Sunday, December 30, 2007

Blind Faith

Byline by M J Akbar: Blind Faith

If you want to understand Pakistan today, try and imagine this scenario in India. It is 1984, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale escapes during Operation Bluestar and disappears into an inaccessible range of the Himachal Himalayas. The Indian armed forces cannot find him; although Delhi will never admit it, Bluestar is a failure. The militants, operating under the command of General Shabeg, regroup, their loyalty to the ideological leadership of Bhindranwale reinforced by success in battle. Anger against Bluestar arouses the Sikh peasantry to the kind of fury and passion it displayed during Banda Bahadur’s war against the Mughals. The young take up militancy in self-generating numbers, making casualties irrelevant to the insurgency. Bhindranwale remains in regular touch with the insurgents, who now have safe sanctuary in certain gurudwaras, since the Indian government is hesitant to invade sacred space after the counter-productive calamity of Bluestar.

Simultaneously, inspired by Punjab, a violent jihad explodes in Kashmir, far more intense than the conflict that lacerated the valley in the Nineties. The Kashmiri jihad finds its own leader, and works in coordination with Bhindranwale. India’s military and paramilitary forces are so deeply engaged in the battles of Punjab and Kashmir that they have to thin out their presence along the China and Bangladesh borders, opening up options for those in the neighbourhood who are hostile to India’s unity.

By 1996, the Indian armed forces are battle-weary at the base and defiant at the top. They have grown tired of civilian politicians and parties that do not understand the meaning of "a free hand". When a fractious coalition patches together a government in Delhi, the Prime Minister is unable to provide any direction at all. He spends more time plotting to survive than planning to save India’s integrity. Kashmir’s jihadis taunt Delhi daily, and take a heavy toll on the armed forces. By this time, the South also has become vulnerable, with the LTTE finding friends on the mainland and terrorism becoming a constant threat in Tamil Nadu. Assam is ablaze. There is a coup in the name of national unity. The general who becomes India’s dictator is widely welcomed by the nation.

By 2000, however, the Army dictators have proved no better than the old politicians, and in the process destroyed the credibility of the democratic institutions by swearing in stooge politicians into their government, which naturally is headed by a toothless "Prime Minister". In fact, the government has lost control everywhere outside Srinagar, Ludhiana, Jullundur and Chandigarh. 9/11 saves the Indian dictators because they rush help to the America-led Nato invasion of Afghanistan, and follow it up with division-strength support to the American invasion of Iraq.

America guarantees the security of the China border. Pakistan is not a serious threat except for its encouragement of the surrogate war, and Bangladesh too weak to challenge India militarily.

By 2005, prices have steepled, the economy has tanked, the nation is in disarray; defence swallows up the budget. If the insurgency has not succeeded it is only because of the will of the Indian people, the sacrifices of the soldiers and an extraordinary geopolitical advantage: India has space. The Army can rely on supply lines and fresh recruitment; it can fight behind the Beas when necessary and at the Jhelum when it wants to. But the dictators have become deeply unpopular, and cannot hold back demonstrations that become more massive by the day. There is domestic censorship, but the world press cannot be prevented from reporting the turbulence. The generals are forced to call for elections. They are scheduled for the first week of January 2008.

The politicians return, some from jail, some from exile, some from hibernation, for the bitter campaign of December 2007. The insurgents choose their targets…

I could go on.

But let us pause to remember the martyrs who did not let India succumb to anarchy. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi must head the list, but there are thousands of officers, jawans, policemen and civilians on that roll call of honour. There are leaders who are now forgotten: Sant Longowal and Beant Singh, the chief minister of Punjab for instance. There are leaders who are still with us: Who can afford to forget the fight that Farooq Abdullah put up against three years of unprecedented militancy in Kashmir?

The forces at play in Pakistan are, of course different, but the end result is a gathering anarchy. Pakistan is teeming with ideologues, banded under dozens of banners, each with its private army, who are determined to turn it into a theocratic state. Parallel forces operate within an informal alliance, their agenda overlapping; jihadis against the West, principally America; an Osama bin Laden still alive and officially untraceable, but in command of his armed sectarians; Taliban warriors who control regions on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. Add to this a polity wrecked by inept civilian politicians and an obstinate military high command, and you have a cauldron brewed by the witches of misfortune.

Benazir Bhutto lost her life in a nation that has lost its moorings and is in danger of being marooned.

This phase of its history began with the judicial assassination of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, now known to the people as the "Shaheed Baba". It will not end with the death of the "Shaheed Beti".

General Zia ul Haq, motivated by personal insecurity, was the first dictator to use death as an instrument of state policy. He was not the first general to stage a coup. But Ayub Khan ran a soft regime. Yahya Khan did not hang Sheikh Mujibur Rahman even though the charge was treason.
After Zia, the path to power became paved with peril and stained with death. The Afghan war changed the local dynamic. The gun was no longer in the custody of the state. It was handed, with the collusion of America, to non-state actors. They have not returned the gun. It has gradually become part of the culture of politics. Benazir Bhutto did not create the Taliban, but she gave it a nation and an unstoppable momentum by launching it in Afghanistan. The bullets, or those shards from bombs that killed her, have debilitated her country and broken yet another hope in a nation desperately in need of some.

Benazir’s friends will remember her with affection; her followers with pride; both will live with tears. Others will ponder over the cruelty of the angel of death, who is meant to take away exhausted lives but seems to hover mercilessly over those who have returned from despair. Benazir had matured enough, according to those close to her, to dull the edge of error. Rajiv Gandhi was plucked away at the very moment when he might have blossomed again. Serfs of this merciless angel arrive from anonymity to shift the course of history.

Blame is not a game, and yet it must be played out if only to seek some semblance of an answer, the only nutrient that can revive the fading embers of hope. Pakistan needs the courage of introspection. It did not introspect when an unknown assassin ended the life of its first Prime Minister, in Rawalpindi as well, Liaquat Ali Khan. It cannot afford complacency. Pakistan must look beyond the names of individuals to eliminate the forces that diet on havoc. Will it do so?

India is in comparative calm, but surrounded by nations at war with themselves. The calm is comparative, for Naxalites are asking for change from within the heart of India.

There is one immediate lesson ahead of many larger ones that will emerge with thought, analysis and an honest look at the mirror. It is simply this: Terrorism is an unmitigated evil. Long before terrorism can wound an enemy, it destroys its masters. If the governing elites of South Asia do not understand this stark, simple fact, they will gouge out their own eyes. Blind elites cannot see either a horizon or a mirror. Who can the blind lead, except the blind?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Big Chiefs

Byline by M J Akbar : Big Chiefs

The results of the Gujarat elections appear on 23 December, and politics resumes in Delhi on the 24th. Judging by the tension on the faces of politicians, no one really believes either the polls or the exit polls. Even the bookies, who were certain the BJP would get a majority, began to cover their bets just before results were due. The miracle of a genuine election is the secrecy of public opinion. A friend who met Narendra Modi after the last ballot had been cast found him a bit withdrawn, a little less than his ebullient sarcastic self. If Modi cannot be sure of what is lying in those electronic machines, you can bet that no one else is certain.

Two points need to be flagged, before we are all exposed as wearing blinkers instead of spectacles. The Congress has everything to gain, and little to lose in Gujarat. Results are measured in the balance of expectations. No one expects the Congress to win, so if it does pull off a surprise the political momentum will shift in its favour. It is difficult to say how long this momentum will last. In 2004, the BJP had convinced itself that three sweeping victories in the states would add up to a majority at the Centre. It is still kicking itself for that mistake.

The BJP has everything to lose in Gujarat, and not much to gain. In cold terms, another BJP victory will be a fairly impressive achievement. We think of incumbency only in terms of Narendra Modi, but the Congress has been out of power in Gujarat for 17 years. Modi replaced a BJP chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, only because the incumbency factor was beginning to wear out the party already. But since hyper-expectations have been established around Modi, a defeat will destabilise the BJP while a victory will be forgotten, or attributed to poison-politics.

The second point is about result comparisons. The normal tendency, in all statistical analyses, is to compare present Assembly results with those of five years ago, in the last Assembly polls. What is missed is the general election results of 2004. The Congress won in 91 Assembly segments in the 2004 polls. In other words, it won a slim majority in Gujarat, which has 180 seats. For Modi to win, he would have to reverse a natural slide that became all too evident in 2004. The Congress, on the other hand, needs to retain its 2004 tally to emerge as an undisputed champion. Modi has to win back lost seats. Modi’s task is harder.

Those who think that the Gujarat election results will determine the date of the next general elections miss the point. The government is not being brought down by the BJP. The government is in danger because its support from the Left has wobbled. The Congress and the Left are not in conflict over Modi. Their dispute is over the nuclear deal and the strategic relationship with the United States. When the applause dies down after the Gujarat electoral curtain goes up, the debate on the future of the UPA government will return to the deal. The Gujarat elections gave the Congress a little pause for breath, but that is over.

Within the next fortnight or month, the Congress will have to indicate clearly whether it is going ahead with the nuclear deal or not. That is the decision that will determine the date of the next general elections. If the Congress does well in Gujarat, it might be encouraged to test the national waters, but it will be the wrong reason for a decision that must be based on other considerations. The more important question is: if the Congress cannot win, will it regroup within the status quo, or will it still chase the nuclear deal? Certainly the party needs a bit of time now to throw out sops to its core supporters. We are bound to hear talk of a development plan for minorities, for instance; and if there is opportunity for a budget to be placed before Parliament, we can be certain that it will reek of generosity rather than economic reform. This is politics as usual. But there is also a view that too much has been invested in the nuclear deal to let it stagnate in the corner, neither fish nor fowl. This view believes that the Congress can mobilise a vote on electricity, and turn the nuclear deal into a national mantra for an energy-starved country.

There is very little that is general in a general election now. The results in Delhi are becoming a reflection of the popularity of state governments, driven by regional issues. As the federal instincts of India sharpen, the country is being run by chief ministers rather than a Prime Minister. It is their performance that holds the key to which alliance will get how many seats. The BJP’s last hope in 2004 disappeared when the Congress won as many as 12 seats in Gujarat. It is the chief ministers who will deliver the next Prime Minister. They are the Big Chiefs of Indian politics.

A seasonal tailpiece: Since British columnists (unlike Americans or Indians) love sending up VIPs, readers and themselves, one is never too certain whether what they say is a fact, an assertion or a tease. Rod Liddle wrote in the 16 December issue of the Sunday Times of London that he had met a certain Syaikh (sic; normal people would spell this Shaikh) Muhammad bin Shalih al-Uthaymeen, who had been advising British Muslims that to say "Merry Christmas" was forbidden. Assuming that the name is correct and the item is authentic, I have news for this Syaikh.

Islam and Christianity, both Abrahamic faiths, have of course many differences, but there is one important element of doctrine in common. Islam too believes in the virgin birth. Islam does not accept that Jesus died on the cross, and obviously cannot accept Jesus as the last prophet; but the Quran says repeatedly that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. The Quran mentions Mary (Maryam) more times than the New Testament: 34 to 19. There are references to Jesus (Isa) in 93 verses spread across 15 suras (chapters). Verse 91 of sura 21 is one of the references to the virgin birth: "And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our Spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all peoples". Verse 45 of sura 3 says: "Behold! The angels said, ‘O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus. The son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and of the company of those nearest to Allah’."

The question arose: if Jesus was not born of a man (he is constantly called son of Mary) then it gave credence to the Christian belief that he was son of God. The Quran gave him the status of Adam, who was born of neither man nor woman and was yet not considered divine.
Muslims may not accept the Biblical version of the death of Jesus, but his birth is an essential component of Islamic history. So forget about that silly Syaikh with a silly spelling - and Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rise, 2008

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Rise, 2008

Is this the ultimate opinion poll? In early December a press release issued in Islamabad cited an opinion poll conducted by a Boston-based organisation called, slightly obviously, International Public Opinion Polls (IPOP: was the acronym significant?). The respondents in Pakistan, it said, had been interviewed by phone or Internet, and concluded that a very satisfying 74% thought that President Pervez Musharraf’s popularity had risen ever since his tailor had the good sense to change his dress code to civvies. To complement such good news, 55% of the respondents thought that the general elections in Pakistan should be held in early January as announced by the government, without any delay.

All would have been well, except for those pesky fact-checkers who never seem to understand a good thing when they see it, or have any appreciation of the huge burden of national interest that weighs so heavily on the soul of self-appointed dictators. A little bit of checking discovered that there was no such organisation based in Boston, and that the zip code on the address was false. We all know that some of Mr Musharraf’s family live in Boston, but they are not involved in polls in any way.

In the middle of December, an American institution that works for the Republican Party did conduct a poll and discovered that there was only 23% support for President Musharraf, 25% for Nawaz Sharif, and 30% for Benazir Bhutto. Some establishment type in Islamabad taunted these figures. It couldn’t be because someone actually believes that three fourths of Pakistan is anxious to keep Musharraf in power; it must be that old sin of loyalty above the demands of truth. Actually, the President should take comfort in the second set of figures rather than delude himself by staring at the first lot. With 23% of the vote, he becomes a genuine King’s party, and will decide who, between Bhutto and Sharif, will form the government in partnership with him. That is not bad for a chap who can’t take no for an answer.

There is a strange quality to opinion polls on the subcontinent; they matter far more to those in power than to those who elect individuals to power. Opinions are not shaped by opinion polls. They are merely the comfort food of politicians. The voter is never gulled by declared trends. If anything, a frontrunner may be hurt by too repeated an insistence on projected victory because it might leave his supporters complacent and his adversaries energised.

The opinion polls that have emerged after the first round of polling in Gujarat are not as parentless as the IPOP offering in Islamabad, but there is a hint of illusion or bias in what they suggest. The vote difference is too small, making the variables that much more important: a tweak here and a massage there can take figures in any direction you want. It is far more fruitful to watch the face in the crowd. Check out which leader draws the glow on the faces of the audience, and whose meeting raised perfunctory applause and slogans, and you might be closer to the truth. Numbers at a meeting actually indicate very little, but involuntary reactions are more revealing. And of course, there is always the standby reliability of the bookie. The bookie is important because, unlike the journalist, he puts his money where his mouth is. Opinion polls of course are a joy unto themselves: they have fun at your expense, literally.

An election season seems to have begun, and will get into full gear after the results of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are known two days before Christmas. Two weeks after Gujarat, the political agenda will have changed so sharply, Gujarat might well have never existed. The time balance on the nuclear deal will be exhausted. Dr Manmohan Singh will have to take a decision on whether he wants the deal or whether he wants his government.

Events that have taken place in the silence of the shadows will determine the results of elections next summer. At the very top of the list will be the price rise of food.

Statistics do not lie outright; they merely tease and mislead. When a government issues a statement that the price rise has only been five per cent, the number says nothing of political importance, although it has great validity as a figure of economic importance. The prices of manufactured goods, for instance, purchased by the middle or upper middle class, might be flat, while the price of food, the prime necessity of the poor, taking away a substantial part of his income, might rise by 10% on an average, and register a 15% rise in essential items. Food prices have been going up consistently in India for the last four years, for a variety of reasons, including tectonic shifts in delivery patterns and a slow but determined shift in the nature of trade. There are variables in availability, as new forms of capitalisation take food out of circulation and into preservative environments. No single change is happening on a dramatic scale, but too many small changes are taking place simultaneously.

Perhaps the most significant change is in the nature of consumption, as rising prosperity among certain sections of India (particularly in the South) changes dietary habits as well as scales up levels of consumption. The demand for wheat in South India is an instance. This may not be because South Indians have suddenly fallen in love with the chapatti and the paratha, but the explosion in the number of bakeries in small towns will provide the answer. Breakfast is becoming a more sophisticated meal. Simultaneously, poverty and indebtedness are driving the marginal farmer to suicide; the price of disparity, or the distance between aspiration and availability, will have to be paid by those in authority.

This is compounded by changes in the international pattern of consumption. An average Chinese person ate 20 kg of beef per year in 1985; today that figure is over 50 kg. The hasty and misguided shift to farming for ethanol-based fuel is creating quiet havoc in the farming sector. At another level, the West continues to subsidise its farmers so that the market forces it advocates for others do not affect its own core constituencies. Three fourths of the world still lives in rural areas — outside the comfort zone of secure subsidies. A billion urban consumers worldwide live around what might be called the urban-anger line. World food prices have jumped a massive 75% since 2005. The knee-jerk reaction might be to blame the jump in oil prices, but this is only one of many factors, and not necessarily the most important one.

To cut a long story short and place it back in perspective, 2008 will see a sharp rise in food prices in India. This is not just an economic statement. This is a political fact in an election year. Any delay in the election date cannot help a government in such an environment. The trigger for an election might be the nuclear deal, but the direction of the bullet will be determined by the price rise. This is one of those bullets which could do a 180 degree turn and travel back towards the gun.

Wealth creation is not synonymous with poverty elimination. A country needs the first, but elections are won by the second.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

War Games

Byline by M J Akbar: War Games

The November campaign might be for Gujarat, but its politics is about the next general elections. The very uncertainty about the date of a general election makes the politics that much more intense. Since no one knows when it might happen, for both individuals and circumstances could galvanise events, you have to be prepared for as early as April and as late as autumn next year.

The end of the last session of Parliament proved, in front of a nationwide television audience, that the government was in a minority on the one policy initiative that has defined its term in office, the nuclear deal with the United States. Even middle-of-the-road parties, like the resurgent BSP, had moved towards the opposition phalanx by the end of the debate.

This leaves Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with just two options. He can either run a minority government, or he can go to the people. The second is obviously more honourable. A government is born by the arithmetic of a plurality in the Lok Sabha, but it survives on a diet of credibility. Without credibility, a government becomes sick, just as an industry becomes sick without capital or revenue. You can continue operations, but only by accumulating losses. In politics, those losses mean fewer seats in the next Parliament.

There is, theoretically, a third option; walking away from the nuclear deal. But that too would mean a decisive dent in credibility. You cannot lead people to the pot of gold at the edge of a rainbow, and then proclaim retreat because you want a few more months in an arid status quo. It would be a very self-indulgent political leader who thought he could get away with such a ploy.

Dr Manmohan Singh is a mild man; that does not necessarily make him a weak Prime Minister. If I judge him correctly, he would prefer to take the high road towards an election, rather than the smudgy path of debilitating compromise. Obviously, this decision is not his alone. But, as an economist, he will have other, and equally powerful, arguments on his side.

The most persuasive, surely, will be next year’s price rise. The government has postponed an increase in oil prices for political reasons, but it cannot postpone the inevitable. The relevant Group of Ministers (headed, but naturally, by Mr Pranab Mukherjee, who seems to get all the work and little of the reward) has no choice but to recommend a hike. The inflationary spike that has been the story of the last two years will convert into a sharp spiral. There is already a subterranean sliver of discontent among the have-nots. Rising prices are the catalyst that could turn them hostile. Any delay in elections would only serve to reduce Congress seats, not increase them. It is a bad bargain to sell the future for a few months of the present.

Why cannot elections wait till the scheduled spring of 2009? The political agenda has messed up the dates on the electoral calendar: that’s why. For starters, after the confrontation between allies on the nuclear deal, the limp would be too long. Instead of just one foot being a drag, the government might get static, with both feet injured. A general election in 2009 would also be held according to the redrawn boundaries and new-reserved constituencies for Dalits to account for demographic changes. Many dozens of MPs would have to fight elections in constituencies they would hardly recognise. There is strong pressure on all parties to hold elections before the end of 2008, when old constituencies remain intact. There is also the whiff of a controversy that could explode into a fireball. There are protests in Bihar that Muslim voters have been artificially merged into reserved constituencies, making them ineligible to vote for Muslim candidates. Which government in its senses would risk wading through such a boiling cauldron?

Every country has an army, but most countries, fortunately, do not go to war at the drop of an intelligence analysis. What do the big brass of defence services do during the long fallow periods between conflicts? They indulge in war games, simulating reality on the planning board and keeping the boys busy in exercises that come as close to a projected battle situation.

Politics in a democracy is not all that different, except that there is far more warfare. Elections come once in four or five years; the time in between is consumed by planning for their outcome. Government decisions are tailored not just for the public good but also for the political fit: the voting constituency must be served before the electorate is addressed. Even as words fill the air, substantive issues are being given a wet run in Gujarat before they face the final test in a general election. The big three are economic policy, as seen through the looking glass of the price rise and social justice; the nuclear deal; and the Muslim vote.

For the Congress, the Muslim vote is crucial. In 2004, Narendra Modi stampeded the Muslims into the Congress box. The BJP won Gujarat and lost the country. This time, the problem is more nuanced. Modi might be the same person, but the situation is different.

George Bush is now in the picture, thanks to the nuclear deal and the strategic alliance. The Congress dream is to ensure that the spectre of a revived Modi outweighs Muslim anger against Bush. But is the Modi shadow large enough to envelop Bush as well as hide the sprinkle of questions that dot three and a half years in office? You cannot blame Modi for doing nothing about the Srikrishna report. Or for doing nothing about the recommendations of the Rajinder Sachar committee. Or for the indifference with which a sub-plan for Muslims in the 11th national plan was arbitrarily rejected. And you cannot quite blame Modi for the fact that the Congress has found a new ally in Gujarat, Gordhan Zadaphia. Who is Mr Zadaphia? He is the man who was home minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots and as culpable as anyone else. We know that democracy has a few reserved seats for cynicism. But surely there is some bottom line.

We will also get an idea in Gujarat whether there is enough sympathy for the nuclear deal among the urban middle class. The deal is also linked to economic reform and growth, objectives dear to the heart of urban Gujarat. Dr Manmohan Singh’s tour programme was drawn up with this in mind. There is, probably, no state more pro-American than Gujarat. This should be a factor in any potential Congress revival. Modi is by nature, and inclination, a polarising figure with a sharp communal bias: to accuse him of communalism is only to reassure those who are faithful to him. But even those who oppose him bitterly, for rational or personal reasons — he has, for instance, thwarted a number of careers in his own party — need issues on which to campaign for a future better than he can provide.

Gujarat is a key indicator, because the two national parties are also the only regional players. The results will test the resilience of both. The Congress has the advantage, because the odds are against it, and defeat will not be too demoralising. The real test will be for the BJP, if its expectations go haywire.

But both Congress and BJP should wait for the results before they send out ‘Happy New Year’ cards.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Musharraf's Tailor

Byline by M.J. Akbar : Musharraf’s Tailor

Surely the most creative, lucrative and sensitive job in Pakistan is held by Pervez Musharraf’s tailor. Think at the number of objectives he has to meet: the internal and external security of his nation; the legitimacy of his country’s political system; the wooing of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif; and the awesome American strategic goal of short-term security and long-term stability that hinges on the cut of cloth. After all this, he still has to ensure that the President looks good. Not easy.

The tailor has had some practice. This is not the first time that President Musharraf has chosen civvies for public display. He put them on during his brief interventions into pseudo-politics even when in uniform, as when he chose to address a public rally in order to indicate the love and warmth that the Pakistani people had for him. He appeared then in a shalwar-kameez. His style was different from the precedent set by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who gave his party, the Pakistan People’s Party, a virtual uniform distinguished by a braid in the collar of the jacket. The other difference was that Pervez Musharraf did not look all that relaxed as he waved his arms in acknowledgement of the people’s cheers. Maybe the cheerleaders had exacted too heavy a price.

Thomas Carlyle, the 18th century British philosopher, argued that clothes make the man. He was discussing more than one nuance of this proposition, including the measure of appearance and folds of reality. He had the advantage of thinking within the confines of an ordered system.
Musharraf’s tailor may have changed his boss’ clothes. But has he changed his boss’ mind, or indeed his boss’ constituency?

Musharraf has imposed martial law, declared an Emergency, sacked 12 judges of the Supreme Court, imprisoned the non-compliant, and struck deals with America and Saudi Arabia in order to remain in power. Why should we imagine that he would suddenly surrender power just because he has surrendered his uniform?

That surely is a key question as Pakistan moves to the next act of a drawn-out tragi-comedy. An election will be held in January. A Prime Minister will be sworn in. Who will be in power? The old President or the new Prime Minister?

So far, there has been no confusion under dictators. All Prime Ministers appointed by Musharraf knew their place, somewhere in the middle of the food chain, after the Corps Commanders and preferred political heavyweights who had backed the President. Shaukat Aziz is not disappointed that his sell-by date has arrived. The job was a lottery, and like all windfalls it had a finite existence. He did what he could, to the best of his ability, and did not confuse his years in office with the sanction of popular support. He was a top bureaucrat in the banking industry; he became a top bureaucrat in the political industry. Good luck, and goodbye.

The queue of potential Prime Ministers for January 2008 is full of professional politicians who demand obedience rather than give it. Pakistan had enough problems with a single source of authority, an Army dictator who ruled by decree. How will it manage with a dual source of authority?

Whoever thought up this duality (one hears that the idea belongs to Washington) either had a facile brain, or had never visited Pakistan, or had just run out of ideas and could not think of anything else. The American plan aims, as we have noted, to achieve short-term security by pleasing both God and mammon, by partitioning governance into military and civilian departments in which the armed forces will continue to confront those who challenge America in Afghanistan, or indeed America in America, while the civilians get on with the business of economic growth, prosperity-management, foreign policy and doubtless madrasa-eradication. This can be dressed up as a democracy, and voila! All problems are hereby declared over!
Pakistan has had to pay a heavy price for the delusion of its dictators. To this we must now add the self-delusion of its advisers.

A conventional democracy draws very clear lines between a President and a Prime Minister; one of the two designations is assigned the power, and the second plays a secondary, complementary role. In France the President is the chief executive, and the Prime Minister is a subsidiary executive. In India, the Prime Minister is the undisputed authority. The Indian President is a creature of the government as much as the Constitution, whose every public pronouncement is vetted and cleared by the Cabinet. His — or, today, her — only moment of supreme authority is in the exercise of a Constitutional duty, in the selection and swearing-in of a Prime Minister and his/her government. The moment the government is sworn in, the President becomes, in effect, a Constitutional prisoner of his own government, a situation that lasts only as long as the government has a parliamentary majority or its term is over. The President is a Constitutional bridgehead.

Did President Musharraf become President in order to become a cipher? Anyone who thinks the answer is yes needs a long private chat with, possibly, Musharraf’s tailor.
A variation of the Turkey model, in which the armed forces placed themselves within the executive system as guarantors of the nation’s secularism, is being attempted. In Pakistan’s case, the armed forces are the guarantors of security. But there is no doubt about which finger is on the trigger. It is not a civilian finger.

I have no doubt that the January elections in Pakistan will be free and fair, since those who rig the elections have already been elected. The people are being asked to choose only one centre of power in a bipolar system.

This leaves us with some serious questions about both foreign and internal policy. Who deals with India in the diarchy that is envisaged for Pakistan from January 2008? Who deals with Afghanistan? Who makes the trips to the White House? Will every discussion have to be repeated to two centres of powers, and each agreement sold twice?

Internal questions can be even trickier. A Parliament elected the President. Can the next, elected, Parliament remove the President from office? The President of India can be impeached under Article 61, if two thirds of either House of Parliament prefer a charge, and then after investigation and a process of trial hold him or her guilty by a two-thirds margin. Is the President of Pakistan above any system of accountability, free to do anything he wishes? Will the President of Pakistan declare another Emergency, abolish Parliament, pack off judges of the Supreme Court if he feels threatened? This year’s repackaging of the Supreme Court was a pre-emptive strike, not a post facto decision. Is there any reason why it could not happen again?
You cannot get long-term stability if there are too many questions and not enough answers. There is a basic geological fault in the system if the directly elected portion of the diarchy is the weaker of the two poles in a bipolar polity.

When asked, recently, when he would step down, President Pervez Musharraf answered, "When there is no turmoil in Pakistan".

By that yardstick he could still be Pakistan’s President in 3007, if the Almighty gives him a long-enough life. And there could be more work for the tailor

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Calcutta Volcano

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Calcutta Volcano

A democracy does not eliminate alibis, but it certainly reduces them. There is a thin line between anger and violence, but that line is drawn very clearly in a free nation. Because democracy provides so much unique space for anger, it demands that its citizens do not cross that line.

Calcutta’s Muslims crossed that line on Wednesday, during their protests against the presence of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in Bengal, and the publication of an article about her that they considered unacceptable.

Indian Muslims have much to be angry about. Some reasons are genuine, but some continue to be byproducts of that siege mentality that crept into the consciousness of the community at the beginning of the 19th century and has not quite left two hundred years later. This perhaps is why Indian Muslims sometimes forget that they also have a great deal to celebrate in their country, not the least of them being that their identity has found a powerful place in Indian democracy.

Indian Muslims are the only Muslims in the world to have enjoyed more than five decades of uninterrupted, unconditional, adult franchise democracy. They remain marginalised economically, but the polity has empowered them vigorously. In large and decisive states like Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh they control the swing of the electoral pendulum. They constitute 27% of the population of Bengal, but I suspect that they add up to more than 30% of the vote since they vote in larger numbers, which is excellent. If there is any tendency to become smug, all they have to do is take a look to the right and left, towards fellow Muslims who created separate nations in the name of liberation, first from India (in 1947) and then from Pakistan (in 1971).

Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh have achieved independence, but they have not found the freedom that should have come with it. Their freedom has been patchy. They have been imprisoned not by foreigners but their own elites, and subjugated by their armed forces who have distorted patriotism to seize power and institutionalise dictatorship. Pakistani Muslims today thirst for a democracy that Indian Muslims take for granted.

This, and it is important to stress it, is not a special favour to Indian Muslims. They have as much right to liberty as any other Indian. Democracy does not belong to any faith. Equally, no particular faith is synonymous with democracy. Islam did not make Pakistan a natural democracy; nor did Hinduism turn Nepal into one. Buddhism has not ensured democracy in Burma; its generals bow and bow and still remain autocrats in uniform. India is unique because of the ideology that won it freedom from the British: a commitment to multi-cultural equality and a celebration of the unequivocal rights of individual and collective liberty. But that freedom is not a licence to hysteria. Crowds have the right to gather, people have the right to be heard, but they have no right to descend into a mob. The means of protest also determines the degree of its acceptability.

What bands of Muslims did in Calcutta was, therefore, unacceptable. It is curious that, for a variety of seemingly unrelated reasons, a city that has enjoyed peace for three decades under Marxist rule is beginning to rumble dangerously. How many volcanoes have begun to smoke in its alleys? How many explosions will erupt and how much lava will flow through its urban ranges? The anger of one community, Muslims, is only a part of the story.

The causes of Calcutta’s periodic outbursts are both visible and invisible. In the last instance there may have been festering fury against provocative remarks in a magazine article, and the presence of a writer. This is information at the news level. But an unknown, or barely-known, "minority" organisation cannot manufacture such a corrosive event unless it had succeeded in stoking the embers of many hidden fires. All you have to do is take a look at the inner city of Calcutta, by far the poorest part of the metropolis and populated almost entirely by Muslims. The young Muslims of Bengal, whether Bengali or Bihari, are feeling totally alienated from economic growth. Worse, no one has time to draw any kind of route map for their aspirations. It is as if because they have been permitted to survive and vote, they do not deserve anything more. They’ve got a life, why do they need a job?

The political class is either patronising, indifferent, exploitative or hostile. The code is not difficult: each one of those terms is applicable to one mainstream party or the other. The only adjective they could easily share is "exploitative". The BJP, which does not get the Muslim vote, is either indifferent or hostile. The Congress, Left and the "secular" regional forces treat Muslims as election fodder that can be mass-produced by an appeal to the mosque, or the manipulation of the mosque leadership. The political parties have no interest in encouraging genuine leadership capable of guiding the community’s young through their problem towards that degree of hope which is rising as the Indian economy surges forward. The Muslims play an infinitesimal part in this "economic miracle". The cynicism of the Congress is acute. The Planning Commission, which is part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s area of interest, has just rejected a comprehensive sub-plan for Muslim welfare as part of the Eleventh Plan, while approving similar plans for Dalits and Adivasis. No reasons have been offered for this partisan decision. How should Muslims react? By falling at the feet of the government? Don’t wait for it; it won’t happen.

Why should the mainstream parties wring their hands in hypocritical despair when mavericks or fire-breathers occupy the space that they have left vacant? Older Muslims may be tired or resigned, but the young are angry and volatile. We have seen but a glimpse of this volatility in Calcutta or Nandigram. It is only the beginning of a process that could become a horror story.
How do we prevent a pool of anger from becoming a cesspool of violence?

The silliest diagnosis would be to treat it as merely a law and order problem. The Army marched through Calcutta’s streets last week; the last time it did so was in 1992, when a sudden spike of fear shook the city after the demolition of the Babri mosque. Fifteen years have passed between the two events. A child born on 6 December 1992 could easily have been a member of the mob in November 2007.

Is it only the child who is at fault?

1992 came and went; once calm returned, those in power confused it with peace. For fifteen years that child has watched India turning into someone else’s paradise on the flickering screen of a street corner television set. No one has sent him an entry ticket to that paradise. He has not even been allowed to smell the flavour of the gate. No one has shown him a future to which he could belong. He has been told, implicitly, to content himself with squalor while others on the same level as him have begun to take tentative steps towards new horizons. How long would it be before the temptation to slash and burn seized him?

India’s opportunity lies in democracy; India’s solutions lie in economic growth. It is dangerous to provide the first and deny the second.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who Killed 2007

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Who killed 2007?

It is with some regret that I note that the year 2007 passed away under mysterious circumstances. Time dies every moment, and we are so inured to its passage that we welcome the arrival of the new, rather than mourn the death of the old, year. So why should 2007 merit regret? The reason is sentimental. It died prematurely on the Indian subcontinent, and one must shed a tear for anything that ends before its time is up. The remaining weeks between mid-November and early January have been put on hold in both India and Pakistan. (Bangladesh is in an exceptional situation; the whole nation has been put on hold till further notice.)

Was this premature death murder or suicide? The coroner is undecided, but the evidence points to homicide.

President Pervez Musharraf has completed his agenda for the year: sacked his Supreme Court, then packed his Supreme Court; switched Prime Ministers from the submissive World Banker Shaukat Aziz to the pliable Mohammadmian Soomro; put on his uniform and signed a decree giving special powers to the President of the nation to lift the Emergency "whenever he sees fit", taken off his uniform and gratefully received those powers as President of Pakistan; arrested and incarcerated the bold, house-arrested and released the beautiful; won the endorsement of his mentor President George Bush, and announced user-friendly elections for early next year in which everyone's job is at stake except his own.

How could life be better for someone who was supposed to have cut the branch on which he was sitting? His opponents might get awards from Harvard; he remains the one with medals on his chest, or his chest of drawers, but firmly with him. Political business in Pakistan is, apart possibly from a whiff of occasional grapeshot from lawyers, and the more regular potshots of terrorists, closed till those user-friendly polls.

The Internet has become a vehicle for fraud chain-mail messages purporting to be pearls of great wisdom. However, some are not too bad, if only because they are culled from the original in order to strengthen the credibility of the interspersed rubbish. Two adages are currently floating around in the name of the great pre-Christian era Indian (or, technically, Pakistani, since he lived most of his life at Taxila, which is north of Islamabad), Chanakya: "A person should not be too honest. Straight trees are cut first… The biggest guru mantra is: never share your secrets with anyone; it will destroy you." President Musharraf has been a good student of the fake Chanakya.

It is holiday time in India as well. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken his nuclear deal with America to as satisfactory a pause button as he could have hoped for. He and his troubled and troublesome allies on the Left have found a very delicate, if somewhat tenuous, line on which to declare a ceasefire in their war over relations with the United States. The ceasefire line is this; the Left has given permission to the government to go to the IAEA, but not to go on to its board of directors for approval. This may seem a simple enough compromise, but there are nuances that can be exploited. India only has to conclude a safeguards agreement, not sign one, in order to begin consultations with the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations. Technically, the reference to the IAEA board can be made even after the NSG round. So Delhi can argue that it has operationalised nothing after having squeezed out this concession from the Left. The Left has made this concession because it is in desperate need for time: the longer it can delay the inevitable general elections, the better it will feel.

When Indian politicians talk about saving face, you can be certain that what they really mean is saving their necks.

Both sides know that this ceasefire line can hold only up to a point; since the Bush boys will work overtime to rush through the next stages so that it goes on the agenda of the US Congress by late January. The chief American negotiator, Nicholas Burns, has already explained why America wants India to sign on the dotted line.

Let me quote from his article in Foreign Affairs. "The benefits of these historic agreements are very real for the United States. For the first time in three decades, India will submit its entire civil nuclear program to international inspection by permanently placing 14 of its 22 nuclear power plants and all of its future civil reactors under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Within a generation, nearly 90 per cent of India's reactors will likely be covered by the agreement. Without the arrangement, India's nuclear power program would have remained a black box. With it, India will be brought into the international nuclear nonproliferation mainstream".

The deal takes India into the non-proliferation regime, in America's assessment, through a side door, while America of course continues to proliferate in the name of one war or the other. And Burns goes on to stress India's potential role in America's war in Afghanistan.

The Indian National Congress knows this, and is putting in place its political strategy for elections. The AICC session in Delhi on 17 November was summoned to formalise the obvious: castigation of the BJP as an all-weather menace, attacks on the Nandigram-tainted CPI(M) as a seasonal plague, and the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as successor to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and leader of the party in the next general elections. The party will seek the youth vote through Rahul Gandhi, the "hriday samrat" (emperor of hearts) who can be trusted with the future, when all other parties are led by men of the past. The nuclear deal will be sold as the beacon tracing the way to new horizons.

For the Congress, the utility of 2007 is over.

This, of course, is good news for the rest of 2007. If the politicians need a respite from politics for six weeks, guess how much respite ordinary citizens need from politicians.

2007 is in delete mode, but should it be preserved in the memory bin or sent to the trash can?
There will be no debate in Pakistan: 2007 was a year that they wish had never been born. The genesis of its troubles lay in Musharraf's uncertainty about whether Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry's Supreme Court would institutionalise his, and by implication the Army's, place in the power structure. There would have been no fuss if the Court had readily ruled in his favour. Months of strife later, a reliable Court is in place. Those who argue that Musharraf has no popular support rather miss the point. He did not become "Chief Executive" through popular support, so why should he worry about it now? He is ready to offer pseudo-democracy to democrats. It does not, in the final analysis, matter much to him whether Shaukat Aziz is his Prime Minister or Benazir Bhutto, as long as he is President. If Ms Bhutto becomes Prime Minister will she dictate what the armed forces do, or will the armed forces dictate what she should do? The answer is obvious.

2007 came and left India on the wings of the nuclear deal with the United States. If governance was crippled in Pakistan, it was certainly hobbled in India. Will the two governments walk by 2008? An Indian general election is medicinal. Whoever comes to power will canter in the first year, slow down in the second, stumble in the third as the medicine wears off and a fresh dose is needed. A Pakistan general election will only elect a parallel government. It will get into office, but not necessarily into power. The future gets dim without power.

So was it murder or suicide? Murder in Pakistan, and a bit of a heart attack in India I think.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Band-Aid for Cancer

Byline by M.J. Akbar: A Band-Aid for cancer

Pakistan’s dilemma can best be described as a conundrum. Over the years, the nation’s polity has discovered a means of bringing military dictators into power, but no way of removing them from office.

The first two, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Yahya Khan, were wrenched out of office by failure in wars against India. The third, General Zia ul Haq, arguably the most skilled of the lot, needed the intervention of the Almighty. Zia opted for a proxy war with India, a game he could not lose because he never admitted he was playing. The fourth, General Pervez Musharraf, the most accidental of the dictators, who owed his beginning to a flight that went awry, fought his India war before his coup, and has spent eight years alternating between peace by proxy and war by proxy.

The conundrum is further mystified by a paradox. Each dictatorship was legitimised by the guarantor of the Constitution that had been usurped: the Supreme Court blessed each new "Chief Executive" of the nation, the term Musharraf fondly bestowed upon himself before turning to more grand appellations, through the tired "doctrine of necessity". General Musharraf received this benediction from the Supreme Court as well. No court ever asked who considered every coup to be necessary. The people were never a referee, and had to be content with the lies that periodically wafted over the airwaves promising a restoration of "democracy". Ayub Khan’s democracy was so basic that he won more than 95% of the vote; Yahya Khan nullified the results of the free elections he held; Zia ul Haq smuggled Prime Ministers in through rigged polls and kicked them out before they grew too big for his boots.

The Zia model is a tempting one, and Musharraf has fallen for its lure except for two problems. Musharraf is no Zia. And Pakistan between 1999 and 2007 is not the Pakistan between 1976 and 1986. Nor are the Afghan wars, the central facts of their terms of office, the same. There was clarity about the enemy when the United States, and the Pakistani intelligence, military, government and people fought the Soviets. Today, the Americans may be certain that they are fighting the Taliban, but where is it? In Afghanistan? In Pakistan? Within the Pak Army?
Ronald Reagan needed Zia more than Zia needed Reagan. Musharraf needs Bush more than Bush needs Musharraf.

That is the sand under Musharraf’s feet.

He is not the only one child building fortresses on sand. If Musharraf is no Zia, Benazir is no Zulfiqar either. It would simply never have occurred to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that the route between Karachi and Islamabad was via Washington. Benazir’s case for power rests on her proximity to Washington. She is eager to go the extra mile required for genuflection to George Bush on her journey to power. She did not, for instance, need to offer the Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan’s head on a stars-and-stripes platter. But the rewards of power are substantial. Corruption charges have been forgiven, and the comforts of office beckon. Khan is a tarnished and dead pawn in her game.

Ironically, A.Q. Khan (described by Musharraf as late as in 2003 as a nuclear giant and a gift to Pakistan from Almighty Allah) was a protégé of Zulfiqar Bhutto, who started Pakistan’s nuclear programme and can legitimately claim to be the father of the Pakistani bomb. He picked up finance for the project from the Muslim world by claiming that it would be an Islamic bomb. We are not done with irony: neither Zulfiqar, nor his cheque-mates, nor the American administrations that quietly gave the nuclear programme a pass in the cause of friendship, understood then what connotations the term would acquire in the first decade of the twenty first century, or that America’s primary dread would be the thought that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might end up in the private arsenals of warriors with long beards.

America is now a direct player in Pakistan’s internal affairs, and in the enviable position of being wooed by the establishment as well as most claimants to power.

In the absence of democracy, the struggle for power is between two unelected constituencies, the military and the judiciary, and one pseudo-democratic force, Benazir Bhutto. America is a hovering referee, choosing to intervene either when the situation threatens to slip into chaos, or to prop up those it considers reliable. The judiciary is the weakest of the three, because its only weapon is public sympathy for a much-eroded legal framework. It has no executive at its command, and there is always a queue (as Zia proved) at the door of the judges’ chambers. This is why Musharraf could replace the Supreme Court before the Supreme Court could replace him. Benazir’s over-insistent emphasis on democracy is bogus, because her democracy does not include competitors like Nawaz Sharif. She wants to rig the elections before they have begun, by the neat method of eliminating the one person who can challenge her party. America has come to her help, through Saudi Arabia, which leaned heavily on Sharif and took him back from Pakistan. She may tolerate the Jamaat leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, because he is the establishment Islamist, but will endeavour to scissor out even Imran Khan, whose individual credibility has risen sharply because of his courageous and consistent opposition to military dictatorship.

It is often said that nations have no permanent friends or enemies; they only have permanent interests. Their friends and enemies are as variable as global warming, but Musharraf and Benazir do have one trait in common: permanent individual self-interest. America has welded this into a temporary alliance, shaped long before the Emergency (the not-so-secret meetings in Dubai are hardly forgotten) and sweetened by the withdrawal of corruption charges against the lady. The Emergency itself is a blip in the plan, which will be corrected once the military is satisfied that a court cannot interfere with its grip on decision-making. The Bhutto rhetoric about democracy is too thin to hide the fact that she has compromised with the military. Stimulated debates over Musharraf’s uniform beg a simple question: if Musharraf does not represent the military, then what is he doing in any office? He surely isn’t there because of the overwhelming love of the masses.

The alliance is vulnerable to self-inflicted wounds. If the Pakistan military begins to believe that Musharraf’s mistakes have damaged the institution he represents, then it might seek an alternative leader. Washington will have no problem with that, since America is interested in the military, not an individual. Its interpretation of democracy does not stretch so far as to exclude the military from power. But the greater difficulty will arise when the time comes to share office. Benazir’s definition of an "elected" leader’s authority could so easily conflict with the implicit limits laid down by the military.

The election that Pakistan needs is not for a new government, but for a new Constituent Assembly that can, for starters, eliminate the "doctrine of necessity" from the options before the Supreme Court. The debate between democracy and stability is facile, because, as experience has proved, one cannot exist without the other. There is a civil, and civilian, society in Pakistan that has been waiting too long for an opportunity to lift the country above dictators and corrupt politicians.

Pakistan’s polity has developed cancer. A Band-Aid, even one made in America, will not do.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Left with an Alternative

Byline by M.J. Akbar : Left With An Alternative

The Indian Left is much larger than its most visible face, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It is split three ways, each currently pointing in three directions. The CPI(M), CPI and their smaller partners represent the institutional-democratic element. The Naxalites, or Maoists, are the unstructured, undemocratic but increasingly potent dimension.

The recognised parties are restricted to one large, one medium and one small state. There is reasonable dispute over the true strength of the Naxalites. Some argue that many state governments are too eager to declare some of their districts Naxalite-infested because this translates into non-budgetary assistance from the Centre to curb the "Naxalite menace" in the name of that variable virtue called "law and order". But even if the Naxalites are not as powerful in the claimed 170 districts, there is no doubt about their influence in over 80 districts — sufficient to direct the course of the vote if they choose to do so. The Naxalites do not have a coordinated view on important issues, but it may be relevant to note that they were the first political force in the broad opposition spectrum to take an unambiguous view of the Indo-US nuclear deal. They rejected it comprehensively. We do not know if this will be reflected in the elections within those 80-odd constituencies, but it might if, as seems likely, the nuclear deal becomes a central focus of the next general elections.

A third aspect of the Left base goes largely unrecognised because it is not obvious. This is the vote that would have gone to the Left, if the Left had existed on the electoral map of that region. This is the "poor" or "garibi" vote that once automatically went to the Nehru-Indira Gandhi Congress, but which no longer recognises the party. Congress sensitivity is so heavily magnetised by the Sensex that it has no space for any parallel reality. This vote has switched twice, in the North, to regional parties. The first time it did so was in 1967; the second time was after 1989. The patterns in the South followed a different course, but there too the vote has shifted or swung between the Congress and regional parties.

The latest beneficiary of this phenomenon has been Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. There are two reasons why the BSP could break out from the limits of provincial success. Its core base, the Dalit, is spread across the country. The Dalits and Muslims constitute the only powerful nationwide vote blocs. Other vote blocs may be national in their sentiment, but they are not nationwide in their presence. There is also great overlap between the Dalit, Muslim and "poverty" identities. If Mayawati can harmonise and then mobilise these identities, she can extend her UP numbers into a much larger calculus.

Mayawati is essentially occupying the space left vacant by an absent Left. This is why she cannot make much headway in the states where the Left is entrenched. Alternatively, she succeeds handsomely where the Congress has ebbed.

What are the chances of a Left crumble, if not collapse, in the next general elections?
Kerala is a seesaw, so the Marxists cannot hope to repeat their success of 2004. They will succeed, however, in tiny Tripura, because they have delivered on the two basics of good governance: distributive economic growth and social harmony.

Uncharacteristically, the CPI(M) has fumbled on both counts in the critical state of Bengal. While Nandigram may continue to dominate the headlines, Bengal’s Marxists should be equally worried by the riots against ration shops in their heartland constituencies, like Birbhum. Food riots destroyed the Congress before 1967, and they will eat into Marxist margins in 2008.

One of the curious myths, sponsored by the current mania within the upwardly mobile middle class, is that the underprivileged are either unreasonable in their demand for exclusive attention, or, worse, simply unworthy of too much attention since they are a drag factor on economic growth. It is obvious that such self-comforting panaceas have infected Bengal’s Marxists. The truth is that the poor are far more realistic than they are given credit for. They do not believe that there is some magic wand. They have more patience than the better off; not because they are more saintly, but because they have fewer options. What the poor do possess, however, and have every right to retain, is a powerful sense of justice. They can read a signal, or detect a nuance quickly, for they do not have the luxury of complacence. The Bengal government has increasingly indicated that it prefers middle-class cosiness to street sensitivity. The manner in which, for instance, it has repeatedly snubbed Muslim sentiment is spectacular in its amateurishness.

How big a price will the party pay? The Marxists may still be rescued by the stand that the national leadership has taken against the proposed strategic alliance with the United States that constitutes the core of the so-called nuclear deal. In real terms, this strategic alliance means involvement in American conflicts in the Middle East. The Muslims have a rather unique distinction: they are possibly the one Indian community with a foreign policy. They have no sympathy for George Bush, and there could be electoral rewards for the Marxists in Bengal and Kerala, if they retain the clarity to find it. This will compensate for some of the malfunctioning in governance.

But the true opportunity for the Indian Left lies in the phase or politics after the next general elections, between 2008 and 2012. And this opportunity will open up in the Hindi heartland. One can see the impetus that created the groundswell for regional parties (most of them splinters of the old Socialist movement) beginning to fade. We might not see the explosive self-destruction of 1971, but it will be difficult for the regional parties to hold their own against the resurgent claimants of this space. The Hindi heartland will probably return to one of the two mainline parties by 2012, either the Congress or the BJP, depending on which of them has managed to preserve its credibility. The outside option in this game is the BSP, but its rise will only be a consequence of Congress implosion, since their vote base is similar if not the same.

The only alternative to either the BJP or the Congress will be a Left Front on the lines of the Bengal or Kerala model. The Kerala model, in fact, may be more relevant, but with a northern manifestation of the Muslim League thrown in. The ground for such a coalition will have many seeds, from the old Socialist movement of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia to the spadework being done by the Naxalites in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The Naxalite tactic of violence cannot be an end in itself; it must be the means towards a more sustainable political objective.

The future of the Left does not lie in the continuation of poverty. That is negative bias disguised with clever semantics. No one has a vested interest in poverty, least of all the Left. The future of the Left lies in justice, not poverty; in an economic programme that can create wealth without handing it over to a narrow apex.

That apex, however, is crowded by an orchestra of sirens. Can the Left leadership, as it negotiates its way through troubled waters in the next five years, resist the lure of those sirens?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Certain Uncertainty

Byline by M J Akbar: A Certain Uncertainty

Two significant news items were circulated within twenty-four hours of each other by the Press Trust of India, an agency that believes, correctly, that the information it distributes should be independent of its consequences. It concentrates on what, not why or wherefore. It is left to us, hence, to wonder if there are any dots that connect.

The first item reported that the next session of the All India Congress Committee would be held in Delhi on 17 November. An AICC plenary can be fun. It is a wonderful party mela that attracts a spectrum of shapes, shades and shrieks, a collection of the washed and unwashed, starched and silken, lords, middlemen and peasants that reflect the national character of a party which has lost a national vote but retains a national aspiration. The speeches are predictable paeans of loyalty, but that is only to be expected. Once upon a time these used to be annual affairs, with resolutions discussed in the subjects committee before being moved at the full session, and new presidents elected with their own working committees. But those days are long over. The late P.V. Narasimha Rao attempted to revive inner party elections to the working committee (but not to his own job) at the Tirupati AICC but abandoned the exercise after checking the results. That was the end of that. Even the subjects committee is being abandoned now because very few can understand why it exists.

The last AICC plenary was in January 2006 at Hyderabad. It was a double-whammy celebration: for a well-deserved triumph in Andhra Pradesh, and a more crafted victory at the national level. Ritual homage was paid to the future in the praise for Rahul Gandhi and everyone went home to enjoy the fruits of office.

The coming AICC session in November is not a plenary, but a limited gathering of AICC members. It has been called at short notice. It has not been summoned to celebrate anything, because after three years in office no ruling party has more reason for worry than celebration. It is not being called to reassert its confidence in the leadership, because there is no question of any challenge to the president of the party, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. But it cannot be an exercise in nothing. So what is the purpose?

Is there a link to the second PTI story, which said that the American administration wants the Indo-US nuclear deal to be presented to the Congress by January next year? The specific PTI sentence is: "Harping on a year-end deadline for the nuclear deal with India, the US has said it will be good to get it voted in the Congress by the coming January."

The next meeting between the government and the Left on the nuclear deal is scheduled for 14 November. If the January deadline is to be met, this will also be the last meeting on the subject, for the deal must then pass through the IAEA in Vienna and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The AICC session therefore is perfectly placed for three resolutions: congratulating the president of the party and the Prime Minister for negotiating and implementing the nuclear deal; offering it as a panacea for prosperity; and welcoming Rahul Gandhi, with his young followers, into the top echelons of the party.

The Congress will fight the next elections on the twin slogans of the nuclear deal and youth. The November AICC is clearly designed to set the stage for trumpets. Generals sound the bugle only on the eve of battle. Logic suggests, therefore, that the Congress has made up its mind and will settle for a spring election, in either February or April. Expect a few "pro-poor" announcements soon.

All the factors that must be taken into consideration also suggest this. If the nuclear deal slips out of control, and ends up in political never-never-land, the Congress will have nothing to show for its three years in power. It is banking on the youth of the urban middle class, which is a natural ally of America and disdainful of the Left, to provide the necessary impetus to its election prospects.

Moreover, the politics of the impending Assembly elections in Gujarat has revived the Modi-riots issue. Crime and punishment have a tenuous relationship when it comes to communal riots against minorities. The fact that those who killed in Gujarat had the support of Narendra Modi, or are still free, will astonish only those who wear tinted eyewear. Modi, unsurprisingly, believes that electoral success places him above the law, and he can get away with shooting the messenger. There is no penance in his soul, or even mild regret.

Unwashed bloodstains form a macabre backdrop to our social history. The gruesome Bhagalpur riots, when Yadavs massacred Muslims, took place in 1989. A token few were convicted for their role in it only this year; the rest are nearly twenty years older, and possibly parading as respectable pillars of the community. But the conviction of the few must be considered an achievement. Many of those who were directly involved in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 are in high office; most are comfortably forgotten in the anonymity of Delhi. The killers of Mumbai’s Muslims in 1992 and 1993, a process that lasted for intermittent days spread across weeks, could have been stopped by the Congress government then in power, but were permitted to indulge in mayhem. A commission of enquiry has named dozens of the guilty, including policemen who became part of the murdering mobs, but for fifteen years successive state governments, including Congress governments in the last eight years, have protected rather than prosecuted the killers.

Each general election becomes a purgative for a multitude of sins. The sins are placed before a jury of voters that measures them on the scales of self-interest. It is natural for the scales to keep swinging in a volatile democracy. Political parties, if they have it in their power, choose the moment when they believe the tilt is in their favour to go to the polls. The Congress seems to have convinced itself that 2008 is a better year than 2009 for elections.

All facts are not equal in an election. There are facts, and then there are decisive facts. The great charm of democracy is that the voter never quite lets on which is the fact that is going to be decisive as he steps into the booth. Politicians who are confident about victory pay the bitter price of regret. This much can be said about the winter of 2007: there is a pall of uncertainty over every political face. This may be bad news for politicians but is extremely good news for politics. The equations that produced a government in 2004 have fractured, but alternatives are tentative. The Third Front, equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP, began with a flourish, and then nearly collapsed on itself before showing signs of revival. There is no alliance yet which can promise a post-election government on its own.

The consolidation necessary for government-formation will probably take place around the numbers thrown up by results, rather than pre-election issues. The present government was formed after the results, not before them; you can expect that again, with the difference that the binding Common Minimum Programme will be even more minimalist in order to achieve a degree of commonality.

The size of the field is the same; the number of players has multiplied. The next general election will be the last to offer a flux. After that voters will veer towards one principal party. Which one? That depends on who does what over the next three years.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Item Number

Byline by M J Akbar : Item Number
Over three decades, the Left in Bengal has slipped, unconsciously perhaps, into another trap: "soft secularism". Because it has prevented riots, it tends to believe that it has done enough for the community.

Trust a Calcuttan to come up with the perfect political metaphor. We were chatting about the political mood of Muslims over tea and savouries on Id, and the conversation turned inevitably to the fate of Rizwan ur Rehman, the young man whose death in suspicious circumstances has set off a firestorm in Bengal. The Muslim vote, my Calcuttan friend said bitterly, had become like an item number in Hindi films. It was used to pump up the box office, and then dumped completely from the script.

For the very, very few of you out there who still do not know what an item number is in a Hindi movie: this is the generally raunchy song that is planted into the sequence without any pretence of reason, and with absolutely no consequence on the narrative. The Muslim voter feels similarly used by the political parties he supports. As my friend pointed out, at least those in the item number get paid for their contribution.

The best way to prevent disillusionment, of course, is to avoid the trap of illusion. And yet, the Left, spearheaded by the CPI(M), has given Indian Muslims cause for some comfort. Three decades of communal peace in Bengal during the reign of the Left Front have erased memories of what Bengal once was. Bengal is a border state that has been partitioned, and embers from 1947 raged till the mid-Seventies. In a sense the Marxist generation of Biman Bose, the present head of the party in Bengal, won its spurs during the frequent riots in Calcutta during the 1960s when it mobilised its cadre and stood on street corners, preventing hired goons from entering the city’s Muslim mohallas. Ever since the Left Front came to power in 1977, and Jyoti Basu became chief minister, a deft combination of political and administrative management has kept this particular beast out of people’s lives.

But over three decades, the Left in Bengal has slipped, unconsciously perhaps, into another trap: "soft secularism". Because it has prevented riots, it tends to believe that it has done enough for the community. There is an element of patronage in this attitude, as if providing protection to the lives of Muslims is a special favour rather than a government’s duty. One statistic, available in the seminal report on minorities prepared by Justice Rajendra Sachar, should be enough to make the point. Muslims constitute 25.2% of the population of West Bengal, but have only 2.1% of state government jobs. Kerala, which has almost the same percentage of Muslims (24.7%), has given 10.4% of state government jobs to the community. Assam’s ratio is similar: 30.9% and 11.2%. Bihar does better: it gives 7.6% of state jobs to Muslims, who add up to 16.5% of the population. Andhra Pradesh has the best record: 9.2% ofthe population and 8.8% of jobs. Uttar Pradesh, despite leaders who claim to be more-secular-than-thou has given only 5.1% of state government jobs to an 18.5% population. The situation is no better when it comes to health and education indices.The anger in Bengal therefore is much greater than the appalling mismanagement of one incident would warrant.

Muslim disenchantment with the Congress, the other party that received its enthusiastic vote in 2004, is more widespread and deeper. The cause is the same, a perception of injustice. Maharashtra’s Muslims are still waiting for the Congress to take action against those named in the Srikrishna report for fomenting riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque. The Congress and its ally, Sharad Pawar’s NCP, have been in power in the state for eight years. They have no alibis left.

A second reason is the treatment of Muslim suspects after the recent blasts by the Andhra Pradesh police. Torture was pervasive. This was the finding of the Andhra Pradesh State Minorities Commission, which sent its report to the government — which, till date, has opted for familiar silence. The street has its own means of forming an opinion, through what it sees. It notes police indifference in the investigation of the bomb blasts at Mecca Masjid, where only Muslims died and the zeal displayed elsewhere. A voter does not make up his (and more important, her) mind in one eureka moment. It is a slow accretion of evidence that takes the voter in one direction or the other when his moment comes, on polling day.

And then of course there is George Bush, the omnipresent ghost hovering over Dr Manmohan "Hamlet" Singh. The Muslim voter may not understand the finer points of the 123 Agreement, or the hammer blows of the Hyde Act, but he can see the headlong rush of Dr Singh into the embrace of the man who has wrought unprecedented havoc on Iraq, whose record is stained with the blood of perhaps half a million Iraqis, who has turned four million Iraqis into refugees and talks of permanent bases in a nation that wants his troops out yesterday.

Hamlet’s fatal flaw was not sleaze but indecision. The iron law of public life is clear: people will accept a wrong decision, but they have no respect for indecision. Dr Hamlet Singh’s sudden waffle on the nuclear deal has done the worst possible damage. It has made him look silly, and Bush look clueless. The latter may not cause too much damage to the American President’s reputation, since this is not the first time he has looked clueless. But for the Indian Prime Minister to slip from Super Saviour to Hiccup Hamlet is not good electoral news for the Congress. Dr Hamlet Singh is also probably beginning to appreciate the unpleasant fact that the admirers who basked in his kindness and favour for three years, were supporters of the deal, not supporters of the Prime Minister. The moment he suggested that life could go on beyond the deal, they began to demand his resignation. Hero-worship is a merciless profession.

Nor has the foreign policy story played out. Russia’s snub to external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was not permitted the customary call on President Vladimir Putin, and defence minister A.K. Antony, who could not even get an appointment with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, is a reminder that those who have stood by India with both military hardware and nuclear fuel have their own views on Dr Singh’s lurch towards George Bush.

It is already evident that while Muslims will still prefer Congress to the BJP in a straight contest in next year’s general election, Congress governments in the states and the Centre have done enough in three years to halve their support from this crucial minority.

How badly will the Left Front be affected in Bengal? There is one important difference between the Left and the Congress: while Muslims still expect some redress from the Left, they are cynical about the Congress. The Congress has habitually been long on rhetoric and short on delivery when it comes to affirmative action. The Left has a chance to cut its losses in Bengal but it needs to get its act in place fast.

What is beyond dispute is that Muslims are tired of being the item number of a general election, flashed out for five minutes and sent back to political purgatory when the elections are over. The elections of 2008 will probably be the last time that they will stick to their traditional anchors. If the only reward for their support is indifference, the item girl will write her own script for a movie in which she will be the star.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nuclear Winter

Byline by M J Akbar: Nuclear Winter

"A Prime Minister must ride high. You cannot rule India by riding low."

"Is there a difference between calculation and speculation? Not much perhaps, when it comes to Indian politics. But watch out for the omens."

The government’s retreat on the Indo-US nuclear deal, after three years of do-or-die bravado, can only be explained by that old adage: He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. Martyrs get memorials and medals, but they don’t get a second chance. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, sensibly, have opted for a second chance in preference to a charge of the light brigade towards immediate elections.

It is all a bit embarrassing of course. No general likes to march his troops to the top of the hill, heroic breastplates glinting in the sun, only to march them down again. Even if you do not lose a battle, you do lose face. But embarrassment is a small price to pay for survival in office. What the Prime Minister does need to worry about is loss of credibility. For three years he has told the country that the nuclear deal is central to India’s well-being and prosperity for the next five decades. At various points, opponents of the deal have been derided as unpatriotic and even enemies of peace. You cannot suddenly sit down to supper with pseudo-traitors and enemies with the thin explanation that life must go on. The Prime Minister raised the stakes. He invested more time and energy into this one policy than the rest of his decisions put together. This was the central fact of his administration. To walk away from such pinnacles of history with nary a whimper can only whittle the authority of a man leading a government.

A Prime Minister must ride high. You cannot rule India by riding low.

The only politician riding high now is Prakash Karat, and that is because he rode steadily through intense turbulence. That is always the litmus test in leadership, the ability to be steadfast in a crisis. He was steady because Marxists have a stabiliser called ideology. It would be incorrect to minimise the storms he was facing. If there was a typhoon charging at him in Delhi, there was a tornado behind his back, in Bengal.

The Prime Minister always maintained that he was motivated by principle, but when it came to the crux he succumbed to the politician’s irresistible lure for office. The Congress decision turned on something as insubstantial as opinion polls. You can see the relationship between public posture and psephologists. When some rather breathless television polls (where are they now?) predicted that the Congress would win 200 seats thanks to the nuclear deal, the Prime Minister picked up his lance and charged at the Left’s windmills, daring Marxists to do their worst. This was not a private dare; this was a public challenge. When the poll numbers began to drop, the triumphalism started to waver. The latest internal polling numbers must have been truly desultory to force such a retreat.

The paradox is that while it remains to be seen how helpful this will be to the Congress, the Congress has done the Left a huge favour. The Marxists are in a poor shape in Bengal (which makes Prakash Karat’s ideological clarity all the more praiseworthy). Ration riots — not seen since 1967 — have erupted in Marxist strongholds, and bode ill for the Left in an election. A Left bulwark in Bengal has been the substantial Muslim vote: Muslims account for 27% of the population and over 30% of the vote since they tend to vote in larger numbers. This support has weakened in rural areas because of Nandigram, and in Kolkata because of the case of a young man called Rizwan ur Rehman. He died recently in unexplained circumstances after falling in love and marrying a Marwari Hindu girl. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage, and the girl was content with a middle class home despite the fact that her father, Ashok Todi is supposed to be worth over Rs 200 crores. It is known that this money came from the less than respectable trade of illegal betting; you do not succeed as a bookie without a mutually beneficial relationship with the police. Rizwan’s family alleges that the police murdered him on Todi’s instance; the police claim it was suicide; the truth is in the hands of an enquiry, if the enquiry can find the truth.

Kolkata, true to its reputation as a bastion of spirited secularism, has treated this as a human rights issue, rather than a communal problem. Kolkatans have lots of reasons for pride in their city; this one is at the top.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is honest and sincere but he is no Jyoti Basu. Jyoti Basu was unique. He combined the patrician’s impartiality with a common touch. He could, through instinct and experience, read the common pulse and soothe the popular nerve at moments of crisis. Buddhadeb seems constantly torn between his administration’s self-centred advice and a public position that tends to suffer from poor counsel.

This is why Rizwan’s mother says that she would meet Jyoti Basu any time, but will not meet the chief minister. Buddhadeb was mature enough to visit the family despite the comment, which is an indication of how CPI(M) can turn things around.

In plain words, Bengal is in a bit of a mess. The one thing that the CPI(M) needs desperately is time to clean up the mess. It has the capacity to do so, with the help of Jyoti Basu, but it could never have managed this in the hothouse of an immediate election campaign. It needs a minimum of three months if not more. The Congress retreat has given it invaluable time.
The big mystery is: why did the Congress blink before it needed to? It could have waited till the CPI(M)’s politburo meeting on 18 October, or the next UPA-Left meeting on 22 October. A week is a long time in politics, and who knows who would have succumbed under internal pressure. The Bengal CPI(M)’s dilemma must be obvious. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s speech in Haryana was written to raise the pitch in preparation for an election. Why then the volte face?
Perhaps we need to return to our starting point: have Dr Singh and Mrs Gandhi survived to fight another day over the nuclear deal? If so, when is the "another day" scheduled?

The Bush administration has not changed its calendar. It still wants the necessary clearances from the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group so that the agreement can be sent back to Congress by March. It believes that it has enough leverage with both to complete the process in eight or ten weeks. Support in the Congress thereafter will be bipartisan. So, even if the deal were activated in December, it could still catch the March deadline. In other words, if you are a betting man, take your chances on a nuclear winter in India. That would of course mean an April election, but hasn’t the Prime Minister said, if winter comes can spring be far behind?
An April election would also be within the comfort zone of the Left.

Is there a difference between calculation and speculation? Not much perhaps, when it comes to Indian politics. But watch out for the omens. We already have one: the decision not to raise oil prices. Who wants higher prices in an election year? One can already see the whole Cabinet suddenly getting teary-eyed about the welfare of the poor, who have, for three years, been fed the old routine of minimal sops and maximum promises. That is another omen. If there is a sudden flurry of attention towards what are considered "Muslim" issues, that will be a third. Nothing sets off a frenzy of do-goodism quicker than the prospect of a general election. But you have to time these things accurately. This cannot be done too early, or time will expose them as hollow.

To govern you need balance, flair and credibility. The Prime Minister does much more than an administrative job. The momentum of power is not static. If you do not propel it forward, it pushes you back. You have to ride high. The only horse that moves on static is a hobby horse. Has the nuclear deal become one? The Prime Minister cannot accept yes as an answer to that tricky question.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Soft Hands

Byline by M J Akbar: Soft Hands

We think of political parties as either "big" or "small". The "big" are the Big Two, Congress and the BJP, because they spread across about half the country. The "small" are the rest, the regional powers.

Politics prefers soft hands. Why have Indian politicians suddenly started playing with knuckledusters? Democracy functions best when handled gently. Even an unrepentant villain knows that it makes sense to smile and smile even when he wants to be his natural self. That is the law of democratic behaviour. It is a gentle game, even if not a gentleman’s game.

All coalition politics begin with a promise. They survive when you add a "com" to the "promise". Compromise is the natural flow of give and take, an art that is familiar to Indian politics. In the last few weeks there has been an upsurge of a new mood: a desire to stick to a one-way street, to get away with what you can take.

Karnataka is a reflection of a larger phenomenon. The veteran of wile, H.D. Deve Gowda, has walked away from a commitment to hand over the chief ministership of the state to the BJP. Of course he hopes to walk all the way to an electoral vote bank, since his decision is an invitation to a fresh election, but his crutch is a lame excuse. How far can a lame excuse take him? The BJP has hardly been lily-white, provoking its partner at every opportunity. But it stuck to the letter of the agreement.

The hard lines in Tamil Nadu are, paradoxically, more fluid, but the alliance has gone askew there as well thanks to a gratuitous provocation. Chief minister Karunanidhi might believe that he can get away with an insult to Lord Ram in his own state, but there has been serious collateral damage to his principal ally, the Congress, whose fortunes are determined outside Tamil Nadu. The controversy keeps rising a notch a week, when it could easily have been calmed down by a suitable phrase of regret. Even when a sort of apology was offered, it was hemmed in by less than apologetic nuances. Curiously, the Congress seems either unconcerned or completely unable to do anything about the spreading simmer. Karunanidhi has been around long enough to know that a boomerang has struck the Congress even if it has possibly missed him. Does he care? Not by the evidence.

Never were soft hands needed more urgently than to save the coalition at the top of the bunch, headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. A Prime Minister who is in office thanks to support from the Left might have been expected to purchase velvet gloves for very very soft hands in order to massage the plethora of thorns in the nuclear deal he has fashioned with his now good friend, George Bush. Instead Dr Singh, who had the reputation of being the gentlest of men, has been swinging out with a passion that few expected. The worst of his anger has not been directed at the Opposition, but at the Left. In a series of comments he has literally dared the Left to do its worst, and now seems a little surprised when the Left has gone ahead and done its worst. A rigid certainty that he is right, and the only one who is right, does not help coalition sensitivities. There are many senior voices in the Congress who believe (naturally, only privately) that Dr Singh has hijacked the party with his inexplicable obstinacy. But any suggestion of even a mild compromise, like a little more time, provokes the muted threat from the Prime Minister that he will resign if talks with the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group do not proceed according to the calendar set by George Bush. If there are any medals for political fidelity, the Victoria Cross for heroism in the face of common sense should go to Dr Manmohan Singh.

Is there a common strand in the sudden rise in the divorce rate in Indian politics? One explanation is obvious. The urge for power today has been replaced by the thirst for power tomorrow. The present coalition arrangements have clearly passed their sell-by date. Everyone has moved into election mode. The controlling force of events is not what will keep an existing government in power, but what will — hopefully, always only hopefully in a vibrant democracy such as ours — bring a party back to power.

But why should the prospect of a general election encourage fragmentation? Surely political parties need all the allies they can manage to cobble together before they ask the voters to choose?

Not quite.

We think of political parties as either "big" or "small". The "big" are the Big Two, Congress and the BJP, because they spread across about half the country. The "small" are the rest, the regional powers.

But this is not quite the way that the political players see themselves. Reverse the lens, and the second perspective might have more merit. The CPI(M) may be "small" vis-à-vis the country, but it is not merely big but dominant in Bengal. A Mulayam Singh Yadav, a Mayawati, a Chandrababu Naidu, a Naveen Patnaik may be dismissed as "small" in Delhi, but in their own playgrounds it is the Congress and the BJP who are small if not minuscule. In some states, the definitions are still in flux. That is why politics gets even more murky. The next election in Karnataka, for instance, will decide who is "big" and "small" between three claimants.

A progression process has now transformed into an elimination game in at least two states, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Maharashtra has two alliances, and four claimants. Intra-alliance tensions can become as volatile as inter-party antagonisms. The Shiv Sena and the BJP may have patched up for the moment, but their tensions will not disappear. The Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP can barely maintain a civil attitude towards each other. Everyone knows that the next election might change a rectangular balance of power into a triangular one. In other states, new forces are shifting traditional vote blocs. The biggest player in the coming churn will be Mayawati, who will foment a surprise or two in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

Partly as a consequence of competing ambitions, and partly because too many differences hinge on personality rather than ideology, there is recognition (albeit unmentioned) that the next coalition to rule India will be created after the results of the next general election are known, and will not emerge from a pre-election alliance. Only specific results can sift out ego and flatulence from fact. And so those political parties who can, or who feel confident enough, are ready to go their own way. They may return to present alliances, or they may go with a better offer. The players will sit at a tough negotiating table, confident that the one thing the game will not allow is a bluff. All cards will be on the table.

The cards will be hard, but that game will be played with soft hands. This is a democracy, after all.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

20-20 Politics

Byline by M J Akbar: 20-20 Politics

Politics is not a 20-20 game, or even a limited overs match; it is a patient Test series, with long stretches of grafting and boredom, and innumerable breaks for lunch and tea. Excitement is limited to crunch time, and such occasions are rare.

Those who celebrate India’s victory over Pakistan in the final of the Twenty20 tournament celebrate the least of the team’s achievements. The game was superb precisely because it was so evenly matched, the teams separated, in the end, by the strength of a single flick of the wrist. The youngsters led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni deserve applause because they defeated much more than the best cricket sides in the world.

They defeated, for starters, Shoaib Malik. The young Pakistani captain ended a glorious tournament on a silly note when he thanked "all Muslims" for their support to Pakistan. Pakistani players seem obliged to appropriate the Almighty into all proceedings, but that is their privilege. They would be wise, however, not to appropriate all Muslims on their side, for the good reason that all Muslims are not in or with Pakistan. Perhaps Mr Malik lost the match because he was wearing a blindfold. That is the only explanation for his inability to recognise that there were two Muslims in the Indian side. Irfan Pathan, Man of the Match, did everything possible to remind Pakistan that Indian Muslims wanted India to win. It may be news to Pakistan’s players that Irfan’s father was a muezzin in a small mosque in Gujarat, and his mother wears the hijab in public. The subcontinent apart, does Shoaib Malik believe that a billion Muslims, Indonesians, Malays, Arabs and Turks, were sitting closely glued to their television sets, cheering Pakistan? It would be a miracle if 99% had heard of cricket, a game as foreign to them as the English language.

Perhaps the difference between victory and defeat is the gap between a closed and open mind.
Dhoni’s boys did their country great service in a second subliminal region: they defeated the egotism that has bogged Indian cricket for so long. The egos of the Big Three, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have become bigger than the team. Three ex-captains in a single eleven must be some sort of a world record. The team was divided into three individuals in different moods, ranging from sulk to self-interest to petulance, and eight other players trying to fit into the minimal space these three left for others. Trust me, if the Big Three had any idea that the 20-20 victory would be as big as it became, they would have been in the team: fitness is not a problem in this form of the game, because 20-20 is only half as demanding as the full one-dayer. On the other hand, if the Big Three had been there, the youngsters might not have won. Alone, they had a different body language, a palpable common commitment, and unity of spirit. This was a victory for new India, which has now marched a step ahead of modern India. It was a triumph for small-town India, for popular rather than rarefied India, for an inclusive nation, not an exclusive elite. If this is the future, the future is bliss.

It is tempting to see this as the defining culture of contemporary India, the essence of a confident democracy, its populism rid of both elitist genuflection and sectarian tensions. No definition of popular culture can encompass the whole of India; but will there be enough such Indians to control the balance in the next general elections?

The thought did occur to me that one section of India had adopted the basic tenets of 20-20 cricket even before the rest of the country became addicted: television news. Frenzy, drama, nasal diction and a compulsive need for instant decisions have become its hallmarks. Not all Indian television is there yet, mercifully, but the attitude is pervasive enough to spill over into parts of print. And so, when the Left was playing chess with the government on the nuclear deal, much of the media kept covering it by the rules of 20-20 cricket. Artificial teams were conjured up to lend excitement to developments. The CPI(M) was split into the pro-Congress Bengal Lions, led by Souradeb Bhattacharya, and the China Contras, led by Rahul Karat. Journalists were chasing their own version of the story, reporting the collapse of the China Contras in the twelfth over, or a compromise when the collapse did not take place.

There is a useful rule to remember when covering the Left, and they will demand coverage for some time yet. It functions democratically; they take the politburo and the central committee seriously. This means that there is inevitably debate on issues as important as the survival of a coalition that rules the country. But this debate is not conducted in public. Differences are sorted out behind closed doors, and when they cannot be reconciled a vote determines their fate. The CPI(M) does not conduct its debate through media, much as it may dishearten media to discover this. When the party’s general secretary takes a position, he does so after taking a sense of his committee. It is not arbitrary imposition. No comrade is impressed by traditional media games like twisting half of a quote to suit an editorial line.

What is surprising is not the media’s willingness to see what it wants to see, but that so many seasoned politicians fall into the same constricted mire. Almost everyone in the Dr Manmohan Singh government had convinced himself that the Marxists would have an epiphany moment at their party conclaves in Kolkata, and return, sheepishly no doubt, to pay homage at the feet of the Prime Minister. The venerable Jyoti Basu was meant to bring the Marxists into harmony with the American timetable for the nuclear deal.

Clearly the first thing that happens when you join government in Delhi is amnesia about anything that might be inconvenient. Jyoti Basu was on the verge of becoming Prime Minister of India in 1997 instead of Mr Inder Gujral, when he was stopped not by his allies but his own party. The politburo voted against the idea because it was not ready to permit the party to share power in Delhi. Jyoti Basu did not utter a word of protest, although much later, in an interview to this columnist he did call that decision a "historic blunder". Any party that lives by such rigid discipline cannot be split by media whims.

If the Manmohan Singh government does not halt the process by which the nuclear deal travels to the next stage, through the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Left will withdraw support. This is what the Left has been saying and this is what the Left will do.

Politics is not a 20-20 game, or even a limited overs match; it is a patient Test series, with long stretches of grafting and boredom, and innumerable breaks for lunch and tea. Excitement is limited to crunch time, and such occasions are rare. One is due in the first week of October, when the next, and perhaps final round of talks take place between the government and the Left. The chief negotiator for the Congress is foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, but he is not the chief decision-maker. He would have happily bought six months of silence so that the government could get on with the rest of life.

But whatever happens, do remember that the game in Delhi is chess, not 20-20 cricket.