Sunday, March 25, 2007

Money and Murder: The Making of a Bloodsport

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Money and Murder: The Making of a Bloodsport

Cricket, tea and murder in the vicarage were the three archetypal metaphors for the British empire: Dennis Compton (Brylcreem and straight drives), Rupert Brook (tea at four at Grantchester) and Agatha Christie are the architecture on the cultural landscape of an empire sleepwalking its way towards new nations that would throw out Britain but keep cricket and tea. Who would have thought that Hercule Poirot would be needed as the third umpire at the West Indies World Cup? Cricket is dead, murder is alive, and the game is no longer my cup of tea.

The ironies would leave Christie breathless. Bob Woolmer is an Englishman who served the progeny of empire, and was killed by the new culture spawned by independent nations, a mindset controlled by crime and greed. Crime has maimed Pakistan, and greed is crippling India. Cricket is only one symptom of an all-pervasive cancer. India and Pakistan can take comfort in the fact that the only difference between them is that India defeated a joke called Bermuda, and Pakistan couldn’t.

Gentility began to ebb out of the gentleman’s game a long while ago, being shoved aside in rough stages by intensity. The British began to mix metaphors first, when the masters of the world were defeated by the minions of the world. Their first defeat by Australia created such heartburn that they declared cricket dead and preserved its ashes in an urn. It was intensity that led to bodyline, in which an English bowler, with the full approval of his captain and a typically weasel-MCC, turned a ball of leather into a lethal weapon aimed at the head of Australia’s immaculate batsmen. The two nations still go to war over the Ashes, as evident in the triumphs accorded to victors. When England last won the Ashes, even the Queen lost her reserve and handed out gongs. The star, Andrew Flintoff, arrived, so it was said, drunk to the gong ceremony and relieved himself on the regal lawns. What a jolly good lark, cheered everyone, for stupidity is the homage worshippers pay to idols. But of course, idols are perched on oily pedestals, as Flintoff found out when he drank after defeat and ended up in the ocean. He was pilloried by the most dangerous jury in the world, a press conference.

Cricket is a family game, hence the intensity. Would Cain have killed Abel were he not his brother? Unlikely. There is no ‘world’ in this World Cup. There cannot be, when you need seven joke teams to make up a tournament of 16. Bermuda was led by a sumo wrestler who defied the laws of gravity just once to take a magnificent catch against India, but confirmed that science cannot be dismissed lightly on a hundred occasions. India’s defeat was evident during the victory against Bermuda.

You could see the smugness return into the eyes of our spoilt, overpaid, pampered, immature dead duck cricketers as they hammered Bermuda’s jokers. Sachin Tendulkar, who cannot be allowed to retire because so much advertising rides on the memory of what he used to be, had the look of a man who had won the World Cup after he made a few runs. Rahul Dravid, who now believes that cricket should not be front page news, should retire from press conferences. I could go on, but what is the point: how many synonyms can you find for pathetic? But why blame an Uthappa alone, when we all conspire to convert him from unknown extra to divinity on the basis of just one innings in Chennai? Everyone is to blame, not least being the politicians, from Bengal to Jharkhand to Maharashtra to Kerala, who have muscled into cricket space in the hope that it will get them votes, and of course because they want a stake in the huge monies that have destroyed the game.

Pakistan looked a team in distress even before they had played a match. Their captain, Inzamamul Haq, could triple his personal endorsement revenues if someone eased that look of permanent pain on his visage. He also has the slightly irritating habit of confusing the Almighty with a cricket coach (irritating, I am sure, to the Almighty as well, which might explain the results). Apparently, he thought that massive quantities of ghee-strewn parathas and meat followed by a long sermon on religion from a cleric were adequate preparation for a World Cup match. It was entirely appropriate that a ‘joke’ team, Ireland, ended the fun.

Crime and corporations are the godfathers of Indian cricket. The two keep their distance from each other, but both know that they are linked by the cricketer. Crime got its opportunity because governments imbued with false morality have refused to permit licensed and regulated betting on cricket. For some obscure, fundamentalist reason, it is perfectly moral in India to bet on the performance of horses, but not on the performance of men. There is no point arguing that men can be corrupted and horses can’t, because the shenanigans of the race course would put any decent mafia to shame. Cricketers might even fetch a higher price from illegal bookmakers. Bribes are also race- and colour-neutral, as South Africa has shown.

Everyone knows that a cricket team on tour lives two lives. One is on the playing field that you see on television, and the other is in hotels with groupies who cajole and bribe their way to the penumbra of cricket celebrities. That is where the stench of corruption begins. It is in the interest of cricket’s administrators to pretend that they cannot smell the stink, since cricket has given them budgets that are beyond their wildest fantasies. But it has always been understood that this malicious odour would not waft into the public domain. Criminals have broken this implicit rule with the murder of Bob Woolmer. The culprits have surely left enough clues. Woolmer recognised his murderers, or he would not have allowed them into his room. That tightens the circle of suspicion. It is very likely that the murderers were seen by others when they knocked on Woolmer’s room or after they left. Woolmer was living in the team hotel, not in a monastery. If the murder is linked to betting syndicates, then either the game finds the will to change its structure or it will die an ignoble death.

Corporations may be guilty of no worse a crime than hysteria, but it is time to check what price their artificially injected mania has begun to demand. It is always a trifle risky to place nationalism in the custody of multinationals. Multinationals never get the balance of nationalism right, since their functioning ideology is non-patriotic. You do not have to scream like a banshee in order to sound like an Indian. That Jharkhand fan who broke a wall or two of Dhoni’s new home, being built on land gifted by a stupid government, was absolutely right when he alleged that Dhoni was much more interested in modelling than in cricket. Even if this is not completely true, since that modelling contract will not come without performance, it is fair to suggest that the Indian cricketer has acquired a split personality. A new, young and semi-tried fast bowler whose name I prefer to forget makes millions out of a war dance on the field, and is honoured by his state government after his idiocy: on which rational axis would you expect his brain to function? And it might be a good moment to ban all those ho-ho-ho cricket commentators who glamorise absurdity in order to keep on the right side of their paymasters.

The purge of Indian cricket can start with a simple decision. Sack the whole team and select a completely new eleven. After all, they would still defeat Bermuda. Naturally, this will not happen. The leaders of Indian cricket will not dare risk accountability, since they would also have to resign on that principle. The world’s administrators will try and dismiss Woolmer’s murder as a one-off crime, rather than a malign disease on the body of the game. Greed will screen the truth.

How do you convert a sport into a bloodsport? Mix greed, megalomania, nationalism, God, politicians, advertising and murder.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Storm Signal

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Storm Signal

The standard rate seems to be one word per dead policeman, so Dr Manmohan Singh did his duty when he called the Maoist insurgency across half of India the gravest threat to the nation’s internal security since independence. Fifty-five policemen were surrounded and killed in their forest camp at Chhattisgarh by Naxalites, and agency reports that I read quoted the Prime Minister’s statement at around 55 words, give or take a few for poor mathematics (mine).

We can now expect the powerful Indian state to do one, or more, of three things: hold a conference of chief ministers on the "Naxalite menace" at which there is a lot of back-slapping when old friends meet across party lines; pull out a number of police battalions from a fire and send them to a cemetery, on the valid assumption that Naxalites will not hit the same place twice; agree upon a debate in Parliament during which backbenchers are given a chance to speak by party whips. This is how Delhi dresses up its windows when it wants to protect itself from reality.

But why blame Dr Manmohan Singh? He is an honest man. By his own admission, explained during innumerable speeches at favourite forums like the Confederation of Indian Industry, he has said, in so many words, that he became Prime Minister in order to make the rich richer so that a portion of their wealth could eventually trickle down to the poor. Unfortunately, after three years of speeches, nothing has yet trickled down to the forests of Chhattisgarh, or even to the slums of its capital, Raipur. The proper thing for the poor to do, of course, is to wait for the momentum of Manmohanomics to reach their hovels. But our Indian poor are a spoilt lot. They have become addicts of democracy, and expect a gush instead of a trickle. Moreover, they want it within the lifetime of a government they have elected.

For the decision-makers within the Indian elite, and its Prime Minister, Dr Singh, Chhattisgarh is another country, as near or as remote as Vietnam was in their youth, and as Iraq is today. The dead are an accidental number, not real flesh and blood. Even those who protect the elite, the policemen in Chhattisgarh, are not real, since constables are the few lucky ones among the poor to be given a uniform and a salary. Casualty rates in a battle between constables and Naxalites are an exchange of statistics among the have-nots. How does that affect the quality or abundance of a meal in Delhi?

The Prime Minister described this as the gravest internal security threat since 1947. Those words were, or should have been, chosen with care. So who has raised the obvious question: what has he been doing about this gravest crisis during the last three years he has been Prime Minister? The crisis did not erupt between 13 and 15 March. Dr Singh will soon be completing (I hope no one uses the ambitious term, ‘celebrating’) a thousand days in office. A fortnight ago his government presented the annual budget. I cannot recall hearing anything about the gravest internal security threat in sixty years, or a remedy to suggest how it could be met through economic policy. And if Maoism is not an economic problem, then it is nothing.

Did it need 55 police corpses to wake up the Prime Minister of India?

Nor is it very certain what he does achieve when he wakes up. The last time he was woken up was a few months ago when the Sachar report on the plight of Indian Muslims was presented to him. In the first flush of dawn-energy he suggested that a portion of government expenditure should be set aside for projects to help lift Indian Muslims. His finance minister chose that moment to go deaf, and when the budget was presented, treated the suggestion with contempt. Dr Singh responded with silence. Someone must have informed him that Indian Muslims are familiar with betrayal, and in any case they have nowhere else to go apart from the Congress in national elections. Maybe I could tell the Prime Minister tomorrow’s news today. The minorities of Chhattisgarh are drifting towards the Naxalites.

The biggest disappointment of the last three years has not been Dr Singh, but the Left. The Maoists are today occupying political space either vacated by the Marxists, or which should have been occupied by them. The spread of the Naxalite movement is evidence of how large a national party, and force, the CPI(M) could have become if it had not been trapped by power, first in Bengal, and then, in the last three years, fooled by the honeytraps of Delhi. Three years ago, for the first time, barring the odd exception of unstable experiments, the CPI(M) became the occupant of two significant bastions, one regional and the other national. Power in Bengal is at least real. Their power in Delhi is an illusion. Whenever the Congress does them a favour and tells them that their influence is an illusion, they retreat behind another explanation. Indian Marxists have become ensnared by the oldest Indian metaphor, the mayajaal. They should now take a few courses in Indian philosophy. Enough of Lenin already, as the theorists of globalisation might put it.

The poor are illiterate because the Indian state has not found the resources for their education. This does not mean that they are stupid. The illiterate may not be able to read the alphabet but they are brilliant at reading a signal.

In the last three years, if the signals from Delhi have been inadequate, then the ones from Kolkata have been appalling, if only because the poor have had higher expectations from Kolkata.

It is hardly a coincidence that the Naxalite attack in Chhattisgarh should occur in the same week that the Marxist government in Kolkata ordered the death of villagers protecting their land in the now well-known village of Nandigram (literally, Village of Nandi) in Bengal. The land is required by the Marxist government in order to sell it to an Indonesian multinational which will use it to create a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the new mantra of progressive enlightenment. All the classic elements of "bourgeoisie oppression" were at play: instead of negotiation with the people, force was ordered. An instrument of state that went on a rampage received the official protection of the state government in the Assembly, and the judiciary had to step in to force a CBI enquiry into the incident. The chief minister, who justified the police action, added that if the people did not want the SEZ he would not insist on it. How many more corpses does he need to complete his education?

The party line is known: three decades ago, the CPI(M) consolidated its vote through radical reforms that gave agricultural land to the sharecropper. The children of that sharecropper now need jobs, and industrialisation must be pushed through at any cost. The current cost is not only splashed with blood, but mocks ideologues with its ironies. Land that was given to the sharecroppers by the Marxists is being retaken to take jobs whose profits will go to multinationals. The party that sold us decades of rhetoric against Indian capitalism (the running dogs of imperialism) is not the flag bearer of international capitalism, willing to kill the poor to enforce the power of this flag. There are other routes to salvation for the poor, apart from killing them.

The bitter story of Nandigram is complicated by the fact that many of the affected are Muslims who trusted the Marxists for thirty years, and now feel abandoned by every political party in the democratic space. Where is their anger heading?

On 15 March, a rally of Muslims marched to Parliament in Delhi to demand that the Sachar report needed to be translated into economic policies. Among the banners were those of the Students Islamic Organisation of India. They carried a message: ‘Special Exploitation Zone’.

The poor are very good at reading signals from government. Is there anyone in government who knows how to read signals from the poor?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hyderabad Blues

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Hyderabad Blues

Something does not quite gel in this extraordinary tale of hawala transactions by a certain Hasan Ali Khan, once of Hyderabad and now of Pune. It is difficult to correlate billions of rupees, let alone dollars, with the languorous leftovers of an exhausted Nizam nobility in the same sentence. Unlike so many nameless Mumbai and Delhi business and political VIPs who must, right now, be shivering in their sleep, I have never had the privilege of meeting Mr Khan, but my psychograph suggests that he is much more likely to send a cheque for Rs 20,000 to the wife of an income-tax officer, which then has the temerity to bounce, than to wallow in billions. It is obvious that Hasan Khan is involved in something outside his grasp or class; he was an intermediary, an agent, and this was not his money. The scraps of such transactions must have kept him content.

Hyderabad is still full of characters who have dropped from the decay of an effete class and saved themselves from social extinction with a soft landing on the margins of the race course. The asset side of their balance sheet, both fiscal and social, is dim: they survive by selling the past, either their inheritance, or their memories. The charms of both have been overtaken by time. If they had homes they have either rotted or, with better reason, been dynamited; if they had businesses, then, exceptions apart, only those that were sold still live. Decline has been accompanied by a rigid personal and public religious morality, which is a paradox, since their parents were far more relaxed: perhaps this is a form of atonement for wasted lives.

However, such morality never prevents a flutter at the race course or the flush table; nor does it come in the way of a fluid attitude to the famous twins, bribery and corruption. The one indisputable plus of this class, though, is an exquisite sense of tehzeeb: they are walking, and often bowing, examples of extraordinary grace and superb manners, redolent of an age that once illuminated many chapters of our nation’s social history. Such qualities make them affable, and lift them seamlessly to the highest echelons of the business and political elite. For most of this sinking aristocracy, tehzeeb and a proud sense of honour are a safety net: decay does not quite collapse into degeneration.

Hasan Khan is an exception, because he made an early reputation for white collar crime, a forged signature here, a fudged car there. In time he changed both wife and city. This did not affect his social circle, or his social circulation. He was apparently quite the lad on the Pune race course, up there among the studs of the grand boxes. There is, alas, not that much distance between grace and disgrace. When the law arrives, unexpectedly of course, the VIPs who used cutouts disappear behind the protection of connections, and the agent is left to fend for himself in the glare of the spotlight. Suddenly, the suave charm crumbles into the brittle dust of police files.

One wing of government has denied that the hawala sums were as much as Rs 30,000 crores, a figure that floated through the media, or that Swiss banks (an almost inevitable component of such a story, despite the fact that Swiss banks are no longer as rigid about secrecy as they are famous for) were involved. But that is not really the point. What is it about such colossal figures that media, or the public, never pauses to ask whether it can be true? We have become so inured to corruption of every kind, at every level, that every figure is accepted without question: ‘Rs 30,000 crores sent out by one individual? Must not only be true, but is probably an underestimate’. Who makes up such figures and passes them on to media, which then proceeds to make them a public truth? How long does that truth remain a reality? Till the media’s interest is shifted by another story. What happens then to a Hasan Khan bandwagon? Nothing much, in all probability: he is bailed out by the powerful interests on whose behalf he was working, and is again visible at glittering parties, oiling his way across the floor (in the immortal phrase used by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady). The crooked businessman will return to the podium to give lectures on honesty, and flail against the evils of Delhi; politicians will return to their desks to think up new laws with which to punish businessmen.

If it is any consolation to anyone, that both tribes have an example on exhibit. The horse whisperer from Pune has more than his match in a Member of Parliament from Assam, M.K. Subba, who has simply bought his way into India’s ruling party, Congress, and ruling institution, Parliament.

One man’s crime is a problem; but what we have now in India is a crisis.

Corruption is not just the luxury of the rich. It is also the aspiration of the poor. In so many cases, success is defined by the size of the take. The jobless dream of government jobs where the bribe is the highest. Corruption is a pack ritual, with small communities — take the police thana, for instance — protecting one another and sharing the loot on a carefully calculated pro rata basis. If you break rank and culture, you are in danger of being dismissed as an untouchable. There is no class which is immune from corruption, or ready to place any barricades. Corruption is no longer an issue which affects voters.

I thought once that a market-driven private sector would provide at least a partial solution. The logic went something like this: if profit was the only motive of a listed company driven by share prices, then there would be at least some social benefits to compensate for the many liabilities. Profit does not have caste or creed. Many of the old business mandarins, protected by political patrons, indulged in rampant casteism and communalism when they hired. Bias is always wasteful, and cannot compete with competence as the sole criterion, and therefore selection in jobs would be less partisan. But, as the hawala case shows, you cannot dam the inventiveness of a private sector businessman intent on thieving from his own business, particularly when there is an obliging middleman waiting at the door to shift the swag around.

So how come, if we are all guilty, anyone gets caught? Fortunately, we are not all guilty, although most of us might find a place in the category. Does luck have anything to do it? A little, perhaps. If you are standing in the way when a law enforcement truck happens to roll around, you have only kismet to blame for getting hit. The more relevant answer may lie in limits: while corruption may be pervasive, it is not yet limitless. There is a law, and while it is realistic enough not to chase every minnow, it does need to bait and reel in a big fish to send a message to the sea. Hasan Khan is not that big fish; he was operating on the surface. The sea will get a message only when those lurking at deeper levels are in the net.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The 2.5% rate of Growth

Byline by M J Akbar: The 2.5% Rate of Growth

The BJP is in serious danger of declaring victory in the quarterfinals. There
is already a strut in the air that has not been seen since the barely-remembered Venkaiah Naidu was predicting that the party might even get 300 seats, so strong did he see the wave in its favour. We all saw how that wavelet stopped far short of Delhi: the BJP could not even win in the capital, its traditional bastion.

There is good news for the BJP, but good is a comparative word. The NDA began to ebb when the BJP started to lose the urban vote. Its revival has started exactly where its decline began, in the cities. Mumbai went back to Shiv Sena and BJP in the municipal elections; and the urban seats in Punjab, where there was a massive pro-BJP swing, have brought Parkash Singh Badal to power. But this is only the starting point of the end-game in the current phase of the power struggle. Yes, the pace of the game will become faster, and in the month between the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and the elections for the President of India (whose electoral college includes MLAs) it could become frenetic.

There is good news for those Congressmen also — a substantial section which exhausts its frustration by muttering under the breath — who are convinced that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent the "Hindu" vote back to the BJP by appeasing Muslims. Not to worry, my friends: all this talk about helping Muslims was only lip service. When the time came to deliver in the budget, the Prime Minister had nothing to offer. We’ve seen the pattern before; Dr Singh’s government has repeated it. Other deprived sections like the Dalits and Backwards get concrete benefits; Indian minorities get enquiry commissions. Dr Singh’s historic contribution to Indian Muslims is the Sachar Commission report. I hope he will do them a favour now, and stop talking about this report, particularly since his sincerity once fuelled high expectations. Lip service can be a very cruel form of betrayal.

Dr Singh once suggested that 15% of expenditure should be allotted to welfare and economic empowerment schemes for Muslims, since they constitute a little less that 15% of the population. So what happened when the honourable finance minister presented the Budget to the Lok Sabha?

Let us check out paragraph 36 of the Budget speech. "Last year, I made a modest contribution of Rs 16.47 crore to the equity of the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation." The finance minister admits that it was modest; we should be thankful for small mercies. This year, the war drums were sounded, so how did he respond? "Following the Sachar Committee report, NMDFC would be required to expand its reach and intensify its efforts." So,a meagre Rs 63 crore is added to the share capital. The next paragraph notes that there are a number of districts with a concentration of minorities, but does not specify how many, for that might be both revealing and embarrassing. What is the provision? Rs 108 crore. It is so small the money may not be visible by the time it reaches the district headquarters. Add to this scholarships worth Rs 210.60 crore for all "minority communities".

There are around 150 million Muslims in India, and about 50 million Sikhs and Christians. The total allocation for them is less than Rs 320 crore. The annual expenditure of the Union government is Rs 680,521 crore. Do the math. Send your answers to the Prime Minister. He lives in Delhi and the post office should find him quite easily.For a comparison, read paragraph 33: the allocation for schemes benefiting only Scheduled Castes and Tribes is Rs 3,271 crore, and for schemes in which they will get at least 20% benefit, the sum is Rs 17,691 crore. In addition there are scholarships worth Rs 790 crore for the children of these communities. These SC/ST communities need all the help they can, so funds for minorities do not have to come out of their budgets. There is enough money elsewhere. But there is no will to help the minorities.

This thin gruel did not come without prodding. In an extraordinary gesture,the Prime Minister actually wrote to his finance minister late last year suggesting that the findings of the Sachar report should be taken into consideration. It took a reminder from the Prime Minister’s principal secretary and a formal letter from the Marxist MP Brinda Karat to persuade the finance minister to read what his leader had said. He might as well have ignored it completely. As the budget reveals, the letter produced a molehill instead of a mountain. If a Prime Minister cannot get his finance minister to read his letters, he can’t be much of a Prime Minister, can he?

The Budget is as dismissive of the poor as it is of minorities. There is a kind
of implicit contempt for have-nots: if they don’t like what they see, they can lump it.

The penultimate paragraph of the speech lists the balance sheet after three years in power. "The UPA government has delivered on the promise of savings and investment… It has delivered on the promise of growth…" But, "it will deliver on the promise of making growth more inclusive". When it comes to including the poor in the benefits of growth, the verb moves into the future tense. When shall this "will" come? There are no timelines indicated. But there is a formula: "given the right mix of policies, the poor will benefit from growth that is driven by savings and investment and that is more inclusive". Have we got the right mix of policies yet?

Dr Manmohan Singh first chanted the growth mantra in 1991, fifteen Budgets ago. Its proponents believe that the poor will benefit from a "trickle down" effect. For a decade and half it has been just that: the gush has gone in the direction of bank-balance Indians, savers, investors and share marketers. The poor have been condemned to a trickle from a municipal tap. Government propagandists keep churning out the statistic that the growth rate has crossed 9%; no one talks about the fact that the growth rate in agriculture is only 2.5%.

This is the central reality. A part of India may be growing at 20%, but most of India is growing at the rate of 3%.

This might work in a dictatorship like China, but democracy demands a different dialectic. One critical problem of the UPA government is that the Prime Minister and his finance minister speak from a dictionary that is music to the confederations of industry and unintelligible to the poor. A Budget is not just a description of the national economy; it is also a critical means test of its politics. Theoretically, Dr Singh has two Budgets left under his stewardship, unless one of the laws of Indian democracy catches up with him: if you are not in control of events, events will be in control of you.

The defeat of the Congress in Punjab is remarkable for one reason. The first Sikh Prime Minister of India could not persuade the Sikh voter to stay with the Congress. This is a tribute to the voter’s maturity, for she (women polled in higher numbers in Punjab than men) is no longer swayed by the false sentiment of accidental identity. She measures her vote on the scales of her vegetable shop. She is the judge and the jury, and she is hearing the evidence.

Only one thing is certain: the time between quarter finals and finals will pass in a rush.