Sunday, February 25, 2007

Four Into Two

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Four Into Two

Do you know what Quattrocchi means in Italian? Four eyes. I have this from an extremely reliable source. Actually, the source isn’t that exciting, but the information is correct. And what does Ottavio indicate?

The eighth. The Eighth Man with Four Eyes. This sounds as mysterious as something out of The Da Vinci Code, but let us just agree that even if Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman accused in Bofors payoffs, had eight eyes instead of four he could not possibly have foreseen that he would be picked up in February 2007 by the Argentinian police in a barely-known province called Misiones in pursuit of an Interpol "red corner notice number A-44/2/1997".

He could be forgiven if he had begun to believe that he was now safe from the arm of Indian law, his money out of the freeze of British bank accounts. He has been sitting for years in his comfortable home in Milan, talking to media when he chose to do so, and no one from the Italian police ever interfered with his peace.

Doesn’t Italy come under the jurisdiction of Interpol, or does Italy make an exception for specially favoured sons? If the warrant could lead to detention in Latin America, then what was Scotland Yard doing when the ageing Quattrocchi withdrew funds that had been frozen in his British bank accounts? Why did the Argentinians, who must be as indifferent to Indian politics as we are to the shenanigans in Buenos Aires, break the silent code that protected Quattrocchi from Interpol for so long? Was there someone in Delhi who tipped the Argentinians off?

These are grave matters, and let someone more competent than me search for answers.

There is always something amusing in the gravest of events, and I am not talking about the "Four Eyes" name.

My sympathies are with the police officer in the Central Bureau of Investigation who was told to cook up a reason for the mysterious 17-day delay between Quattrocchi’s arrest and the release of the news by CBI. We know now that the matter went up, but obviously, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where it lay for 17 days before a decision could be taken on what to do. One option that was surely considered was whether the arrest could remain a secret, and the thirty-day period, during which a demand for extradition had to be made, be permitted to lapse. The vibrant Indian media had been fooled for 17 days; why not another 13? The risk of course was that if the story broke while Parliament was in session, and the government was found culpable of protecting as highly wanted a man as Quattrocchi, the session would have come to a halt. Dr Singh also surely knew that his personal credibility was on the line. He opted for transparency.

But how then to explain those 17 non-transparent days? I can see a CBI officer scratching his head very hard as he came up with two reasons. The first was that it took time to identify Quattrocchi. But these are days of a telephone and the Internet. A photograph can be transmitted instantly. Try again. The second round of head-scratching must have removed all traces of dandruff. Ah: the CBI could not find anyone to translate from the Spanish.

Narasimha Raoji! Where are you when we need you? There was a time when an Indian Prime Minister used to be fluent in Spanish, and now we cannot find someone competent to do a simple translation — not in Delhi, not in our mission in Argentina, not in the foreign office, not even in the language departments of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Questions of course will be raised in Parliament; and decibel levels could hit the ceiling. The government has surely formulated all the answers. The home minister, Shivraj Patil, or even the Prime Minister, will certainly assure the House that every effort will be made to bring Quattrocchi to trial in Delhi. The Opposition will milk Bofors again, as it has done often enough in the past. Somnath Chatterjee, now in the Speaker’s chair, might even suffer from a twinge of nostalgia for the good old days when he used to thunder with increasing levels of moral indignation at Rajiv Gandhi. This will be the nth Parliament session to echo with the Bofors boom.

Unavoidable, I suppose, but I hope that Bofors does not obscure or even drive away a far more important issue, particularly since this is a Budget session. The country is angry about economic policy, and in particular about prices. Economic reform was launched by Narasimha Rao, continued by Atal Behari Vajpayee and pursued by Dr Manmohan Singh. The policy itself has acquired support across party lines, but there is a fundamental problem with its consequences that no one has had either the will or the time to address.

All change, or progress, tends to displace some section of the economic chain. Cotton factories, for instance, made the weaver either irrelevant or marginal. This is inevitable. The answer is not to stop new machinery in cotton mills, but to create a new economy around the displaced so that reasonably prosperous communities do not sink into impoverishment and despair. Democracy, as well as humanity, demands concern for the dispossessed. There is no trace of such concern in the much-vaunted economic reform. Voices are beginning to rise, as the poor begin to understand that the haves are driven by profits and share prices, not by notions of social justice. Anger from the forests is taking the form of Naxalite violence; anxiety from farmlands is turning into angry demonstrations against Special Economic Zones; the threat to food-sellers from the capital-driven malls is driving an agitation in Chennai. The fires are burning separately, but if Delhi continues to show an obstinate indifference, flame could touch flame to create a conflagration.

After more than half a decade of stability, prices of basic products have risen sharply. In such a climate, traders are happily raising prices of even those commodities that are not propelled upwards by forces out of their control. Elections have just taken place in Punjab and Uttarakhand; and prices were a deciding factor in the mood of the vote. There is an electoral Bofors waiting to explode in every marketplace in the country.

Prices do not rise because someone orders them to, but they do rise as a consequence of either policy decisions or the lack of control measures. For the present Central government, there is only one definition of success: the growth rate. It is a statistic that wins applause from those who do not have to worry about the price of onions. Monetary policy is now tied to just the growth objective. An overheated economy needs a harness, but a harness interferes with the high of a gallop. Our ruling class is in gallop mode, even if in the process it leaves the people behind. You might get away with this if India were not a democracy. But those who are being ignored have a vote, and fortunately for them, elections are now a continuous excitement. There is accountability around every corner.

This is going to be a high energy year, politically. Bofors has returned, literally from the blue. But this will be only the beginning. Election results from Punjab and Uttarakhand will come this week, and Uttar Pradesh has been set alight by Congress ham-handedness in its effort to subvert the law for political gain. It doesn’t work. It did not work in Bihar, and will not work in Uttar Pradesh.

At the best of times you need an extra pair of eyes to survive in Delhi: this year, you might need eight. 2007 is an Ottavio year.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Barefoot in the Dark

Byline By MJ Akbar: Barefoot in the Dark

I could have fooled you completely by noting that he wears shoes, but let me offer a few less misleading clues. He drives through Dubai in a Jaguar that purrs like the beautiful cat it is, and is chauffeured by a young man whose temptations at the wheel get the better of him when the master is not in the car. He has a corporate office in the Emirates Towers, the sleek symbol of a new world planted on yesterday’s desert, a complex combination of offices, hotel, pubs, restaurants and boutiques offering the finest brands of Europe. (America is sparse in the upper echelons of Dubai shopping, since while America can send a spaceship to Mars and an army to Iraq, it cannot quite produce a Patek Philippe mechanical movement handcrafted watch.) He arrives for lunch at the Lebanese Al Nafura restaurant in a personally designed cotton suit, each stitch made to measure, each button crafted for style, each angle of the collar and lapel fashioned to be a personal statement. He eats a sparse meal, just a nibble of the delicious hammour fish and a touch of the brinjal in the mezze.

The meal over, we drive to his personal museum where he offers tea in a splendid tent in the garden that would not be out of place in the Arabian Nights. The motif is red, in the cushions that invite you to slump and the carpet that invites you to sprawl as it stretches across the wide rectangle on which the tent sits. The romance of the hookah and the metal jar is set off against a cubit of technology: a pale Japanese air-conditioner is good for the afternoon heat.

Some giveaway clues: he carries a long paintbrush, his signature security blanket. His face is lit by a permanently amused and bemused twinkle in the eyes. His hair has conquered age, waving over the scalp and swaying below the face, proof that white is a dazzling colour.

He is of course Maqbool Fida Husain. He is now a Non Resident Indian, much against his will, although he does whisper that he does not have to pay tax on the princely figures that his art fetches these days, something he did faithfully when living in India. He hints, wistfully rather than softly, that he misses his country. Politics keeps him away: he has become a target in the modern political wars of a democratic India.

Husain’s feet are famous for their wanderlust, but he knows that the only place where he can keep his feet on the ground is in his own country.

A friend told me a story which I recount to him. It seems that they bumped into each other at London’s Heathrow airport. Since everyone talks to the famous, and Husain is too polite to ignore a fan, my friend asked him where he was headed. Geneva. Just then a voice announced that the British Airways flight to Guyana was ready to board. Husain interrupted the chat to say that he might as well go to Guyana. As my friend watched, astonished, he bought a ticket and left. There are many ways of escaping the attention of a fan, but this was surely the most unusual. Was the story true? Husain laughed without betraying an answer. If it could be true, it should be true, his silence suggested. Myth is always a healthy option for a seamless legend.

He is not above tweaking his identity either. Two decades ago, when he was in his Bengal phase, whether working on his exquisite series on Mother Teresa, or the joyous ironies of the Raj, or the vibrant icons of revolutions, he often signed his work in Bengali. A Husain was above a Husain. His identity lay as much in the classical and unique independence of his line, as in his name: a name was only one form of a signature. It has never much mattered to which degree he stretched a nomenclature: there were times when he changed the meaning of "Maqbool", which signifies acclaim, and turned it into an erotic extension with "Mac the Bull".

Husain is over ninety now, and completely engrossed in his new muse, Amrita. A few years ago, he saw a Madhuri Dixit film, whose name I have fortunately forgotten, a hundred times, but she is now a few wisps within an endless album, a chimera that once devoured him but has now disappeared into a canyon of echoes. Amrita now rules the unfinished canvas on an easel in the hall, her face etched in more detail than a photograph could reveal despite being featureless within that superb contour of a curving line. Her sinuous form is a triumphant unity of reality reformed by the idealism of a genius. Beatrice, Dora, Rashda, Amrita: like Dante or Picasso, Husain demands the artist’s right to liberty over his muse, and like them he is authoritarian about his inspiration although he could never be as philosophical as Dante or as cruel as Picasso. There is a reality called Amrita, of course, but he is not interested in her birth. He is consumed by the innumerable ways in which she can be reborn through the creative juices of an erect paintbrush and the endless permutations available to a fertile imagination. He is both father and mother to his creation. And yet the wonder of that canvas is shared: if Amrita dominates the left in a languorous riot of well-divided colour, the right belongs to a single-hued figure, bent over in passionate concentration, the artist possessed, his beard and mane setting off unseen eyes that discover and rediscover the compelling nuances of an obsessive beauty. The artist of course is Husain. How old is this Husain? Not old at all. This Husain is young. The artist has equal rights to rebirth.

Amrita and Maqbool are a work in progress, and likely to remain so, I suspect, for a while.

The walls are resplendent with the first paintings of a new series, the civilisation of the Arab: powerful images in brilliant red, green and desert-sun shades into which Husain has immersed himself — the date palm, the circle as the sun and the circle as the city, luminous and dark, and the Kaaba, the House of God rising as the centrepiece surrounded by the calligraphic discipline of an euphoric alphabet. This exhibition will open by November, and the artist intends to invite his friends, particularly from India, for a preview that will surely become yet another celebration of a new summit in a pilgrim’s progress.

Why is an authentic Indian genius living outside his own country, when he wants nothing more than to laugh and converse in Delhi and Mumbai and Hyderabad and the dozens of other cities that are an integral part of his life? His mind and heart are as liberated as his brush; they have to be since they feed one another. From the billboard in Mumbai to an auction at Sotheby’s, his own life is as much a chronicle of the economic and cultural history of his country as any statistic. Is it also an inevitable part of the historical narrative that he should now become a victim of politics as fringe elements search for votes in the name of a simulated anger? Is this the new metaphor for democracy? Is this the dominant aspect of a new culture in which violence is the new cult?

It is perhaps convenient to ignore such questions, for both the Establishment and the Opposition, and pretend that they have much else to worry about, or indeed brag about, from the depression of inflation to the pseudo-triumphalism of an unequal economic boom. Where does an artist fit into such a national mindshare? But exile is not a term that can sit easily on the same page as democracy, and there will come a moment that will demand a decision.

Husain knows what he would choose. A cup of tea in a dhaba in Mumbai is worth more than tents and Jaguars on foreign soil. And he won’t need shoes in his motherland.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nuclear Poker

Byline by MJ Akbar: Nuclear Poker

The alter ego of a boom, I suppose, is doom. Failure does not have too much to worry about, but success has a great deal to lose. You can’t lose, can you, if you have nothing to lose?

There have been few contemporary success stories quite as dramatic as Dubai. Five decades ago it was not even on the urban map of the world, not much more than an antique port with a blind eye, the only address on a beachhead that survived because of international indifference. It did not even have a pot of oil. It still does not.

Today, its skyscrapers shimmer like an Arabian Nights miracle. If traffic jams are a modern metaphor for urban growth, then Dubai can put in a bid for a place in Guinness. From seven in the morning till past ten at night, a curve of tail to tail or head to head snake of blinking cars snakes along the hidden tarmac. In a remarkable display of imagination the rulers of this small principality have converted a strip of sand along an uncertain ocean into a business-cum-shopping-cum holiday haven.

Suddenly an unspoken uneasiness hovers over this dream. What happens if America and Israel, alone or in tandem, launch a military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities this summer?

The reactor at Bushehr is literally just across the gulf. The fallout, once again literally, would be immediate as well as long term for the whole region. No one expects Iran to successfully defend itself against an American aerial missile and bomber invasion. Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of American preparations for just such an attack many months ago in New Yorker, reported that among the weaponry on the war games table was a controlled-impact nuclear bomb. No one has any real idea of what the radioactive fallout would be for Iran and its surrounding region. Central Asian nations do not have a clue of the collateral damage their children might suffer, and for how long. Gulf states have further concerns. The Americans do not have the infantry for a follow-up regime change even if the assault was perfectly successful. So the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would remain in power, at the heart of a polity created by the late Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. It does not need much imagination to foresee that Iran would target western business interests in retaliation, which are strewn within reach from Dubai to Doha.

It has taken a remarkable generation to create Dubai. More than glass and concrete, Dubai is a rare symbol of confidence in what was once dismissed as the Third World. What happens to the interests of Bush’s friends in oil and industry if Dubai’s durability and stability is corroded? What happens to oil and energy in the region if it is affected by radioactivity? Planners in Pentagon, the White House and Tel Aviv might believe that they have done their studies and the consequences are under control, or that the damage will be within acceptable limits, whatever that means. These are largely the same people who wrote fantasy scripts about flower-strewn streets in Baghdad lined by cheering crowds as George Bush was honoured by a ticker tape parade along the Tigris. The track record, to put it mildly, is not encouraging.
Nuclear poke requires nerves of uranium and no one is certain about the strength of any player’s cards. Everyone knows that Iran does not have nuclear weapons yet, but that is not the question. Has the facility at Natanz already crossed the point where its destruction would trigger damage in excess of Chernobyl at the very least? If not, will that point be crossed by October? Ergo, if there is to be a military solution then it must be before the end of this summer.

There is some comfort in the fact that Iran has moved away from unambiguous belligerence towards more nuanced diplomacy. At Davos in January former President Muhammad Khatami discussed a scheme with American and European delegates to this economic lovefest in which Iran would suspend enrichment of uranium for six months. This period would be used by a group consisting of members of the Security Council plus Germany and India to inspect and assess Iran’s nuclear programme and report back to the United Nations. In a related gesture, Iran did not vote against a UN General Assembly resolution condemning denial of the Holocaust that Hitler perpetrated during the Second World War. In Iran, senior clerics have condemned, publicly, uninhibited adventurism in policy, referring clearly to Ahmadinejad.

Is this good-cop-bad-cop strategy? Is Iran merely buying time, and if so, how much time? Another Security Council resolution is due in March. America will obviously seek to phrase this resolution in terms that make it a virtual authorisation for war if Washington chooses to go to war. Does Iran want to thwart it or dilute it without giving much in return? Is Iran waiting for winter, when the American presidential campaign season will make Bush hostage to domestic politics?

Everyone has the same list of questions. I suspect you might not find firm answers even in Tehran. It might be more relevant to apply a general principle while the players sit at the nuclear poker table, their cards clutched against their breast, their teeth clenched.

Nations might, in certain conditions, be martial or hegemonic, but they are rarely suicidal. Grievous mistakes, exacting a colossal price, are made, but not out of intent. If Germany in 1914 had known the impossible cost of war, and the certainty of defeat, would she have commenced hostilities in the First World War? If Bush had known what he knows now about the consequences of invading Iraq, would he have dared launch his "shock and awe" campaign? The answer in both cases is a clear no. The only thing certain about nuclear poker is that if there is a confrontation, there are no winners.

It was surely this thought that prompted Jacques Chirac to muse before reporters in Paris recently that it did not much matter whether Iran had a nuclear weapon or two, for if it ever dared use them it would be obliterated. (There was a meaningless retraction of this statement later.)

Vladimir Putin added his variable to the debate on Saturday at Munich when he argued that American violations of the rule of law and the policy of invasion had turned nations towards the weapon of last resort, nuclear power, in an effort to protect their sovereignty.

Pranab Mukherjee has just returned to Delhi from Tehran. He cannot be much wiser than before he left, because the answers to the difficult questions fluctuate with every changing shadow on any player’s face. What Mr Mukherjee did, with the confidence of a veteran, was to underscore the maturity of India’s presence at the table. India is a legitimate nuclear and economic power, and possibly a role model for Iran even if India may have no wish for such an honour. But India has a stake in the outcome of the game, and it is in its immediate interest that tensions be calibrated downwards. Apart from other consequences, a military confrontation would implode the world economy just when one section of India is rising from the economic atmosphere into the stratosphere.

After all, just one alphabet makes the difference between boom and doom.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A prattler's Rattle

Byline By M.J. Akbar : A Prattler’s Rattle

Deep into Dr Ashok Mitra’s new book, A Prattler’s Tale: Bengal, Marxism and Governance (Samya, Rs 595), I began to feel a growing sense of irritation. Here was this virtually ceaseless, seamless sequence of the most wonderful political anecdotes I had read in years, and so many of them lost the last-mile edge because the author had refused to name names, although the descriptions took you near enough the identity. Dr Mitra’s career is packed with “former” designations — chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission and Chief Economic Adviser to government of India when Mrs Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister (she called him Ashok), finance minister to Jyoti Basu after the Left Front triumph in Bengal in 1977 — and his memoirs are a treasure house of incident, perception, analysis, and sheer good fun, replete with the kind of story that is a highlight of the epicurean adda, or gossip, sessions that were and are a preferred privilege of the Kolkata Bengali elite. This book will be exploited by the intelligent historian and should be enjoyed by anyone remotely interested in public affairs. Dr Mitra has a justified reputation for fearless honesty. So why had he hidden so many names?

And then, ouch! I came across a comment about me that was sharp to the point of being merciless. Relief followed: Ashokda, which is how I have called him for well over two decades, did not mention my name. I went down on a metaphorical knee to offer thanks to God, in whom Dr Mitra does not believe, and the author, in whom Dr Mitra does. Was the comment accurate? Yes. It was absolutely correct and I fully deserved the toxic barb. Dr Ashok Mitra is honest, but he is not ruthlessly honest. Phew.Mine was a case of trivia, but the absence of names in one story was of serious import. Dr Mitra has a startling revelation about the surprise appointment of Dr Manmohan Singh as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s finance minister in 1991. This is his narrative: Foreign exchange reserves had shrunk to a point where they could cover only a fortnight’s imports. India was “fast approaching bankruptcy”. The US administration, in coordination with the IMF and World Bank, sent a “categorical message” to Delhi through “secret talks” that began as soon as the Lok Sabha results were known: obey and save yourselves, or object and go hang. Delhi agreed to obey. But wary of similar assurances that had been belied in Latin america, Washington sought an implicit guarantee. It was decided that “the IMF and the World Bank would nominate the finance minister of the country after consultations with the US authorities”. It is an astonishing assertion: in the words of the author, “the prerogative of naming the new finance minister was also transferred to Washington”. This is followed by a second bombshell.

“The first person whose name was proposed by Washington DC, thought things over and declined the invitation to be the finance minister.” Who was this person? We are not told. This is a serious gap in information, because the credibility of such a damaging revelation dwells at least partly on the name of this first offer-and-decline. We all know who the second choice was; today he is Prime Minister of India. Dr Mitra describes this as an “ignominious surrender” and asserts the “high noon of that state of affairs continues”.

Dr Mitra has seen power in Delhi and Kolkata; he has no political ambitions left. Two of his mentors, Indira Gandhi and the CPI(M) guru, Promode Dasgupta, have passed away. The third, Jyoti Basu, is 93 and has retired. Anyone who knows Dr Mitra will vouch for his integrity. He describes Dr Singh as a once close friend, and is disillusioned only when he realises that “Manmohan had meanwhile matured as a skilled politician” who could sidestep facts with political rhetoric. He is not charitable about Manmohan the politician: “I am afraid there is little scope for politeness here: his timidity is the product of his civil servant’s mind, which many mistake as humility”. Dr Mitra is experienced and mature enough to measure each word he writes, and if he claims that Dr Singh’s sudden rise to eminent political office was at the instructions of Washington, he definitely means it.I have no information against which to measure this claim, and must take it at face value. But my view is of no consequence. The more important question, given current political equations, is, whether the CPI(M) believes the man it made finance minister of Bengal in 1977, and who could have continued as finance minister till the end of the last century. Dr Singh cannot remain Prime Minister without CPI(M) support.

A further question: does the American establishment believe this? The present American ambassador, David Mulford, is gauche enough to admonish Delhi on the eve of Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Iran through a press conference. Even if he had to convey a message, what was the need for a gratuitous press conference? Would Mrs Indira Gandhi have tolerated such an indiscretion? I think not. Will Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh accept it? I hope not. Their response does not have to be belligerent; that is always unwise. But their actions should speak louder than Mulford’s words.
Dr Mitra does not let political animosity — and no one could be more animous than him — interfere with his judgment. There is an evocative and almost sympathetic portrait of the RSS titan, M.S. Golwalkar. The two met when Indira Gandhi appointed both to the cow-slaughter committee, set up after the famous march to Parliament by sadhus in November 1966. The Jagatguru Shankaracharya of Puri was also a member. Golwalkar, says Dr Mitra, was “extraordinarily intelligent, modest in manner, soft-spoken. (He was) fluent in all the fifteen languages recognised by the Constitution, and made it a point to converse with me in the most chaste Bengali. It was the Jagatguru who was single-handedly capable of driving us to desperation”. Later, Dr Mitra met Golwalkar on a train to Bhopal: “we embraced each other and exchanged many stories” until the train picked up speed and the men brought out their books. “Suddenly I noticed that Golwalkar was reading a juicy novel by Henry Miller.” Dr Mitra adds, as well he might, “Inscrutable India!”

It gets more inscrutable, with gossip about a Bengal governor’s wife carting away the excellent wine cellar from Kolkata’s Raj Bhavan on her husband’s retirement. Apparently, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, seemed to have similar tendencies. When she returned from Washington, where she had served as ambassador, she brought back expensive carpets which she “forgot” to pay for. Any interest in what Ramakrishna Hegde thought of his fellow chief minister N.T. Rama Rao’s sleeping costume? I am not going to supply the answer.

The book is spiced with one-liners that could form an independent manual. The one I particularly liked was: “Parents without an adequate dose of humour are a social menace”. The context is extremely funny: fortunately for the publishers, who would like to sell copies, there is no space here for this wonderful episode from the day on which Dr Mitra was first elected. No space either for the reasons that compelled Dr Mitra to resign as finance minister. Suffice to note that conscience, now a stranger to politics, played a key role.

A close encounter with death is dealt with the light touch of a master. He recalls his impressions when his pulse rate, fluttering between 25 and zero, would drop towards the death zone: “…my whole consciousness would be wrapped in a steady, serene, very comfortable purple glow and the feeling would be of excruciating happiness”. He does not go beyond this, but that sentence is heavy with possibilities for an atheist.

If there is one fault, then it is the coy and cloying intrusion of nicknames. But nickname mania among the Bengali elite is also a message of inclusion; only the outsider uses the formal nomenclature. Ashok Mitra might have been a Marxist-rebel, but that does not mean he was excluded from the elitist club. Indeed, the prodigal is always enhanced by a touch of glamour.Don’t wait for details about the withering reference to me. I might be a fool, but I certainly am not an ass. If you do want to play hide and seek with seven fascinating decades, buy the book and open it anywhere. You won’t put it down.