Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eyeless in India

Byline by M J Akbar: Eyeless in India

If I was, God forbid, chief censor of world media there is one four-letter word that I would ban completely: doom. Doomsday is as dull a concept as one can imagine, for it represents the end of all action. Doomsday is the ultimate reaction. Whether therefore the end is nigh or far out, why worry about it, particularly since you can do nothing about it? It is far more sensible to explore options in the sunshine instead of sniffling through gloom, making a virtue out of misery.

But there are limits to optimism, and it has been crossed by those who have concluded that India is a superpower. A curious and crazy mania of self-congratulation has overtaken us in India.

Perhaps every word in the previous sentence needs some elaboration. First: who is "us"? I suppose every reader of an English newspaper would belong to "us". Broadly, "we" or the "us" are those who have crept, slithered, slimed or worked our way legitimately to that huge space above the misery index of India.

Poverty is only one of the lines dividing Indians. The poverty line is in fact the weakest line; it is the line of non-resistance. The truly impoverished do not have the strength to resist, or they would wreak havoc of a kind you might not deem suitable for a mere doomsday.

Above that comes the anger line. These are the Indians who have escaped from destitution, and discovered the courage to exercise their democratic right to anger. For them democracy is not a matter of a vote every five years; they test its flexibility as often as they can, and with a gun if they can find one. Call them Naxalites, Maoists, terrorists, whatever: they don’t care. They have no interest in categories. They know that Indian democracy’s methods of healing are to offer a Band-Aid when the disease is cancer. They have been told that the honey of economic growth will trickle down to them eventually. Try offering the mirage of a trickle to a man dying of thirst.

Then there is a hatred line. It is a thin but potent line, and consists of those who are the leaders of anger. They channel anger towards violence. It is not a moral line, for those who hate also know how to negotiate. The establishment exploits this weakness quite liberally, offering rewards which buy leaders out of their group. Parliament is full of those who have been purchased by the establishment.

Above hatred is the envy line, that huge mass of Indians who are almost there, seething through small towns and villages, anxious to join the long queues of upward mobility. Envy is a good spur for aspiration, as anyone in mass marketing, or indeed banking, will confirm. This is the target group of future consumers which will keep the growth rate at 10 per cent and possibly send it higher. Envy is good for the economy. May it always flourish.

And on top of it all sit the exalted "us": a mix of the smug, the complacent, the rich and the wealthy which now believes that it has arrived, and is totally convinced that because it has arrived India has also reached her historic destination. This is the hyper India class, the doctrinaires of Superpower India. This is the fairy-tale "middle class", the subject of international attention, which hates looking below, except of course to find servants. This class has reinvented the morality of caste. It believes that the less fortunate deserve their misfortune, just as untouchables once were thought to deserve their untouchability: karma is the curse of the inferior mind. But there is this difference. The new caste lines are not rigid. You can buy your way across the divide with a colour television set; and there are no questions asked once you reach the Maruti 800.

This great collective "us" has shifted night into day. India is already a superpower and cannot be defeated in anything, including cricket. Defeat in cricket wounds the self-esteem of this new India, and it howls like a banshee until its lollipop is restored. Cricket is no longer a game in which eleven men might play well one day, and badly the next. It is a drug fed with unimaginable wealth, and every cricketer must be on steroids all the time, or he will be banished into that dangerous pit called middle-class purgatory. At the same time as the Indian team was getting properly and deservedly thrashed in South Africa, the National Family and Health Survey report was issued. It told the truth about "Superpower India": three out of four infants in the 19 states surveyed were anaemic, as were more than half (54% to be precise) the pregnant women. Two out of five children were underweight, which, in a poor country like ours, means appalling malnutrition.

Parliament interrupted its regular interruptions in order to debate defeat in cricket and demand immediate action from Sharad Pawar, head of the Board of Control for Cricket, so that the hungry ticket-holders of the cricket amphitheatre could see their gladiators do what they were paid to do, kill the enemy. Parliament did not have time for the National Family and Health Survey which, frankly, is such a bore compared to cricket. Cricket is hyped by multinationals who produce lurid television spots screaming, in jungle rhythms, "Ha Ha India!" — the best one can say about the ad is that it is about as tasteless as the product. Any chorus for the Family Survey would have to keep its refrain to a more doleful "Hai Hai India!"

The new middle class has created its own deities. The new Mother India carries, in her ten invulnerable arms, a nuclear weapon, a share market index printout, a mobile phone, a cricket ball, a ticket from a low-cost airline, a job offer from an outsourcing company, a colour television set, patched jeans, an iPod full of superbly arranged dancing music from Bollywood and an English dictionary.

The high priests of this India are politicians and businessmen, two terms that encompass a wide variety of types. (Some of my best friends are politicians and businessmen.) Whenever high priests have taken charge of a nation’s destiny, they begin to tend towards corpulence and corruption, and the brightest minds are tempted into sloth. You can see the victory of fantasy over fact in the constant homage to the mirror, and the easy dismissal of everything that does not comfort or reinforce this self-image.

Back to our initial sentence: that this is crazy is obvious, but why should it be curious? The curious bit is the blindfold that all of "us" wear each morning as we head to work, and retain till it is time to go to sleep. It is not as if impoverished India lives in another geography. You can see poverty in the slums of Delhi, the stench of Mumbai, the peeling decay of inner Kolkata, in the thousands of street orphans and beggars that are a constant reminder of failure. The urban poor are the elite poor. Think of the tribal enveloped by fear outside Ranchi, or the rural Muslims stretched across the eastern curve of the Ganga. But we, all of "us", are Eyeless in Delhi. Who has time for the hungry at our doorstep?

I am not a Utopian who believes that prosperity must march in step with equity; economic growth will come in stages, and there will be inexplicable disparity as we seek a better future. But what is it with the successful Indian that makes him so criminally indifferent to the truth of our poverty?

We have certainly moved away from a hopeless past. India might become a superpower; India should become a superpower. But we are not there yet. We cannot call ourselves any kind of power as long as half of India still goes to sleep on a stomach that is only half-full.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Who will pay the Bill?

Byline by M J Akbar: Who will pay the bill?

Never underestimate the ability of a lame duck Senate to cripple any idea that appears in its path. However, the latest episode in the long-running effort to structure a nuclear deal between India and the United States is a bit of a non-event. The US Senate approved a bill that included all the clauses that India, speaking formally through its Parliament, had objected to, and added amendments that will raise more than an eyebrow in Delhi. I cannot see, for instance, India reading from the same page as America on Iran’s nuclear programme, or, more important, surrendering its independent right to test again. The rising star of the Democrats, Senator Obama, has lent his name to an amendment that prevents India from storing fuel for its imported reactors. Too much conciliation might be required in the next stage, when the bill will be "reconciled" between the Senate and House versions. Common sense suggests that reconciliation seeks to bridge the difference between what has been passed, rather than eliminate clauses wholesale. Come December, we shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, let us celebrate the return of calm and maturity to the foreign office in Delhi.

When the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill, a mild form of hysteria broke out, guided by mandarins in external affairs and contract-employees in the Prime Minister’s Office. Selected journalists were briefed to lead a media chorus. You might have thought that India had been elected member of the Security Council, and defeated Pakistan in both war and cricket on the same day. This time, the temper of the reaction is both realistic and reassuring. You can see the calm hand of foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee and foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon at work. The new message is clear and welcome: India wants a nuclear deal, but it is not going to be written with only an American pen.

Since there is a pause in the affairs of men, it might be appropriate to take a larger look. The basis of the nuclear deal is the agreement signed between President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 18 July 2005. Since then, there have been three important developments, at least two of which are certainly inter-related, and the third very possibly so. The consequence of these events is that the nuclear map of the world has changed one more time.

From July this year, there has been a growing feeling, now reaching certainty, that the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq has been a failure; that victory in Iraq is impossible, and the best scenario possible is an orderly, phased withdrawal in which power is transferred to a government in Baghdad that is not overtly hostile to the West. Such a transition is impossible without the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbours. There have been subtle, and not so subtle, shifts in the dynamic of America’s relations with most of the neighbours.

When George Bush was still in charge of events, he declared that three nations constituted an "axis of evil": Iran, Syria and North Korea. Now that events are in charge of Bush, the meaning of "evil" is being renegotiated. Bush accepts that Syria cannot be treated as an outcast, and while he will not yet extend that same consideration to Iran, any realist knows that a settlement in Iraq, if there is ever going to be one, is impossible without Iran’s cooperation. Iran has very sensible diplomats. They know that it makes no sense to tease a defeated elephant, but they also understand that it is a weakened animal. If the American mission in Iraq had gone according to Donald Rumsfeld’s dreams, Iran would have been vulnerable today. Now that the war has gone as per Iran’s expectations, America is vulnerable.

The first country to exploit this vulnerability was the third member of the axis of evil, North Korea. It is highly unlikely that North Korea would have dared to test three years ago, when the perception of American power was still in the "shock and awe" dimension. It is also moot whether North Korea’s principal, and sole, benefactor, would have permitted North Korea to do so. America’s muted response has justified the Pyongyang-Beijing calculation. The irony is multiple. America went to Iraq ostensibly to hold the nuclear line, and is emerging from the war with the nuclear line in tatters. A door that was pushed ajar by India and Pakistan in 1998 has been thrown open by North Korea and China eight years later. This eases the pressure on Iran significantly, since it would be a very brave, if not foolhardy, American President who would now plan an invasion of Iran.

China has been swift to exploit emerging opportunity. It is strengthening Pakistan’s capability dramatically, and has just signed up to provide Egypt with a credible nuclear programme. I presume no one with even marginal IQ indulges in the fiction that nuclear reactors are really meant for peaceful purposes. If Egypt needed them for peaceful purposes it would have invested in them at least a generation ago. Egypt knows that with Israel a nuclear power, and Iran on the verge of becoming one, it cannot be a regional player without similar capability. The Saudis certainly have the finances to become a nuclear power and Latin America is not going to remain obediently docile. Japan is nuclear in all but name. It will not deviate from its official, pacific line, but if its self-interest requires a degree of deception, so be it.

The next decade is going to be one of great flux in the nuclear game. This game will be played with the kind of dexterity, determination and patience that India showed during those long decades when we pretended that our nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes only. It is going to be a decade for building parallel alliances. It is not the moment in history when India should willingly tie itself down to any apron string, even if that apron has the enticing brand value of America. It is no accident that one of the conditions that American legislators want to impose upon India is that it must become part of American policy vis-√†-vis Iran. China is free of any such encumbrance, and is playing the nuclear field with careful abandon. It is supplying nuclear fuel and technology to its friends, a point that is registering sharply with mature nations who now see such friendship as critical to their security concerns. Such nations will express their gratitude by encouraging the import of Chinese manufactures, giving China a double whammy. China’s eggs are being spread across the world, to fertilise and hatch at whatever pace the local climate will permit. India can see only one basket.

There is still time for contours to shift. And while there are still too many knee-jerk cheerleaders in the chorus surrounding government, the drums are thankfully silent inside government. Prime Minister Singh has made certain commitments to Parliament; it is now up to Washington to ensure that those commitments are honoured.

When the deal was at an incipient stage last year, I recall asking an American friend only one question: How much political capital does George Bush have left in reserve after Iraq, and how much of it is he willing to spend on a nuclear deal with India? More than a year later, reserves of capital have depleted further, and we will know the full answer to that two-part question soon enough.

Hollow Triumphs

Byline by M J Akbar: Hollow Triumphs

George Bush is still President of America, so who or what has been defeated in the electoral upsurge that gave Democrats a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives last week? The shift in power marks the defeat of triumphalism as state policy. What is triumphalism?

Its core is shaped by the triumph of the individual over the institution. Anyone who wins an election is tempted towards semi-divinity. When victory is unusual, or against heavy odds, the tendency is strengthened. Both George Bush and Tony Blair had to challenge more than just a ruling party to win. Bush, moreover, lost the popular vote and scraped through on the dubious strength of a few chads. He was re-elected by the amazing incompetence of an otherwise intelligent challenger. How much closer can you get to belief in a divine mission?
American government is shaped hugely by the character and predilections of an elected President, but George Bush could not have pushed through his Iraq war agenda without a compliant legislature. He conceived this war in fantasy and pursued it in illusion. The legislature could have acted as a reality check; it did not. Bush veiled illusion with aggressive morality. The logic was forceful: I have been invaded, hence I am sincere; I am sincere, therefore I am right; I am right, therefore I am good; I am good, therefore any opposition to me is evil. My war is God’s justice and America’s salvation. Any opposition to my occupation of a sovereign nation must be irrational, barbaric or terrorist.

The problem with triumphalism is that it collapses without triumph. The term derives from the triumphs that the Roman Senate accorded to military heroes. But to deserve a triumph you had to be a Caesar. There is no laurel that was ever designed for an empty head. Bush could afford the smile of a Caesar when Saddam Hussein was defeated three years ago and the insurgency had not begun. That incidentally was the moment when he could have negotiated a withdrawal with a new Iraqi government. He had ended the Saddam dictatorship. But he stayed on to conquer Iraq.

When success is elusive, politicians tend to console themselves with the illusion of success. From there it is one step towards selling a lie through manipulation of minds.War is a harsh environment. Death demands explanation and justification, There is collateral anger if death is seen as senseless. The pressures of democracy are corrosive. Governments always have to sell their decisions. But when they resort to communication malpractice they may buy the present but they inevitably sell the future.

Cleverness prevails over wisdom. Bush has been a master of the politics of democracy. He has exploited his personal weaknesses brilliantly: he has defined his naiveté as a form of sincerity. You never know what tricks the brainiacs are conjuring up to fool the ordinary voter!
Bush has won three elections by exploiting the power of the ordinary, but success has been sustained by a devious rhetoric.

Terrorism and Al Qaeda are critically serious threats, but they are also complex. A war against them needs commitment, conviction and above all honesty of purpose. It is honesty that enables parents to live with the coffins of dead sons and daughters, whether they are wrapped in the American flag or draped in an Iraqi shroud. Any dishonesty, or even the perception of it, extracts a terrible revenge. Bush was exposed gradually, in a dribble of news reports, articles and books which destroyed his thesis that he had occupied Iraq to save Americans from terrorism. Americans were ready for sacrifice against terrorists; they were shocked when they realised that their moral and military resources were being consumed by a different agenda. An intelligence estimate, on the eve of the elections, that the war in Iraq had actually increased the threat of terrorism rather than decreased it was perhaps the final straw that tipped the balance away from Bush.

The Bush linkage between Al Qaeda and Iraq was made through Islam. It was cheap tactic that had the lifespan of a tawdry lie. For a while it worked: for the American heartland the fact that both were "Islamic" was enough. Bush created an "Islamic" enemy because in that imprecise haze he could conjure up whichever demons he wished. Over time, the brew consisted of inaccurate history and demonic myth stirred in a large cauldron of fear. It was not just the use of "crusaders". That might have been a genuine slip of the mind, for all I know; and in any case it was the Church and Christian princes who drenched Jerusalem in knee-deep blood before they were defeated in a war that lasted two centuries. More relevant was the conscious and repeated use of terms like "Islamic fascism" and some mysterious Caliphate that hovered like a monstrous threat over western civilisation.

A cursory analysis would have revealed the weakness of the construct. Islam is 1,400 years old. Fascism appeared on the map of Europe with Mussolini in 1920. So whatever else fascism may or may not be, it certainly cannot be Islamic. Yes, it is absolutely true that there have been many Muslims who have been fascists. But why blame Islam for the sins of Muslims? No one blames the Vatican for Mussolini, or the Church for apartheid although the white racists of South Africa were churchgoers.

The Caliphate, like the Holy Roman Emperor, is a concept from the age of empire. It is a pre-nation state institution which has outlived its utility in the contemporary age of nationalism. It was abolished by a man who can justly claim to be the father of post-empire Muslim nation states, Mustafa Kemal Ghazi. It was Mustafa Kemal who saved Turkey from partition and virtual annihilation by the British after Turkey’s defeat in the First World War, even while the Caliph was trying to save his dynasty’s skin at the cost of his country. If Al Qaeda uses this term then it only goes to prove how distant it is from ground reality.

But the conversion of Islam into the enemy had another purpose: it obscured the fact that the principal — though not the sole — motivation of the Iraq insurgency was nationalism.
The answer to triumphalism is good, old-fashioned realism. It took defeat at home to wake up from what can literally be described as his dream-world. But he could be more formidable awake than he was when drugged by the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, if he accepts the rationale of realism in the remaining two years of his term. If he uses the undoubted power of his office to create a new balance across the world, he could seed a new order that his successor can nurture. (Blair’s successor will be in office within months.)

Bush has spent the last three years waging war against Iraq. He will need, at the very least, to spend his next two years doing something even more dramatic: discovering the difficult route to peace with Iran and healing the very deep, very painful wounds that Israel has inflicted upon Palestine. That would be a genuine triumph.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Bangla Heroine

Byline by M J Akbar: The Bangla Heroine

The collective noun is a poor cousin of the proper; the singular belongs to a higher caste than the plural. There was a crucial omission from this year’s list of Nobel Prize winners. Muhammad Yunus deserved the award for peace, but only half of it. The other half should have gone to the women of Bangladesh.

Yunus’ now famous micro-credit idea was considered "impossible" three decades ago only because no one trusted the poor. Banks are in the business of capital. Capital is the business of the rich. The rich have only one law: the business of money is to make money. Banks don’t mind being cheated by the rich, as any list of their bad debts will prove. But they will never permit themselves to be cheated by the poor. Trust, in their philosophy, leaves dark stains on the balance sheet. They would rather compromise with the greed of the rich than the need of the poor.

The poor are not mislaid angels. They are as vulnerable to temptation as any other class. The best decision that Yunus made was not to help the poor, but to help them through women. He trusted the right gender. His experiment might have collapsed if he had handed out little packets to men. Women prefer the human development index to the stock exchange. They know the value of food, cloth, education and healthcare. They give birth and understand death. If Bangladesh is slowly emerging out of the basket into which Henry Kissinger once dumped it (he called the country a "basket case") it is because women have become the prime movers of economic development. The Nobel citation confirms this: "Micro credit has proved to be an important liberating force in societies where women in particular have to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions. Economic growth and political democracy cannot achieve their full potential unless the female half of humanity participates on an equal footing with the male."

Spot on.

Ninety per cent of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim. It is these Bangla Muslim women who have made Yunus a Nobelist. They are also a visible challenge to the stereotyped image of Muslim women, particularly in America and Europe, as shrouded in veils. I hope photographs of women, who deserve all the credit they can be given, accompany all features on Yunus. None of them will have their faces covered.

Almost all of them will have their heads covered. The sari is an excellent example of modest dress. One piece of cloth covers all parts of the body, including the head. In all eastern societies, both men and women have traditionally covered their heads. Those who do not wear the sari, use a scarf or a dupatta. Men wore the burnoose, fez, skin or cloth cap. Men’s dresses, as much women’s, reached the ankles, and in neither gender were private parts flaunted in the manner in which, say, the codpiece stressed certain physical assets, or disguised liabilities, among men in the western middle ages. Eastern Christians followed eastern norms, as they do in Kerala. Hindus and Sikhs would never contemplate of entering a temple or gurdwara with their heads uncovered.

The full-veiled Muslim is a small part of the truth, and not by any means the whole truth. A valid argument can be made for change, but that argument will not be won through either legal compulsion or public contempt.

Jack Straw had every right to raise the issue of the full veil. The problem was not the message but the messenger. Muslims are loath to listen to lectures from a man who is one of the principal perpetrators of war and havoc in Iraq, a man of vast power who used a lie and defends many more in the pursuit of an immoral and unacceptable war in which hundreds of thousands of innocents have died. I don’t know how many of you saw the interview with former Iranian President Khatami on BBC on Friday the third. I suppose if he had said something hysterical media would have quoted him endlessly. But he supported a moderate form of dress, pointing out as so many others have that Islam insists on modest dress for both sexes. Mr Khatami was leader of a country which has a women’s wing in its armed forces, and can be seen marching in parades. The women wear scarves, not the face-veil. I suppose it is a bit difficult to shoot the enemy wearing a face-veil.

President Khatami made a much more important point, which Britain needs to address: that it is the politics of injustice, and not religion, that is fuelling anger among young Muslims in countries like Britain. They cannot understand the carnage in and international indifference towards Palestine. They feel demonised and alienated in their own countries. They believe that the legitimate war on terrorists has illegitimate by-products, like the use of demonisation to gain public support for quasi-imperial adventures. They want to be accepted as themselves, and not as clones of another culture. All minorities need space for identity. They should not take such need to excess, for the good reason that it is silly; but anger will breed a touch of excess. At least the veil is non-violent.

The question that should worry Straw is why British Muslim women, who have not grown up in a conservative environment — this perfectly serious pun is intentional — are asserting themselves increasingly in this manner. Perhaps the anger is greater because Labour was the natural home of the British Muslim vote.

Multi-culturalism is no longer just a national phenomenon in some countries; it is an international fact. The success of western colonisation was bound to leave its impact on the dress code. You may have seen a million pictures of Iraq by now. I hope you have noticed that the urban Muslim bride wears a wedding dress straight out of a western Christian ceremony. Western dress was a vital part of Mustafa Kemal’s reforms in Turkey, and the Arab regions of the old Ottoman Empire paid their homage to success in similar ways. One of the most remarkable facts of 20th century social history is the triumph of the trouser in male, and now female, dress.

Or maybe not. Maybe the real phenomenon is the necktie. Trousers are practical, useful and can be elegant or comfortable or even both. I cannot think of a single practical reason for wearing a necktie. It is no substitute for a muffler; it neither hides nor protects. There is no logic to its shape. And yet it has become the definition of formality across the whole world. Even Communism has succumbed to the tie: Mao jackets are no longer worn by the Chinese politburo.

I actually like wearing this utterly useless bit of hangman’s rope. I enjoy wearing ties in a range of colours, and take more of them than I need to on a visit to Britain. But I wonder what my reaction would be if the British immigration authorities passed an order that you could not enter Britain without a tie.

Marketing, persuasion and allure are far better alchemists of social change than political compulsion.

The most serious problem in so many Muslim countries is gender bias, and this can exist with or without the veil. Gender bias is hardly unique to Muslims; Europe corrected itself only less than a century ago.

I believe that the West could not have seen its dramatic rise in prosperity without eliminating gender bias, and I even more strongly believe that Muslim societies and nations cannot find a future without making women equal partners in economic growth. This is the challenge of the 21st century, and those who rise up to the challenge will find a proportionate rise in wealth, stability and the happiness index.

Bangladesh’s women should have shared the Nobel Peace Prize for more than one reason. The woman who saved her family with micro-credit is a heroine of her nation and an inspiration to the world.