North Korea aiming nuclear weapons at Japan’s head, the pieces on China’s chess set are in superb place.

The shadow of Iraq has travelled a long way while America is helplessly immobile.

Who has done the most recent expose of the Blair-Bush fiasco in Iraq? Step forward, General Sir Richard Dannatt, serving chief of the British Army. He does not pretend to give advice to his allies, the Americans, but he is clear that British troops, now down to around 7,000, should leave "sometime soon" because "our presence exacerbates the security problems". In other words, British and American troops are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Sir Richard has provided an honest explanation of their dilemma, and one that should be read in every nook and corner of Washington. He says: "We are in a Muslim country and Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear. As a foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited into a country, but we weren’t invited, certainly by those in Iraq at the time. Let’s face it. The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in."

No Iraqi could have put it better.

Another question, out of that itchy curiosity. Why hasn’t Sir Richard been court-martialled? He is a serving officer. He has been put in charge of a virulent war by an elected government. His views on the war are totally different from his Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Why doesn’t Blair stop him or sack him? Or is it that General Dannatt has been told to prepare the ground for an imminent decision by seeding the public discourse with thought of departure? Just asking.

The price of departure will be much, much higher than the cost of arrival. What the Iraqis have suffered because of Bush-and-Blair’s malign war is already in the realms of the unbelievable.

Johns Hopkins is not a madrasa. It is one of the most respected universities in America, based in Washington. Bloomberg is not an "Islamic fascist"; he is the billionaire mayor of New York who is thinking of using his billions to attempt a run at the White House in 2008. A study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimates that over 600,000 Iraqis have died of violence between March 2003 and July 2006. That makes it 15,000 a month, or 500 a day. There is no media covering this horrendous tragedy. Those rabid dogs of war extend far beyond soldiers in uniform. Chaos has become the playground of violent passions escalating in a poisonous spiral. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are living in neighbouring countries. Iraq is emptying out of people, as despair overwhelms people who had no control over the decisions that have destroyed their existence.

One is often asked: what will happen if the Anglo-American occupation forces leave Iraq? I can imagine many scenarios, none of them pleasant in the immediate aftermath. But what could be worse than what is happening now?

When the British left India, between two and three million Indians died in a frenzy of unparalleled ferocity for this subcontinent. This did not mean that either Hindu, Muslim or Sikh wanted the British back. We picked up our lives from the desolation of that moment, and slowly moved on. To withdraw from Iraq does not mean that America needs to withdraw from the world; in fact, quite the opposite. It is Iraq that has isolated America from the world.

Alarm clocks are normally harmless, except for the nerves. The North Korean nuclear alarm clock is radioactive. If this does not serve as a wake-up call for George Bush, what will? The old order is dead; disorder is rife. Maybe Iraq has deleted the super from superpower, but there is still power and it needs to be used with discretion to create a shared world, ruled by values and law, not shock and awe.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Soft Sell, Hard Luck

Byline by M J Akbar: Soft Sell, Hard Luck

Aamir Khan is surely the finest actor in contemporary popular cinema. His oeuvre, spread across nearly two decades, stretches from chick lit romance (hugely successful), to rebel-with-a-cause (superhit), to hero-by-accident (hum-haw). His latest rebellion, Rang De Basanti, has so enchanted the establishment that it is the official Indian nominee for next year’s Oscars.

The only Indian film that came close to winning an Oscar in the foreign films category was Mother India, released in 1958. It lost to Federico Fellini’s Nights of the Cabiria by a solitary vote. One filmmaker who believes that he could have easily won the Oscar, had he but put in the effort, is Dev Anand, for Guide. But instead of going to Los Angeles to campaign for his film, Dev Anand, heady with the unexpected commercial success of an absolutely brilliant film, started work on his next movie, Jewel Thief. Great entertainment, that gentleman thief, straight out of the Cary Grant mould, but no Oscar. Since India is now the big buzz around the world, there is a good chance that 2007 might be the country’s lucky year.

But surely the easiest way to get Aamir Khan an Oscar for best acting would have been to enter the latest advertisement he has done for Coca Cola. There has been no finer bit of acting. Aamir Khan looks deadly serious in a deadly blue plastic cap and a deadly white shirt talking to a scientist in a deadly white laboratory apron holding what might even be, in your subconscious, a test tube. The great weakness of the ad, unfortunately, is the dialogue, which is more dead than deadly. But Aamir Khan, as he has done so often while working for lesser mortals in Hindi cinema, triumphs over the script in his attempt to sell the distortion that Coca Cola is a wonderfully healthy drink, that it has no impurities (as alleged by some dirty politicians and filthy NGOs) and so on and so forth. The ad is flush with symbols of purity: that plastic cap! It must be there to ensure that not a single strand of the actor’s well-oiled hair gets into any Coke bottle. That chemist’s frock! Coke is clearly produced in sanitised laboratories that use their extra capacity to produce cancer-destroying drugs. That grim face! It is Aamir Khan taking personal responsibility for the good health of anyone gorging on Diet or Fat Coke.

Honestly, I don’t get it. Who is Coke trying to fool by using Aamir Khan to spread a silly sanitised image? There is of course history: Coca Cola has been trying to dupe the consumer ever since it was created. It was first marketed as a medicine, and after a century it has been forced back to a laboratory environment to survive in India. The managers of the company are smart. So far they have paid Aamir Khan vast sums of money to look like, among other things, a Japanese tourist with a swollen face and a penchant for samosas, Coke and a curious sense of humour. It must have worked or they would have stopped the cheque. But they also know that Aamir Khan has been crafting a "serious" sideline in his image, by turning up suddenly to promote the Narmada dam agitation. He left as suddenly, of course, when irresponsible journalists started asking uncomfortable questions, but that is another story. Between Narmada and Rang De Basanti an alternative image has been created, quite consciously. Coke has paid, therefore, for a double role: Aamir Khan the Japanese tourist when Coke wants the kids to laugh, and Aamir Khan the social activist when it wants the kids to quote his wisdom in their homework.

Does such marketing work? It has not stopped the agitation against both Coke and Pepsi in Uttar Pradesh for depleting groundwater levels by unchecked exploitation around the Mehndiganj Coca Cola plant in Varanasi. Dr Sandeep Pandey, who has won the Magsaysay award, believes that nearly 90 per cent of the wells and over 40 per cent of hand pumps within a radius of three kilometres of the plant have been affected. He adds that the plants contaminate water by producing cadmium, chromium and lead. These are serious issues. The epicentre of the anger against the cola giants has been in the South, but it is now becoming a nationwide movement. This anger is not going to be assuaged by dressing up an actor. The cola companies have to engage in a debate with activists who know what they are talking about, and people who believe their health and interests are being damaged by companies more concerned with profit than the consumer. These concerns are not unique to India, although India does have problems that may be unique.

The best option for the cola companies could be to banish the pretence and stick to the Japanese tourist and samosa. Consumers are generally an intelligent lot, and they know that there is generally a price to be paid for fun. (The most intelligent consumers of colas, however, might be the Andhra farmers who soaked a small area of their farms with the stuff. Ants, attracted by sugar, made an ant-line to the spot, and could be killed in heaps.)

Coke and Pepsi sell because they are the modern mass-produced sherbets, with oversized doses of sugar, gas and at least some kind of narcotic, if that is the right word in these heavily legalistic age. In fact, the most money is made these days by industries that do not waste their mindspace worrying about your health. The cash flows in the alcohol industry are pretty racy, thank you, and no one has yet shown an advertisement of beer being produced in a medical factory. Cigarettes have to place a pretty grim warning on every packet. What could be more terrifying than a notice that what you are about to consume could kill you? Have you seen any cigarette company that has died of hunger? Coke and Pepsi don’t even have to suggest that too much of either could make you obscenely fat. They can also spend a fortune on advertising that has absolutely nothing to do with the product, and get away with it. Pepsi, for instance, has chosen to answer its problems in India by shoving cricket-patriotism down your throat till you are blue in the face. It doesn’t talk about Pepsi at all: how brilliant! On the other hand, you can’t truly support the Indian cricket team in the Champions’ Trophy if you don’t have a Pepsi in your satchel. But this is friendly manipulation. If there had been consumer brands in Moses’ time instead of merely locusts and honey, the cola companies would have lobbied hard, and possibly effectively, to prevent the Ten Commandments from becoming law. Coke is good for wandering in the desert.

There is better news for the big cola boys: the competition might be even more harmful. The most successful new soft drink has been an energiser from Austria, Red Bull. An eight-ounce can contains 80mg of caffeine and about five teaspoons of sugar. Try that for size. Your size.

The most famous "medical" endorsement for any product is surely the ageless pseudo-dentist telling you that Colgate is good for your teeth. But that is a believable claim, if only because no one has been able to prove that Colgate is bad for your teeth. The anonymity of that dentist is oddly reassuring; toothpaste is not a glamour product. Aamir Khan, the classy actor, wants us to suspend disbelief (the first requirement of theatre or cinema) when he assures that despite all the controversies around Coke, he has tried and tested it and confirmed that it is full of joy. Thank you, Dr Khan. But do put that sermon tone away and say the same thing in song-and-dance. We might as well be entertained while being sold a pup. And you might get an Oscar.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Outbreak of Peace

Byline by M J Akbar: Outbreak of Peace

Any outbreak of peace between India and Pakistan should be handled with almost as much care as an outbreak of war. Paradoxically, now that full fledged war, of the 1965 or 1971 kind, has been made infructuous by nuclear weapons, peace might be a more dangerous game to play than war. Failed wars can be halted by a ceasefire, as has been the story from 1948 to Kargil. How to handle a failed peace?

Peace has erupted before, sometimes more suddenly than war; sometimes in quiet incremental doses. The Shimla Agreement of 1972 did not bring peace. It merely purchased the indifference of uncertain combatants. General Zia ul Haq was rather more successful with his mildly escalating injections of normality (cricket, interviews, a better visa regime), but then he had a vested interest in honey. He could not afford a second front on the east while engaged with the Russians in the west. Moreover he used treacle to camouflage support for secession in Punjab. Zia was a master at eating the cake he was offering.

The last great outbreak of peace was at Agra. The Agra Summit is proof of that ancient law: the higher the expectations, the greater the post-conjugal depression. President Pervez Musharraf reveals the bitterness that failure at Agra generated in his memoirs, In the Line of Fire (quite a bit of it, incidentally, friendly fire). Agra failed because India and Pakistan had not checked whether the words they were using meant the same thing to both sides. That problem remains.

I don’t know if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf consulted the same dictionary at Havana. There was the usual triumphalism when they agreed upon a "joint mechanism" to fight terrorism. The problem is not about "joint", however leaky the glue might be, or "mechanism", however mechanical it might become. I do hope that the two great minds of South Asia have reached consensus on what they mean by terrorism. It would be a pity, wouldn’t it, if Dr Singh began preparing his bags for a trip to Kashmir only to find that General Musharraf wanted him to visit Baluchistan? One man’s terror, after all, is another man’s intelligence agency.

President Musharraf did find time for some serious diplomacy in the course of his book tour through America and Britain to promote his memoirs. We know that he and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan are President George Bush’s right arm and left arm in a principal theatre of war. Despite the mellowing effects of a two-and-a-half-hour dinner between just the three of them — trust me, it doesn’t get cosier than that in international affairs — Musharraf and Karzai could not bear to shake hands in public. That is how corroding a mismatch in the definition of terrorism can be. Musharraf had prepared for this American visit well, visiting Karzai in Kabul and meeting Dr Singh in Havana. But Karzai must have found it difficult to shake hands with a man who had just shaken hands with the Taliban in Waziristan. General Musharraf was not impelled into the Waziristan deal by sentiment but by, to use a favourite expression of his, "ground realities". Imperatives are different in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. To find common ground therefore is tough.

All politics may not be domestic, but most of it is. Bush is concerned about the interlinkages of South Asia because Afghanistan has returned to haunt him on the eve of what could be his most difficult election: the November polls for seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. If he loses control of either House, he could be subject to the same merciless, intrusive enquiry regime that hobbled Bill Clinton. Bush does not have the ballast to push through his agenda without the help of Republican majorities on Capitol Hill.

Till last week, all the cheerleaders of the Indo-US nuclear deal were warming their hands in anticipation of applause for the successful passage of the bill through the Senate. Such is the sincerity of cheerleaders that passage itself is considered a glorious victory, no matter how heavy the toll that is extracted along the way. The deal got stuck on domestic compulsions like illegal immigration from Mexico and a bill to define the degree of torture that will be permissible to the CIA in its war on terror.

Sincerity was the great strength of George Bush with the American voter. But sincerity is no substitute for failure, and bad news is coming from all sides. Much in the spirit of "Wanted: Dead or Alive" Bush has conducted war on the principle that ends justify the means. But the means are becoming unacceptable to America, with its fundamental and Constitutional commitment to liberty. Details of such means are popping up everywhere, and doing the President no good. His friend Musharraf has, for instance, revealed that the Pak government has been indulging in a bit of bounty hunting on the side, collecting cash in return for suspects. For a government to trade in the lives of its own citizens comes close to sordid. What might be understandable if not acceptable in tribal behaviour is unbelievable as government policy.

Bob Woodward, who helped Bush with his last book, published just before the presidential elections two years ago, has added fuel to the Bush fire with his latest offering, State of Denial. He reports that the White House has been deliberately and consistently shutting out the truth about the width and depth of Iraqi resistance. Apparently, there is one attack on foreign troops by insurgents on an average of every fifteen minutes. Spin can delay judgment, but not deny it. Ideally, Bush would hope to postpone the judgment till some other Republican can suffer the consequences. But the omens are not too good. Bush is calling all favours, largely because there will not be a next time on his watch.

Alas, good news is not available in a refrigerator; nor can you order it as happily as fast food. The South Asian larder, sadly, is depleted and the fires are low in the kitchen. With the best of intentions, chefs Singh and Musharraf may not be able to deliver sustenance. Given a choice between worry over Baluchistan and dealing with Taliban, Musharraf will understandably choose to quell a secessionist movement in his country before going to war with insurgents across his border. These are the famous "ground realities".

The return of the Taliban, and the corresponding rise in casualties, is slowly manoeuvring its way to the top of the American political agenda in an election season. Bush needs to hear that conflict is on the mend between allies (all three nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are allies), that terrorists are on the run and problems that breed anger are being addressed. A death rattle in Iraq was injurious enough to the opinion polls. An echo in Afghanistan could be fatal.

Under such pressure, India and Pakistan may be tempted to wave a Band-Aid as the cure for cancer. Indians and Pakistanis have suspended disbelief often in the past to indulge the delusions of passing leaderships. Push our people too hard, and they may soon suspend all belief in peace.

That would be a fate worse than war.