Sunday, June 25, 2006

Just a bit of Security

Byline by MJ Akbar:Just a bit of Security

Every government has a midlife crisis as well as a sell-by date. The trick is to ensure that the latter does not precede the former. The health of all governments is measured by only one thermometer: the mercury of popular support. Even a monarch, if he has not degenerated into a despot, understands this principle and lives by it. Those who do not, pay a price, if not in their own lifetimes then in that of their heirs. Dynasties wither when personal greed overrides the needs of the state. Sometimes, to check the present, it is useful to look through the wrong end of a telescope. The Mughal Empire did not bolster its popularity through media frenzy, although its court historians were often condemned to disguise the truth beneath layers of ornate sycophancy. (Contemporary media can sometimes put those historians to shame, but that is a separate story.) Popular support comes in as many varieties as people, and a sensible government shows as much care for opinion builders as it does for those less influential. And principles are not necessarily moral: they can serve equally well when amoral, although they can never afford to be immoral.

Akbar, the builder of the Mughal Empire, based his vision on two principles, one tactical, one strategic. The first was used in the management of elites, the second was the foundation on which his rule rested. You do not have to believe the author of Tarikh-i-Akbari when he claims that the emperor is "the ruler of the entire world", or that he is the epitome of humility and generosity, or that "the dust of the imperial throne has become the sacred place of worship of the great and the mighty" — including, incidentally, the king of China. But he does get more credible when he explains how Akbar in a few years created an empire that stretched from Bengal and Orissa to Sindh and Afghanistan. War was not the answer, although Akbar maintained a brilliant war machine: the cost of his stables, with 5,000 elephants and many times that number of horses, was estimated at Rs 50 lakhs a day (in mid-16th century prices). War was only a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The chronicler quotes the emperor to explain the method of expansion. The logic was excellent, proving that Akbar was "gifted with reason and faculty of showing the way". There were 320 Rajas of Hindustan, rationalised the emperor, most protected by a strong fort. On an average, a siege took a year or more. If, therefore, he wanted to subjugate every Raja of Hindustan by war, it would take him perhaps a little short of three centuries. On the other hand, what did each Raja want? He wanted peace with the imperial court. The Mughal court offered precisely that, and did so for generations: it is forgotten that there were more Hindu generals in Aurangzeb’s army than in Dara Shikoh’s.

The elite must be pacified; that is an important requirement of state. But far more important is that the people should be kept happy. The answer to this need was justice. This was derived from a fundamental principle of Islam, where justice, equality and charity command a premium over every other virtue. The best justification for justice as the guiding light of administration was provided by the great vazir of the Seljuqs, Nizam ul Mulk Tusi, an intellectual and bureaucrat who held the Seljuq lands together when the western revival in the form of the Crusades had taken Jerusalem and devastated the political structure of the Middle East. Nizam ul Mulk’s Rules of Governance, a primer he wrote for a young prince to whom he was a tutor, is the outstanding testament of Islamic statecraft. With cool logic he separates justice from morality, and explains its necessity thus: A kingdom, to survive, needs an army. An army, to survive, needs money. Money comes from taxes, and taxes come only when people are prosperous and happy. People are happy only when there is justice. QED. In both the great Turkish courts of their time, that of the Mughals and the Ottomans (the Mughals had far more Turkish blood in them than Mongol), the scales of justice were the principal metaphor of the emperor’s power.

What do justice, and its consequence, prosperity, mean today in India? The short answer is security: from external threat, from internal threat, from the elements, and from hunger. Of these needs, the state can claim victory only on the first count. India’s armed forces have successfully eliminated the threat of invasion from either the north or the west (the only invasion from the east is one of people and economic migration works because there is implicit support from the host country).

We have a law; I am not so sanguine that we have order. A quarter if not more of rural India is ruled by the law of the Naxalites, who impose their own order, ensure their own form of justice and collect handsome revenues. Security is being increasingly privatised in urban India, with the police forced to pay more attention to the security of the ruling class than of the people.

Then there is the matter of shelter. Check with the street children in the cities. Check with the poor in the villages. One example is sufficient, and it is not the worst instance of poverty in our country by any means. Bidi workers — so many of them young women, because of their still-nimble fingers which will age faster than the rest of their bodies — get paid thirty rupees for every thousand bidis they put together in bundles. Since the dollar is the preferred currency of the Indian elite, that comes to some sixty cents for a thousand bidis. Work out the decimal point for every bidi. When we take visiting heads of government and media to see the shining computer cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore, we should also give them side-trips to the bidi manufacturing wastelands of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The poor are not so foolish as to believe that any government can turn their lives around with a magic wand. But they are not blind either. They want to see what is being done to improve their lives. The Left wins in Bengal because it keeps its attention fixed on this reality. Delhi has lost this very basic plot.

Food security means wheat, water and vegetables. No one treats water as a priority, because there is enough for the showers in the bathrooms of Lutyens’ Delhi. As for vegetables, we must leave that issue to my cook. Normally he tends not to open a conversation with me, conserving his brain power for the true ruler of our home. But his voice was tinged with amazement, even awe, when he broke his silence the other day. The price of tomatoes in Delhi, he said, had risen to thirty two rupees per kilogram. After the news, he added an editorial. The only thing to do with tomatoes at that price was to use them to pelt our honourable leaders.

Thirty two rupees a kilo. That is two rupees more than a bidi worker gets for every thousand bidis she makes.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

How Big is Togo?

Byline by M J Akbar:How big is Togo?

ballHow big is Togo? How small is Togo? How big is India? How small is the Indian? How petty is the mind that manages Indian sports? How minuscule is the pride that a nation should have in its sports team?


How complacent are we Indians — or for that matter, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, the wretched non-performers of South Asia — that we permit our sports czars to crush our national pride so that they may pick up the travel allowance perks of officialdom? How humiliating that young men of Kolkata pray for the success of Brazil (or possibly, after Crespo, Messi and a goal against Serbia and Montenegro that will remain imperishable in my memory, Argentina) in the World Cup because the Indian football team is a pathetic joke that would not find a place in the dustbin of MAD magazine.

It was not always so. In the 1950s, India was a pre-eminent side in Asia, in the hunt for medals at the Asian Games or even the Olympics. Chuni Goswami can tell you the story over a glass of something soothing at his club in Kolkata. But while other nations in Asia and Africa (which did not exist on the sports map of the world) put sweat into their skills and passion into their dreams, we Indians slid into a swamp.

Who is responsible for this degeneration? The easy answer? Politicians. We all love to blame them. It is true that some politicians have presided over failure and collapse of sport with the aplomb of the indifferent. But that is only part of the answer. It was not a politician who ruined Indian hockey. There is no reason why politicians should not be as fond of a sport as doctors, lawyers. Politicians also have the acquired or natural talent for dealing with people, and sport is nothing if it is not public. The problem is that Indian sport is ruled by a range of non-professionals who could not run to save their lives, and who believe that sport should serve them rather than the other way around. Sport is the means to their presence in media space, a bridge on which their vanity can sprint to and fro.

This is a particularly Indian disease. The only disease more fatal to sports is possibly the Pakistani version, where generals suddenly mature into experts on squash or volleyball the moment the pips come off the shoulder. The syndrome is similar, for both use power to extend their clutch over sport. Since no Pakistani civilian is in power, although some are in office, it is inevitable that the outreach quota should be filled by generals.

What is the difficult answer? That we, the people, who love sports and love our country, and thirst to see our national team win a match or two in the World Cup finals, let our self-appointed masters get away with this crime. Why do we permit our institutions to be purchased by non-professionals? Why is there no public demonstration of anger? Tony Blair may have been one of Britain’s most successful Prime Ministers, but when he is eased, or hopefully pushed, out of 10 Downing Street, the one job he will never get is management of England’s football fortunes.

All right: admitted that big or small is not necessarily a reflection of ability. China has always been big. It has become strong, in the modern age, only now. The British ruled 300 million Indians with something like 50,000 civilians and soldiers most of the time. We Indians are welcome to congratulate ourselves on the statistic that one British civil servant was generally considered sufficient to rule half of Sudan, but that would reduce bathos to pathos. Babur had less than 10,000 men by the time he defeated the Rajput-Afghan confederacy at Kanhua to establish his empire. It is not numbers, but quality that matters, and quality can be fashioned out of a few just as easily as it can be fashioned out of the many.

Poverty is a valid reason for failure. But India has run out of excuses. There is enough wealth to create world class teams in any sport. How small is Togo’s economy? Its growth rate in 2005 was 1% and its GDP just under two billion dollars. Ivory Coast had the same non-growth rate, and a GDP of $16.5 billion. Paraguay’s economy grew at 2.7% and had a GDP of $7.2 billion. Ghana was in single figures as well, with a GDP of $9.4 billion and a growth rate of 4.3%. Don’t doubt these statistics. They are from the CIA’s World Factbook. One squeak and you could end up in Guantanamo Bay.

Compare with booming bursting buzzing blazing buoyant India. India is on the cover of the international voice of capitalism, the Economist, ready to levitate towards the stratosphere. India’s GDP is $720 billion, its purchasing power parity over three trillion dollars, its growth rate 7.6% and its population over one billion. The population of the other countries would lie unnoticed in an Indian district, and the Togoans could be fitted comfortably into a satellite town of Delhi.

How about a football match between Togo and India?

All that India cannot do is find electricity for dazzling Delhi, water for any Indian or eleven young men in the national colours who can defeat Togo. It’s not the money, stupid. It’s the will. Without the will there will never come the power. Why has Indian cricket escaped the curse of the Indian crab? The Indian crab, as is well known, is not only unable to scale any height, but is at its best when dragging down another crab on its way up. The answer is not nuclear science. Indian cricket has managed to privatise its economy, while other sports still live in a mixed economy. State patronage is minimal but comes at a heavy price. Indian cricket can sniff at the state, and possibly lend a bankrupt state government some cash provided the interest is good and the Reserve Bank of India can guarantee the loan. Cricket is fuelled by advertising, and has become a huge industry in its own right. Advertising needs icons and icons are bred by success. This chicken comes before the nest egg. The success does not have to be huge, as Sania Mirza has discovered, to the intense joy of her bank. Indian cricket entered a new economic zone when it brought home the World Cup from England nearly two decades ago. A starving generation found its heroes. Kapil Dev did not even need to speak English to become rich; Palmolive was certain that even those who did not know English liked to shave. A Test cricketer now counts his annual income in crores. Rahul Dravid’s personal annual earnings would match the spending of all the big football teams of the Kolkata league put together.

Indian football can get its act together, but the first step will have to be drastic: the actors who strut the stage must give way to professionals. Amateur hour is over. The world has moved on, as has the World Cup. Nothing is out of reach, but you do need the will to reach it.
Will anything change?

Let us pray.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Syria Diary

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:A Syria Diary

The sun rises at 4.30. It is already high by 7.30 and will fade only at 7.45 in the evening. The sun puts in a 15-hour day, but Amman begins to take it easy after a latish lunch. Government offices wrap up by three, having wrapped in at eight. The one exception is the border between Jordan and Syria, which works through the night. There is Friday freedom on the highways as we race from Amman to Damascus in the clean sharp light of the morning.

Tourism begins at the border. Can a queue be fat instead of lean, plural instead of singular, jostling instead of obedient? Yes. The Jordanian officials are patient. Everyone is nice; they might even be well-meaning. The older Arab women, many in a chador, make excellent use of lament, passports clutched in hands extended in supplication, eager to finish formalities. The younger women wear T-shirts and smiles, and chat at nearby tables while their documents are processed: they are young, and time is on their side. The young men loiter, trying to look busy. I am lucky. The counter for foreigners is empty. Unfortunately, it is empty on both sides. A supervisor recognises my helplessness, stretches a hand across a seated officer’s head, takes my passport. "Hindwi?" Hindwi. The common signature of a hundred governments thuds into the booklet: the ubiquitous rubber stamp, invented, believe it or not, by a British ICS Sahib posted to Hooghly district in Bengal in the 19th century, who forgot to patent his invention. I get my passport back with a smile. Arabs, everywhere, are gracious hosts.

The Syrian check-posts are more military, but immigration is more laid-back. The travellers do not care very much about the delineation of counters; everyone owns the shortest queue. The face of a young man in uniform wanders between semi-laughter and semi-exasperation at the periodic tantrums of his computer. A swarthy traveller who forgot to shave a fortnight back, and forgot to bathe that morning, shoves me aside and opens a conversation which does not stop till it is complete. A second man sidles up. He is more polite, possibly because he has a piece of paper instead of a passport. The ranking immigration officer, who is lounging on his feet, takes a look at the paper with the resigned air of a professional facilitator. He is clearly a man of experience, weight and power: the experience is in his eyes, the weight in his stomach and the power in his demeanour. The paper goes into his pocket. My turn comes, and the passport is returned quickly, politely. The room is filling up with families. Three young women chat away the waiting minutes. One has a T-shirt suggesting that diamonds are her best friends. Her friends have less garrulous clothes. Other girls are in long skirts or jeans. No one wears a veil. A friend in Amman later explains that the veil is part of Persian culture, a fashion that spread east rather than west, until the thin gauze of Iran coagulated into the dark cowl of Afghanistan and the tribal frontier of Pakistan.

The searing brown of the desert, already softening in north Jordan, suddenly gives way to green and yellow, the colours of agriculture. Rivers have replaced rock and sand. The land of Euphrates has grass and wheat farms. The media-nurtured image of Syria as an impoverished nation, perhaps a necessary adjunct of the axis-of-evil syndrome, is an exaggeration. This isn’t El Dorado, but it isn’t Starvation Valley either. The economy has solid roots in food, oil and natural resources. The cars on the streets of Damascus are a mix of old and new, and thin dust seems to hang over the urban infrastructure but the shops are full and the kebabs in restaurants exquisite. We drive to the top of a hill for a bird’s-eye view of one of the oldest cities of the world, and it lies before us like a becalmed eagle, its outstretched wings forming the boundaries of an ever-growing metropolis. Silence, punctuated by the urban rattle, is the mood on Fridays. Damascus takes its holidays seriously. Around noon, the call of the muezzins wakes up a string of mosques.

There is a hint of Byzantine in the dominant mosque of the city, built by the Omayyad rulers 13 centuries ago, surrounded by a warren of bazaars, hamams and seminaries that could have hosted a million tourists if George Bush was not in constant search of enemies. The steepled walls and dome of the prayer hall inherit the city’s past, when it was a jewel in the dominions of the Christian Byzantine empire of Constantinople. Damascus fell to the brilliant thrust of Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, but has never rejected its history. The Patriarch of the Syrian Christian Church still lives in the city, and the services of his church have never stopped. Through the difficult centuries of the Crusades, Damascus was a constant target of Europe’s princes. Damascus often tottered, but never fell.

A mufti in black turban and flowing robes addresses an eager gathering of women in black, interspersed by a few men, in a corner of the courtyard as I enter the mosque. The scene could belong to any of the 14 centuries of the Islamic calendar. The huge, even awesome, prayer hall is stitched together by carpets and lit by chandeliers. Smack in the middle, to the left of the mimbar from where the imam leads the prayer, is a shrine protected by golden bars. This is the grave of Hazrat Yahya, more familiar to the Christian world as John the Baptist. Hundreds of photographs, passport-size and passport-face, are strewn around the grave, calling cards of young men who have sought the intercession of the Prophet in their prayers to Allah. There is nothing surprising or remarkable about this. It is on this land, from Mecca and Medina to Jerusalem and Galilee and the Dead Sea and Damascus, that the Prophets have preached their message to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The sun is hard but not harsh, hot but not humid, as I return to the courtyard. I walk a brief while in the shade of the corridor before the eye is arrested by a sign on a simple, undemonstrative door. The simplicity is deceptive. This is the second shrine of Imam Husayn, the martyred son of Hazrat Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the great poet-warrior who became the first Caliph of the Shias and the fourth Caliph of the Sunnis after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Husayn was killed, and his small band of followers massacred, by the forces of the Omayyad kings, who built this mosque, on the desert-field of Kerbala in Iraq. It is a sin commemorated each year during the month of Mohurrum by Muslims of all persuasions. Pilgrims flock to the splendid Husayn shrine at Kerbala in Iraq, where his body is buried. This is literally true. Husayn’s head was decapitated and brought to the court in Damascus as a trophy for the tyrannical Omayyad king, Yazid. This head was buried on the premises of this mosque.

A chant from the soul rises from the women clasping to the marble of the small mausoleum, their tears indistinguishable from their prayers. Yazid, who claimed victory in 780, has been eaten by worms, lost even to the desolation of archives. Husayn lives on, powerful, unforgettable. A martyr never dies.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Culture of Money

Byline by MJ Akbar: The Culture of Money

Delhi recognises the colour of money, but it has not yet quite begun to comprehend the culture of money. Delhi does not need any lessons in the colour, culture, nuances, excesses, limitations and even the curiosities of power. Power is the legitimate coinage of Delhi. Money, in contrast, is the illegitimate child of politics.

A successful Mumbaikar is comfortable with money, and has every right to be so, because his dharma is business, and wealth-creation is the proclaimed horizon of any business plan. Perhaps virtue might be an excessive word, but the wealth-creator certainly does not view his obsession as immoral.

The wealth of a politician is more problematic. On the one side there is the arguable case of need. Democracy is an expensive business, and one is using both these descriptive words with care. I have no idea in which world the Election Commission lives, but in the real world the cost to the candidate in an election to Parliament is above a crore of rupees. The more extravagant, or the more nervous, types can easily multiply that figure. Leaders with the safest of constituencies do not have the courage to take a chance and spend within the limits of a law that is totally unreal. Take a very simple fact. A Lok Sabha constituency could have up to 1,500 polling booths. A serious candidate would have at least four workers per booth. He would have to provide at least two meals and tea through the day. There is a huge outlay on transport on D-Day, and a buzzing network of party offices and functionaries to feed and lubricate. The budget for just the personnel management of election day can go up to two million rupees.

At the institutional level, political parties have to maintain large and complex machinery, of which the central office is possibly the least expensive bit. No one has given any thought to the basic paradox of Indian democracy: its institutions have a massive cash flow requirement, without any revenue base. Theoretically, this circle is meant to be squared by membership fees, but that is now a joke. We do not discuss the anomaly because every political party is united by hypocrisy. Everyone knows the practical answer: black money. Everyone knows that it is impossible to admit this sin. Everyone knows that those who give black money have generated it by evading a tax law. They certainly do not expect to be caught and punished for such evasion, which clearly is much larger than the amounts doled out to politician.

This leads us to a further anomaly. The political class is actually being fed out of government revenues, or what would have been government revenues if the taxation system was rigidly and honestly enforced. India’s democracy therefore functions on two parallel wheels: the white economy that keeps the government’s coffers in marginal shape and the black economy that keeps political coffers in excellent shape.

The politician might be the beneficiary of hypocrisy, but he is not the sole perpetrator of it. Hypocrisy is the preferred option of the Indian citizen and the voter, who will not permit the political class to go legitimate. There are at least two reasons, possibly related. One is the forlorn and semi-remembered figure called Mahatma Gandhi, who inflicted piety upon a people who love to take fun to the edge of impiety. (Did Gandhi ever celebrate Holi or Navratri except by singing an extra hymn at four in the morning?) Gandhi raised the bar for the political class to the point where he even tried to deny them sex. It was an amazing imposition, for the dividing line between ascetics and politicians in Indian society has been as wide as the Ganga in monsoon. But there surely was a political dimension to this social anagram, for Gandhi wanted to seal the association between the rulers of new India, or the new rulers of India, with the poor. Even if they did not throw away all their wealth, the post-British ruling class could at least look like the poor by wearing handspun. And so Motilal Nehru was relegated from Savile Row to khaddar. There was surely the hope as well that if the generation of Jawaharlal and Jayaprakash and Rammanohar Lohia could believe in simplicity of need, then they would be less tempted by corruption. The answer to the Congress from the Hindutva movement was equally if not more ascetic. The RSS abhorred wealth as much as Gandhi did. The Left, if anything, was even more abstemious. The only politicians who can claim any level of personal honesty today are the Communists. An important reason for the continuing success of the CPI(M) in Bengal is the financial integrity of its leadership.

Gandhi was strong enough to create new realities, and his code did survive for a while. In the Fifties, they used to measure corruption in thousands of rupees. When Mrs Indira Gandhi was alive, India was stunned when an official was discovered with Rs 72 lakhs in cash. Even if you discount inflation, those figures are a joke by today’s standards. Even the spiders of the Scorpene deal would not deign to touch such a pittance.

As long as the Indian economy grew at a semi-stagnant three per cent — sneeringly described as the "Hindu rate of growth" — corruption was correspondingly low. After all, black money can only be the undeclared percentage of profitability. Yes, there were, and are, Indian businessmen who had the remarkable expertise of creating black money out of losses, but they presided over melting assets. Their greed was unsustainable; you cannot share what you cannot steal. But once the Indian economy began to boom, the disposable cash escalated both vertically and horizontally. There was much more cash to shift; there were more people to do the shifting. The government wisely recognised the need for thousand-rupee notes to keep black money in circulation. You don’t really need thousand-rupee notes for the white economy. Cheques and credit cards work, you know. America does not have thousand-dollar notes — at least not to my admittedly limited knowledge.

The distance between need and greed is invisible to the ordinary eye. Definitions change. Today’s greed becomes tomorrow’s need. An economist might even argue that it is important that needs keep creeping up the social pyramid, or a consumption-fuelled economy could never grow. But Indian politicians were supposed to be in some different moral loop, outside the clutches of consumerism, above venal crimes like alcohol and adultery. It was all a pathetic lie and utter nonsense, of course, barely disguised by increasingly fashionable cotton.

In the last fifteen years if the white economy has been growing by six or seven per cent, then the black political economy has been rising by fifteen per cent, with heavy inflation in election years. Elections used to come periodically, now they take place every year. So the inflationary pressure is consistent if not constant.

Ironically, the take-off point for new levels of political corruption came at about the same time as the take-off through economic reform. Anyone who remembers the suitcases full of cash that landed up in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s prime ministerial bungalow could take that as the launch-pad of the new corruption. (There were clever denials, but the cleverer they were the more insincere they sounded.) The BJP, heir to RSS half-shorts and abstinence, got its share of power in the last fifteen years and immediately proved that the only model of power that works is the Congress model. Pramod Mahajan was an astute, personable, even charming (when circumstances encouraged him to be) and brilliant politician, but his m├ętier was as the Collector for his party, the BJP. No one knows just how much Pramod Mahajan collected over the years. Let us agree that it was not a small amount. Perhaps the most telling part of the tragedy that has consumed two generations of Mahajans is not the fifteen thousand rupees paid for five grams of cocaine for a midnight party in Delhi, bought from a junk dealer; nor the champagne or the lifestyle. It is even possibly a positive fact that the new generation of BJP leaders should use a Kashmiri Muslim as a conduit for drugs. That is the sort of thing that happens in VIP Delhi across party lines, for black money is neither saffron nor tricolour. It has only one colour, black. The most telling fact is that Rahul Mahajan lined his coke on five-hundred rupee notes. No wonder India was shining for the Mahajan family.

Pramod Mahajan understood the colour of money. He did not understand the culture of money. The culture of cash has left him dead and his son on a deathbed.