Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hema in Bhojpur

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Hema in Bhojpur

No prizes for guessing which of these two questions is more relevant: How silly is Hema Malini? How clever is the BJP? Hema Malini, whose cheeks were once idealised by Lalu Yadav as the ultimate metaphor for the perfect surface, was not made a Member of Parliament by the BJP because of her exceptional IQ. Since we are in the market for small mercies, let us merely note with approval that Hema Malini has not fallen into the trap, inhabited by a few of her ilk, of hiding her intellectual insecurity by arranging a doctorate so that she could write Dr Hema Malini on her visiting card. Hema was a successful actor, if not a good one; it is possible that if she had been a good one, she might not have been successful. Bollywood has its own laws of demand and supply.

I have no problem whatsoever with filmstars joining politics. Politics is a church of democracy in which everyone must be welcome. But the right to membership does not qualify you to be pastor. Some former actors make good pastors. M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh were outstanding, indeed far better in public life than on the public screen. The great veteran M. Karunanidhi has worked closely with the industry, and of course his bĂȘte noire Jayalalithaa has also proved that you can be a competent leader of your state after a career in films. I suspect that if Shatrughan Sinha ever sees his dream turn into reality and becomes chief minister of Bihar, he won’t be that bad either.

Amitabh Bachchan is a remarkably mature and intelligent person, without fusspot sentimentality and with genuine concern for the deprived; with his communication skills he would have been a magnetic leader if he had remained in politics. However, I cannot see Hema Malini as a future Ahalyabai, and her husband Dharmendra might not quite make the grade as another Rana of Mewar. As for someone like Govinda, he still doesn’t look as if he quite knows what he is doing.

Hema Malini is in the Rajya Sabha because Indian democracy wants its Page 3. The main political parties, including Congress and BJP, have decided that they could do with a few cheerleaders whose primary role is that of a magnet. Their function is to draw crowds since regular politicians can’t raise more than a yawn. I suppose there is nothing more dispiriting for a candidate than to bellow into thin air. With Hema Malini around, the candidate can be certain that there will be a few people around to check the quality of face or perhaps surface.

While therefore it may be sensible to put a Hema Malini on display at election time, it is not so wise to let her open her mouth. There has traditionally been a place, at rallies, for entertainers, including poets, who are hired to ease the restlessness of crowds waiting for a leader to arrive. I suppose it would be too much to ask Hema Malini to do the Bharatnatyam at every political rally, but someone could put together an inoffensive standard patter-page. The temptation to go off and say something honest is best resisted.

That of course is the only problem with Hema Malini’s now famous advice to “outsiders” that if they can’t succeed in Mumbai they should return to their villages. She was honest where a more practised political professional might have dissimulated, using the craft of phraseology to suggest to his audience that while his heart lay in thinly-veiled racism, his lips would remain sealed because there were nasty reporters lurking around. Hema Malini has only repeated what the Shiv Sena has been saying since it became a force in Maharashtra.

The irony of course is lost on Hema Malini. Shiv Sena started life by telling South Indians that they were not sons of Mumbai’s soil. Hema probably did not pay attention then; she was busy listening to a carefree Rajesh Khanna wonder what tomorrow would bring: “Zindagi ik safar hai suhana, yahan kal kya ho kisne jaana”. Tomorrow has arrived, and look what it’s brought, a place on the Shiv Sena-BJP dais. By her own yardstick, Hema and her husband Dharmendra, native of Punjab, are safe. They succeeded, so they don’t have to return to their village. It’s all those slumdinger Bhaiyyas and Biharis, stupid Olivers who keep asking for more, who need a return ticket.

A couple of weeks ago a few gunmen from a group called Ulfa persuaded Biharis in Assam to find their way to railway platforms, but I have it on the best authority that Hema Malini has no wish to be that insistent. Fog-lifters have to clear up what cheerleaders leave in their wake. A clarification has been issued which, in the classic tradition of all clarifications, begins by blaming that serpent in democracy’s garden of Eden, the media. All those reporters, it is actually they who should be sent home first. Poor, innocent, sinless Hema was at some function where reporters, instead of being good little boys and girls and watching the show, kept pestering her with questions. Moreover, she was unable to hear the questions clearly, but being the fabulous sport that she is, went ahead and answered questions that she could not hear.

“I replied in a humorous way,” she explained through her personal fog-lifter, a certain M.A. Mehta, “merely to keep them away”. That’s it, then. She did not want to keep North Indians away from Mumbai, she wanted to keep reporters away from Hema Malini. That is a far more honourable objective. If an election were held on that issue, I daresay the North Indians of Mumbai would give Hema their unanimous support, particularly since she noted that she had the highest respect for North Indians. Evidence? She had acted in a Bhojpuri film once! And just the other day she danced at the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad. What more could a reasonable Bhaiyya want from a Rajya Sabha member?

Ms Malini may of course have been thinking of success as the criterion for eligibility in Mumbai, rather than race. In which case, she has understood her city wrong. Mumbai is a city of aspiration, not success. In Ms Malini’s old profession, I doubt if even 1% succeed. That does not prevent the other 99% plus from aspiring. The success of Mumbai lies precisely in the fact that it is full of failures. You can only fail if you try, and everyone comes to Mumbai only to give his and her destiny a chance. There is no other city in India with the range of opportunity that Mumbai provides, which is why so many hearts break on its hard, perhaps even harsh, pavements. Mumbai makes fortunes with as little sentiment as it says no. It is easier to keep Mumbai away from the rest of India, Hemaji, than to keep the rest of India away from Mumbai.

There was one sentence of genuine clarity in the statement issued in Hema Malini’s name: she had no authority to advise North Indians to leave Mumbai, she said. Spot on. India is a free country of free people, and the Indian’s right to seek one’s future in any part of his country is an unambiguous right. Hema Malini could do us all a very important service if she could persuade everyone on the Shiv Sena-BJP platform to accept this. The BJP, which sent the actress to Parliament, claims to be a national party and acts like a regional one. When it makes up its mind, it should send a circular to those on its Page 3 longlist.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Three Cheers, Bengaluru!

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Three Cheers, Bengaluru!

Where is Geoffrey Boycott when you really need him? Hiding in South Africa, I bet, instead of taking on the yobs who are making Shilpa Shetty cry in England. Boycott, the dour-faced, sour-tongued Yorkshireman who used to bat for England in the days when England had batsmen, and is now a cricket commentator, rarely misses a chance to tell his television audiences in India about his obsession with Shilpa, a semi-successful Bollywood actress whose USP, in her own words, lies in her curves rather than her thespian skills.

In India, according to confidential sources, each time he has come out to bat for Shilpa, Boycott has had to retire hurt. This was the moment for Boycott to take charge of the airwaves in London, and tell Jackie and Jade Goody how precisely to pronounce Shilpa: a drunken sway, that is, shway, followed by a long a. He could have added that the accent comes from Bangalore, the Internet city that has taken thousands of jobs away from the Goodys, as well as from the Tweedys which, I hope, is the real reason why Shilpa makes Jade feel sick.

There used to be a time, dear Jade, Jackie, Jo and Jack (do the Channel 4 producers make up these names in pursuit of alliteration or are they for real?), when Grandfather Tweedy, along with Grandmother Goody, used to keep dirty black Indians out of their Bangalore compound, unless the dirty black Indians were servants. Sorry, Jade, Jackie, Jo and Jack, but Shilpa is an independent girl now, and when you call her an “Indian” do so in that nice way you use “American”. We don’t even want to hear the little twist you attach to “Frog”.

Shilpa has already changed the name of Bangalore, an Anglicisation, to the original Bengaluru, and given the profits that software companies in her city like Infosys and Wipro have just declared, she is about to take a few thousand more jobs that the Goodys would have got if they hadn’t invested so much of their time into becoming yobs. That is the sort of sickening news that should really make your skin crawl.

In my search for unimpeachable objectivity, I turned to the newspaper that has fought the Crimean War and protected civilisation each time civilisation needed protection from the brown, black or yellow races, The Times. This august organ, unable to verify such a lofty incident for itself, reported that Indian media had “also noticed an exchange between Jade Goody’s boyfriend Jack Tweedy and Shilpa. In the incident, featured in the Celebrity Big Brother highlights, Tweedy’s comment was bleeped out — although there were reports that he had called her a ‘…ing Paki’. A Channel 4 spokeswoman denied that he had used that phrase.” I wonder why British media had not noticed this. Maybe British media was at the pub when this was happening. The Times clearly did not have the time to ask Channel 4 for original tapes to find out for itself.

Instead, in the following paragraph, a large number of big words were used to disguise one small word. “A spokesman for the programme said that the social interactions and dynamics of the group were integral to the Big Brother story and viewers had a right to see them. However, there was a need for this to be balanced with the duty not to broadcast offensive material.” Social. Interactions. Dynamics. Integral. Knock me down with a beanstalk celebrity: Is this television or a thesis on cultural dissonance among the remoter tribes of Samoa? That sounds suspiciously like a huge number of letters to screen four letters. Still, we do have an admission. Clearly there was “offensive material”.

What would Shilpa have taken offence at? She is a big girl now, and fully aware of the facts of life, including one or two that might have escaped ordinary journalists. It must be the “Paki” bit. Did Jack believe that she was a Pakistani? No. Jackie, his girlfriend Jade’s mother, had been calling Shilpa an “Indian”, if you recall, and unless Jack is totally deaf he must have heard his virtual mother-in-law use the epithet. Is it possible that Jack doesn’t know the difference between an Indian and a Pakistani? That would make Jack an utter ass. While we cannot rule out that possibility, we should discount it.

Let us assume that the splendid British educational system, in which the teaching of history has improved by quantum leaps during the decade of Tony Blair, has informed Jack that although Britain did rule a united subcontinent, India and Pakistan went their separate ways in 1947. We can only conclude, therefore, that “Paki” has now become a term of abuse that stretches across national boundaries, like “Blackie” or “Nigger” in Father Tweedy’s youth. If the yobs don’t want you in their neighbourhood, they call you “(expletive deleted) Paki”.

I think I know what really broke poor Shilpa’s heart and turned her large lustrous eyes into limpid pools of unshed tears. It was the fact that her fellow-celebrities refused to eat the chicken/turkey that she made. That was insult upon injury. There is some confusion about whether the bird in question was a chicken or turkey. Even the hallowed Times cannot make up its mind. However, it was dead, and it was in the oven, and Shilpa had cooked it. Or did Shilpa cook more than one meal? But to get to the point: Jo O’Meara had a few things to say about that chickturk, but mainly that it was undercooked and too spicy. I really can’t see what Jo was so upset about.

This is precisely what she gets each time she steps out to a London restaurant for curry. I would not be surprised if Shilpa had taken advice from other Indians, and been told unambiguously that when she did cook for others on the show, she must not think of herself, that she must sacrifice her normal Indian tastes, and deliberately under-cook and over-spice the bird. Otherwise, the British would never recognise what is passed off to them as Indian food. The food critic in Danielle shifted gear to health faddist. She taunted Shilpa for using her hands while cooking. Danielle, who was obviously the class idiot, was not too sure whether Indians or Chinese ate with their hands.

No one has taken poor Danielle to a Chinese restaurant, obviously. But yes, Danielle, we Indians do eat with our hands when we are not pretending to be British. Danielle may be uninformed about Chinese culinary habits, but she is no novice when it comes to the sly invective. Channel 4 did not choose her for her intellect, but they had to select her for some reason. “You don’t know where her hands have been,” Danielle said. Oooh. We are talking civilisation here, are we Danielle? Danielle, my dear, why don’t you have a nice long shower, with a proper scrub, and discover the merits of soap and water? They are good for the soul and terrible for germs.
The results are not yet in, so one doesn’t know how much this cultural crisis has helped the ratings of Celebrity Big Brother. But it has certainly helped the ratings of Shilpa Shetty, whose film career has been a bit on the wane of late. You could not click open a television screen in India when the story broke without those heavy-lidded, poignant, tearful eyes looking at you, followed immediately by a shot of bare back or flashing midriff. Jade, Jackie, Jo and Jack have been good for Shilpa. A few weeks ago Shilpa Shetty told an Indian journalist that she wasn’t dating anyone at the moment. This was your chance, Geoff Boycott, to don the shining armour, and slay celebrity upstarts with the ferocity of your Yorkshire accent. You blew it, Geoff.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Anger Mismanagement

Byline by M J Akbar: Anger Mismanagement

Winter is no longer the only season of discontent; April is going to be the cruellest month, and for the same reason. The big Indian story of 2007 is not the outcome of the elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or even the contest for the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The big story is the anger of the poor, and it is going to be an all-seasons rage. Elections are a derivative rather than a primary story, since results will be a consequence of the heat at the ground level of democracy.

The message is the same, whether from Singur and Nandigram in Bengal or Pune in Maharashtra, where a planned Special Economic Zone has been put in abeyance: the peasant will not permit economic development as his expense. Either the means will have to be found to make him a partner, or he will find the means to despoil the balance sheet. No brand, however sacred, is exempt. There cannot be another business house in India with a reputation for integrity as high as Tata. The Tata House has an enviable track record in the east, creating a major town, Jamshedpur, out of a steel factory and building a network of social services out of their business profits. In politics, there is certainly no brand more closely identified with the poor than the CPI(M), flag bearer of the Left. If Tata and CPI(M) are under siege in Bengal, what chance do others have? It is only a matter of time before the simmer in other states comes to a boil. Fire encourages fire. The poor are not interested in waiting for an election to give vent to their anger. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led his party to an unprecedented victory only a few months ago, but that triumph is already looking weary. One might point out that whoever wrote the destiny of Mamata Banerjee, now leading the Singur agitation, was not a benevolent god. Her popularity seems to peak just after an election, rather than just before one.

So what is the solution: to stop all car projects or Special Economic Zones? That is defeatist. Before we attempt an answer, it is necessary to understand the nature of the question.

Let us turn to Jharkhand, a state whose chief minister blandly admits that only three districts are under the government’s control (maybe this has dropped to two in the few weeks since he made the statement). The rest are more or less ruled by Naxalites, bolstered by support from tribals. The tribals have not moved towards the extreme overnight, or without cause. It was gradual progression. They were with the Congress in the Fifties, when Jawaharlal Nehru promised a tryst with destiny; and moved Left in the Sixties, when that tryst got postponed. They tried variations of the Left-band, from the CPI to the individual radicalism of a maverick like A.K. Roy. Then came the tribal-specific Jharkhand "revolutionary" parties, led by men like Sibu Soren, currently in both jail and Parliament: he has been convicted of murder but Parliament retains him as member because he belongs to the ruling alliance. The Maoist gun is a symbol of their despair with elective politics and the parties that have turned democracy into a corrupt oligarchy.

Jharkhand has a large Muslim population. Muslims in Bihar were early victims of economic development. It was not a deliberate attempt to victimise them. Their traditional crafts, like weaving, could not compete against the new machinery of cotton mills. This is a principal reason for the economic impoverishment of Muslims in the north. One of the trades which is still dominated by Muslims is the sale of meat, poultry and eggs. The new malls that are on the horizon will control costs and regulate standards by eliminating the middleman in food purchases. Once again, these are business decisions, not communal ones. But the consequence is that another means of income is going to be totally lost to a community with very little income. End result: Muslim youth have begun to drift towards Naxalites. You can get two meals a day, and chicken curry twice a week if you are a Naxalite cadre.

The answer would seem to be obvious: process management. You have to restore communities pushed back by economic advancement to financial and psychological space. I thought the government of Dr Manmohan Singh would have picked up a hint or two from the reasons for its victory in the general elections of 2004. But there has been no change in the winner-takes-all approach. We don’t have an economic policy. We have a sweepstakes.

Political parties enter elections still fixated on traditional group formations. While realities like caste and religion remain important determinants, there is a renewed, if not entirely new, identity emerging on a parallel track, an affiliation around poverty. The anger of those who will not accept injustice, or indifference, in the name of economic growth will cause the decisive swings in the elections of 2007. Discontent will not be dormant. Weakness at the top will encourage extremists of all kinds. The Ulfa terrorists of Assam, who killed 70 Biharis, were an omen of a more virulent future.

Government cannot remain static when the electoral earth is trembling, and Naxalite violence has made even the semblance of governance impossible in half the country. If the Central government does not remake itself, it will wither at gathering speed: stability is something more than the addition of numbers. Marxists have had their couple of years of joy, but power without responsibility will not work much longer. They will have to enter government, and demand fresh priorities in economic policy.

There isn’t much time. The key to Delhi lies in the outcome of the Assembly elections in Punjab in February and Uttar Pradesh in April, for an indirect reason: provincial MLAs have a vote in the elections for the President of India, scheduled for later this summer. A sharp defeat for the Congress, which is the principal UPA partner in the contest, will reduce the government vote. Final numbers will be known only after April, but they don’t look very comfortable for the government.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s alliance consists of family (the Congress, with all the plum jobs), brothers (like Lalu Yadav and the Marxists), distant cousins like Sharad Pawar and despised outcastes like Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP). If the SP votes against the ruling UPA nominee, in a secret ballot, he could be defeated, making Dr Singh’s government untenable. Any pre-contest deal would necessitate a bargain, with Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh doing most of the talking. Logic suggests that the Prime Minister should invite this strong group of MPs to join his government, and Mulayam Singh is not going to be content with a marginal portfolio. At all events, a combination of agitation and unrest on the ground, and turbulence at the top will change the character of the government, even if it does not change the government itself.
Has this confused you? No one claimed Indian politics was easy to understand. Why do you think so many Indian politicians depend so heavily on astrologers to foretell the future? Because only astrologers can simplify sequence and consequence with such exemplary conviction. It is so much easier than working things out for yourself.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Blood Clot

Byline by M J Akbar: Blood Clot

Saddam Hussein is more powerful in his grave than he ever was in his palace. Alive, he was a dictator. Dead, he is a martyr. The evil inherent in arbitrary power is in the process of being interred with his bones.

Strong men like to associate with iron. Hence, an Iron Duke, or Iron Chancellor, or Iron Fist, an Iron Will. It is ironic that all it needs is an extra letter to turn iron into irony. If Saddam was full of iron when he ruled Iraq, his legacy is replete with irony.

To take the most obvious instance, in death he has become a symbol of justice denied. The inexplicable haste, and the brutal shoddiness with which he was hanged has become, thanks to a grainy video and millions of television screens, the final testimony in the first example of victor’s prejudice masquerading as law in this century. This is not an arbitrary interpretation. Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, to stop Saddam’s execution because of doubts about the fairness of the trial.

Alive, Saddam Hussein was helpless against George Bush. Dead, Saddam could leave Bush helpless. His memory will pour fresh fuel on a hundred existing fires. The defeat and death of Saddam is a narrative with one author: George Bush. Saddam was the quarry, Bush was the hunter. The hunter changed the rules of this jungle when every reason was exposed as an excuse. When the quarry was trapped, all rules were abandoned in the pursuit of death.

Spin, passed on to the world’s most famous "embedded" reporters, the White House press corps, now seeks to distance Bush from the crude trial, premeditated judgment and barbaric execution. It is unconvincing. Bush’s formal statement welcomed the death of Saddam as an "important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself".

There is an implicit admission in that sentence, that a "democratic" Iraq needs a dead Saddam. Why was Saddam, in prison and unlikely to get out, considered so dangerous for Iraqi democracy? Is there a semi-hidden fear that the consuming anarchy in Iraq is breeding nostalgia for the stability and order of Saddam’s regime? Nostalgia can so easily turn into votes.
It is inconceivable that the White House was not informed about every step on the way to the noose. State-owned media like the Voice of America had begun preparing obituaries and reactions a day before the execution. Baghdad and Washington did not do themselves any favours by hanging Saddam during the great Abrahamic festival of Id ud Adha, while millions were bowing their heads before the mosque of Kaaba during Haj, an event redolent with the spirit of sacrifice for a higher cause. Bush and his one-eyed coterie do not understand either Islam or Muslims, and will not fathom the anger that injustice generates on the street. The bars of Saddam’s cramped jail would not have melted in thirty days.

In death, Saddam has become a symbol of resistance to American hegemony. This is perhaps the height of irony, since, for most of his time in power, his enemies accused Saddam of being an American cat’s paw in the region. Facts tell a story. Saddam Hussein was trained by the CIA during his years in exile in Cairo, after the failed coup of 1959. It has been mentioned, in more than one account, that his mentors were privately pleased when he seized power from an ailing Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr in July 1979. They were certainly delighted when Saddam purged Communists from the loose coalition in Iraq that was drifting towards the Soviet bloc at a time of heightening Cold War confrontation (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would take place in December that year).

Saddam Hussein did America an incalculable favour when on 22 September 1980 he escalated border skirmishes into a full-scale war by bombing ten Iranian air bases. The planes in his Air Force were not MiGs from the Soviet Union. They were brand new Mirages from France. America maintained an official distance from that war, but there was much unofficial help as well as massive funding from American allies in the region. In December 1983 President Ronald Reagan sent a special envoy to Saddam, Donald Rumsfeld, the same man who launched the current Iraq war with the thunder of shock and awe and resigned last November, shell-shocked. American arms to fight Iran came through third party routes, and American credit more visibly. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher took the lead in re-supplying military hardware to Saddam under the cover of lies, which were exposed in the 1996 Arms to Iraq report.

Paradoxically, Saddam occupied Kuwait because of war debts and his conviction that the Arab regimes whose interests he had served by going to war against Iran had become stingy with their cheque books once the conflict had ceased. He had overplayed a very weak hand. But his faith in Washington was surely restored when the senior George Bush refused to remove him from power after an international coalition had defeated his armies on the battlefield in 1991.
There is a great deal hidden in Saddam’s grave. Was this one reason why he was denied a trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a privilege granted to the Serbian butcher Slobodan Milosevic? Saddam and his lawyers would surely have had the freedom to assert a wider argument at The Hague, in a court devoid of kangaroos.

That kangaroo court in Baghdad is now an indelible America-inflicted scar across the face of the Middle East. A few lines from an editorial in the New York Times are appropriate: "Saddam Hussein deserves no one’s pity. But as anyone who has seen the graphic cell phone video of his hanging can testify, his execution bore little resemblance to dispassionate, state-administered justice… For the Bush administration, which insists it went to war in Iraq to implant democracy and justice, those globally viewed images were a shaming embarrassment. Unfortunately, all Americans will be blamed…"

It is not the defeat of Saddam, or his death, that has driven Iraq into chaos. It is a myth that Iraq needs despotism to keep it united. The Hashemite family of King Faisal ruled Iraq with a mild hand from 1921, when the state was formalised, to 1958. There was no talk of disintegration during the soft, albeit compromised, monarchy. Nor was there chaos during the two Baathist decades till 1979. The present havoc is a direct consequence of occupation, an inevitable insurrection against foreign troops on Iraqi soil, and a polity fractured by ethnic interests. The full account of this malfeasance will be written, but only after the occupation is over in a few years. "The enemies forced strangers into our sea/And he who serves them will be made to weep./Here we unveil our chests to the wolves/And will not tremble before the beast."
As poetry that might not be the most memorable lines in Arabic, but these lines from Saddam Hussein’s last poem, written in jail, will resonate. Saddam’s grave in Tikrit has already become a memorial, where Iraq’s Sunnis are offering a prayer from wounded hearts.

"I sacrifice my soul for you and for our nation," he wrote. "Blood is cheap in hard times."

Blood flows, and each drop becomes a seed of future war.

Perhaps such poetry will be forgotten. But a line of prose he uttered at the end will certainly live longer. Palestine, he said on his way to the gallows, is Arab.