Sunday, May 27, 2007

A New Zealand Diary

Byline By M.J. Akbar : A New Zealand Diary

Auckland takes its beauty for granted. A wondrous four-hue rainbow borrowed from a fairy tale rose gently from a small flurry of white clouds to the left, vaulted high towards the forehead of the sky and dipped with ever increasing power into the horizon, its colours pouring into the pot of gold resting below eyesight. If, as New Zealanders are fond of saying, this glorious island is the last stop of the bus, then the pot of gold is, as promised, at the end of a world flattened by globalisation. How many metaphors are mixed in that last sentence? Let someone with a flat mind count. Our car turns a corner to change the street. The clouds darken, only to be brilliantly lit by the fluorescent light of the tail of my rainbow. I feel possessive because no one else seems interested: not the children chatting on their way to school, not the cars hurrying off to work, not my fellow passengers in the car, who are discussing journalism, civilisation and journalism. (How many contradictions have I juxtaposed by placing those three words beside one another?) Our destination is the Hoani Waititi Marae, where the class of 2007 from the Auckland University of Technology media department has been brought to commune with the wisdom and spirit of the Maori people. My rainbow has preceded me, now dressed in the finery fit for an admirer from across the seven seas. It is perfect, adorned with a fourth purple layer, an imperial band that seals its majestic dominance of the firmament as it vaults with a motionless grace from precisely above the centre of the roof of the Marae to the edge of vision.

The Marae is an open hall with a sloping roof and the simplicity and quiet humanity of a mosque, the feeling reinforced by the need to remove one’s shoes. A mosque is not the home of God, for God lives everywhere; it is the house of a community that comes to mingle and kneel in prayer before it disperses to a hundred homes. We cannot enter without the permission granted through a ritual prayer to nature, spirits, ancestors and the One who has given us the sensitivity to enjoy the wonders of life and the sense to survive its burdens. But once inside the space, you belong here forever. There is never a need for a second welcome. Outside on the lawns perfumed by the environment a gentle rain floats like overweight mist, reminding me of school, Shakespeare and Portia describing the quality of mercy to a businessman with a balance sheet in one hand and the law books in the other. The star of the morning is the leader of the newly-formed Maori Party, which has seven seats in Parliament. His patter is a hit because, I suspect, he never repeats an audience. He only repeats the jokes. But he is funny. The Maori, like any minority with a powerful past and an injured present, display the chips on their shoulder like a general showing off his epaulettes. But one of the great achievements of the present New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, is the conviction with which she is making her nation an inclusive, ethnic-equal society. There is still ideology left, even if you have to go to the end of the world to find it.

A fact and a factor made me feel uncomfortable during my first hours in the country. The fact was the weather. A grey, monotonous drizzle made me nostalgic for Indian sunshine. I knew that New Zealand had been recreated as a modern nation by British settlers, but did they have to bring British weather with them? What is the point of travelling across twelve time zones only to resettle under Scottish rain? The factor was a man in the hotel. If the weather was wet, the receptionist at Langham Hotel was cold. He brusquely informed me that I would have to wait three hours before I could get a room. That is absolutely the last thing my stomach wants to hear after a very long overnight flight. I tried weaselling. He stopped a decimal point short of being rude and ordered me off. I slunk off defeated. I would have accepted defeat but the very pleasant lady behind me in queue, a bureaucrat from Oslo, was given a room without any fuss at all.

Was this race or gender bias?

I am pleased to report that by the evening both the weather and my mood had cleared. The rest of the staff of this splendid hotel have been as pleasant and friendly as all New Zealanders. The rough edges of political manipulation have been left behind on Australian beaches. Helen Clark has not been defeated for nearly eight years but has begun to seem vulnerable, at least if the opinion polls in New Zealand are more accurate than the opinion polls in India. When defeat comes, as it must in any democracy, I suspect that she will have changed the political culture so much that a politician like Australia’s neo-virulent John Howard could never get elected in her stead.

I write this in a Turkish kebab and Coke shop on Queen’s Street. The top of the street is dominated by Koreans and Japanese, the Northeasterners of Asia, as they are known here. Two young Korean men in blonde hair, knee-waist jeans and fancy-label plain white T-shirts calmly light up a weed that is not tobacco. The streets drift towards Friday-afternoon crowds, the familiar cluster of brand-name shops and small stores and restaurants that confirm the charms of variety. The sun is out, warming the fluctuating temperature of an autumn breeze. The foyer of the hotel looks cheerful. I have not seen that frigid receptionist for two days. I hope they’ve sacked him, but I fear he may merely be on leave.

Maoris dance with their fingers, which flutter as rapidly as the wings of a small bird. Women sway to the music and song of lilt and emotion, plaintive or happy, as if time moved outside the pace of life. Men suddenly jump out of this serenity. Their voice becomes guttural, and they thump their fleshy breasts as the rhythm switches into battle mode. A leader pumps men and music into battle mode. But anger is exhausting. Almost imperceptibly, the women return to the forefront, and one is drawn, reassured, to that mesmerising peace of the fluttering hands below the hip.

We are in Auckland for a conference on an Alliance of Civilisations, one of the worthy causes that the United Nations periodically takes up to keep the righteous engaged. Be that as it may, surely a prerequisite for such a gathering is that the host must be civilised. Both New Zealand and her Prime Minister score top marks. They are neither coy nor cloying; the friendliness is just right. Helen Clark also understands that alliance, like charity, begins at home. She starts her speeches in fluent Maori. Dr Allan Bell of the Auckland University of Technology, a reincarnation of Professor Henry Higgins, has been recording New Zealand’s dialects for three decades. He has published evidence that his country may remain loyal to the Queen of England but is finally becoming independent of the Queen’s English. Radio and television broadcasters, who do so much to shape accents, once used to follow the BBC template. That was the definition of respectable standards. Now, New Zealand rules. Maori words like ‘iwi’, ‘mana’ and ‘whanau’ have attained currency and it’s no longer ‘fish and chips’ but ‘fush and chups’. ‘Bed’ is out and ‘bid’ is in. English was global long before globalisation. It flourishes because it is being nationalised everywhere. There are no discontents in its content.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Where is Nowhere?

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Where is nowhere?

A sectarian simmer in Punjab bursts into violence; in the patterns of that fire, the shadows of an old ghost begin to dance. Slogans of Khalistan are heard, albeit from the margin. But that is sufficient for a very senior officer of the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi to invite some journalists for a briefing. Pakistan, he whispers, is behind all this. The official will not permit his name to be disclosed.

A killer bomb, activated through a cell phone, goes off during Friday prayers at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, the largest mosque in Asia. Even before the echo of the blast has ebbed, "intelligence" officers of the police are talking to the media, once again on an off-the-record basis. Where do their fingers point? All the usual suspects, please, line up. Pakistan, take your place at the head of the line.

This is not unique. A dozen bombs go off in Pakistan for every one in India, and guess whom they blame for eleven of those incidents? India. The administrative systems of India and Pakistan have only one ideology left: Alibiology. They have become addicted to alibis, because no faith could be easier to follow. It is almost a miracle that the Pakistan establishment has not blamed India for the recent demonstrations and street carnage that have whittled the credibility of the Musharraf government.

Media in either country doesn’t waste any time in turning an unattributable whisper into a screeching headline. Public memory is conveniently short. For every investigation that reaches somewhere, a hundred go nowhere. "Nowhere" is a large cavern in the public unconsciousness, into which all that is unpleasant is dumped, where the dead are forgotten while life goes on.
No one has time for inconvenient questions. If the police theorists are so convinced that this or that organisation was behind the Mecca Masjid outrage, why did they not do something to prevent it? They may not have succeeded in preventing the incident, but is there any evidence that they tried to do so based on a tip or a clue? And if they were taken by surprise, why do they offer knee-jerk explanations before they have had any time to investigate?

Why does a senior official of the MEA in Delhi or Islamabad choose the comfort of anonymity when blaming the other? If he has serious evidence of complicity, he should hold a news conference. The Delhi official isn’t blaming his own Prime Minister, so why the secrecy?
Islamabad and Delhi should formally permit their intelligence bragging rights, instead of all this pretend-mysteriousness. They have a legitimate and even honourable role to play in the defence of people’s lives. If they can trace and implicate masterminds or puppeteers intent upon spreading havoc among the innocent, their efforts must be lauded.

One fears that the problem is not a veil over success, but inefficiency. The famed and feared ISI of Pakistan has the skills to instigate mayhem, but no ability to prevent what it has not started. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have absolutely no clue about the perceptible collapse of civil society that is now the most serious threat to political stability and the economic revival that had begun to get visible in the last two years. In the absence of rational analysis, and proposals that might help in the formulation of serious answers to genuine problems, they provide a bazaar list of "enemies" to their embattled President.

Generals never see the problem as the enemy. They see the enemy as the problem.

There is no shortage of crises in India, but India is blessed with a mature democracy. If those in power don’t tackle the problem, the problem sweeps them out of power. A Constitution, and a mature political process in which elections are being further sterilised from corruption each year, ensure that there is a peaceful method with which to deal with leaderships that have lost their way, or lost their credibility.

Pakistan’s dilemma is not complex. There is no sanctity to the Constitution, or the rule of law. A figurehead of the judiciary may have become the symbol of the fight against a President who emerged from a coup, but the Supreme Court has always provided the necessary justification to cover the nakedness of any leader dressed in nothing but a silver pistol. De facto has been given the veneer of de jure. If Pakistan’s Epaulette-and-Moustache Presidents take the Supreme Court for granted it is because the record permits them to do so.

When was a coup in Pakistan ever declared illegal? When is a coup ever legal?

In practice, Pakistan’s political system has found an entry route for Army chiefs to come to power. But it has not discovered an exit route. Dictators have lasted much longer than democrats because there is no system of accountability. Civilians see the mood of the people when they look ahead; they see the hunger of the armed forces when they look behind their backs. They are hemmed in from both sides. The dictator shuffles off potential troublemakers (also known as corps commanders) behind his back, and ignores the people in front. He can concentrate on making speeches that sound good in America. Happy days are here again!

Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan had to fail in war to lose their jobs; Zia ul Haq was helped towards the Almighty by an almighty accident that still remains unsolved. Fortunately for Pervez Musharraf, he failed in a war with India before he led the coup, so he can’t be punished for that. What next? He has taken the battle to the streets, encouraging his vigilantes to inform the country that there is a King’s Party in this confrontation. Will he now contest and win a dubious election by disqualifying anyone who can defeat him?

A vulnerable government is the privilege of a democracy. Indian Opposition parties have the legal and moral right to hope that any incumbent will fall, and they can succeed in the ensuing election. But if a government is unstable, the system is stable. The nation is stable. There is the excitement of peaceful dramatic change, as took place at the national level three years ago, and has just occurred in Uttar Pradesh. Losers get depressed, and then gear up.

If dictatorship is the institutionalisation of ego, as today in Pakistan; then democracy is the destruction of ego. This summer’s road from Lucknow to Delhi is littered with punctured egos. The punctures will heal, of course, because democracy has restorative powers as well. It is both the bite and the serum.

Alibiology is less excusable in a democracy, and therefore grates all the more when Indian officials content themselves, and hope they can fool the country, with an excuse. There are certainly forces inimical to India, based in or sponsored by elements in Pakistan. But they would achieve nothing if we in India did not have weaknesses that could be exploited. Nor is it very wise to keep suggesting that the internal security systems of India are so weak that they can be continually and easily penetrated by a foreign agency.

Vigilance is the price of liberty, true. But vigilance needs three eyes, only one of which looks across the border. Two must look within.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Exit Polls

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Exit Polls

How much money can you make by selling a mirage? Quite a lot, actually, if you dress it up in jargon and put on a suitably pseudo-serious face before a television camera. When facts
ventually interfere, the smart thing to do is disappear, your fat cheque safely tucked away.No reality check has ever persuaded a psephologist to part with his cheque.

One presumes that the reputations of all highly-paid, self-professed opinion pollsters who predicted a hung Assembly in Uttar Pradesh are hanging from the nearest lamp post, but I doubt it. This tribe’s ability to rise from the grave is near-miraculous. They are helped by the fact that opinion polls now fall into two categories. Both make money. The first is unscrupulous. The crooks, fortunately, are few though not far between. They come to secret arrangements with politicians, massage the "research" to suit these funders and get the "results" broadcast for a fat fee which is distributed as necessary. Politicians pay because they continue to delude themselves that lies can create positive vibes in the middle of elections.

The legitimate polls also make money all around, since television ratings rise when exit and opinion polls are announced, which means lucrative advertising. We in the print media are the ultimate suckers, because we print these poll-results without even getting the advertising.

The Election Commission is now in control of every minute detail of electioneering. The Uttar Pradesh poll, stretched over a month, was an exercise in patience and tenacity, above all else. The result of such thorough, and even intrusive, management is transparency and honesty. No one can now claim that the voting was rigged, or that booths were captured by the ruling party with the help of the administration. Even as late as in January, this was the charge behind the attempt to dismiss the Mulayam Singh government. But the Election Commission seems helpless over opinion polls. France had a general election recently. News of exit and opinion polls were banned on the eve of elections and during polling.

Exit polls are just that much more dangerous, since they purport to be more accurate. But utterly erroneous information is passed off repeatedly as credible. One example, that of the market leader in polls, will serve.

NDTV gave the Bahujan Samaj Party between 117 and 127 seats after its last exit poll. A three per cent margin of error either way is acceptable in such predictions. But to get the number wrong by 80 to 90 seats in an Assembly of 403 is breathtaking. At the other end of the electoral ladder, NDTV gave Congress between 35 and 45 seats. The Congress got half the higher estimate. NDTV must have been doing its research in some state other than Uttar Pradesh, or perhaps in some unwarranted state of mind. They projected the BJP as getting, with allies, between 108 and 118 seats. BJP president Rajnath Singh might today be strutting on all ten toes if his party had delivered what NDTV promised. In fact, its seats were less than half. Others were not much better: Star TV gave BJP a very precise 108 seats.

It is a terrible drop from inflation to deflation.

BJP and Congress claim to be national parties and, fuelled by dream merchants in Delhi, fantasise about a two-party system in which they are the only two parties. Let us check their status now in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has only one MLA per one and a half district. The Congress has one MLA for every three districts. If you take the Rae Bareli and Amethi seats out, the average might get worse.

Both national parties played their aces. The BJP leadership distributed hate-Muslim CDs. The Congress put all its investment in the Family Charisma Bank. It is curious how elitist India accuses leaders like Mayawati and Mulayam of being "anti-modern" and "backward" when the real medieval politics is being done by BJP and Congress. Voters, both Hindu and Muslim, flocked towards the inclusive electoral strategy of Mayawati. The BJP and Congress did not even merit the limited joy of being runners up. "Maulana" Mulayam was an easy Number 2.

Will UP help BJP grow up? The drawing power of the Congress Family drew three fewer seats after five years in Opposition in Lucknow and three years of power in Delhi. Draw your own conclusions.

An interesting pattern is emerging at the national electoral level, and it will be bad news for the "nationals" if it sustains till the next general elections. The Congress and the BJP are, for the most part, only exchanging seats between each other, in states where third parties do not exist: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and, to a lesser extent since it is a battle of alliances there, in Maharashtra. Wherever there are regional parties, they either dominate (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu) or the "nationals" are turning into the tail of the train rather than the engine. The BJP needs Nitish Kumar in Bihar and the Congress will lose in states like Jharkhand and Haryana if it does not voluntarily give more seats to regional parties. The Congress could even become vulnerable in Punjab in the next polls if a non-Akali regional party emerges. In Maharashtra the Congress needs Sharad Pawar more than vice versa. Deve Gowda holds the balance in Karnataka and M. Karunanidhi may invite Congress leaders to his celebrations but will not let the party into the ministry despite being dependent on the Congress vote. The BJP is dead in Orissa without Navin Patnaik. If the Marxists, in effect a regional party in Bengal, are at all threatened, it is by another regional party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul.

The space for both Congress and BJP is shrinking, and they have only themselves to blame. The former has become strangely trapped in an economic philosophy imposed by a triumvirate that often seems more loyal to the World Bank than to the Indian voter. The BJP remains mired in a partition mindset.

The Indian voter has two demands: economic justice and social cohesion. Both are essential if the Indian nation has to reach its own high standards of expectation. Political parties are no longer leading the voter forward; the voter is setting the standards for political success. The voter is more mature than the party, and that is excellent news.

But perhaps nothing is more enjoyable than the manner in which the voter fools the opinion pollsters. I presume the fieldwork is done over many many thousands, as repeatedly advertised in order to bump up the credibility of the projection. I assume that no one fudges the answers in the legitimate sector of opinion polling. Then how does it all go so wildly, comically wrong? Quite simple actually. The voter sees the young man turning up with a detailed questionnaire, courteously helps the young chap earn his daily bread by filling all the blanks as required. The relieved young person goes away. And the voter bursts out laughing. He has taken his revenge upon television.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Time to have a baby

Byline by M J Akbar: Time to have a baby

A remarkable coincidence, and two surprising decisions from asymmetrical orbits coalesced to put two honest men into the highest offices of India. Both were patriotic, professional, prudent, educated and unambiguously clean. Abdul Kalam became President of India in the summer of 2002 and Manmohan Singh was sworn in as Prime Minister in the summer of 2004. Both had high profile careers, one in defence weaponry and the other in finance, but neither was a public figure, or had a mass profile. Both are household names today. What do Indians think of them now?

President Kalam’s popularity ratings, one hears, are around 80%. For the life of me I cannot imagine what the remaining 20% have against him. It couldn’t be his hair, could it?
He has done everything right as President.

He has protected the national interest whenever called upon to do so, subtly, calmly, with neither rhetoric nor exploitative sentiment. He has remained above partisan interests, whether in the coarse game of Assembly manipulation, or while gently deflecting the government towards a more reasonable approach in the Indo-US nuclear deal. His patriotism found a wonderful mission: in teaching the young that their finest personal investment was in the future prosperity of their nation.

He was a marginal presence in the nation’s consciousness when he entered Rashtrapati Bhavan. He will be genuinely missed if he leaves it after only five years. Dr Manmohan Singh has taken just three years to become a disappointment. His career is a text book case of good intentions not being good enough. You can’t be pregnant all your life. You also have to have the baby.

The Punjab results were a direct indictment of the Prime Minister’s performance. Dr Singh is the first Prime Minister from an Indian minority community, and yet could not deliver the votes of his fellow Sikhs in sufficient numbers to his party. Muslim faith in him, which had soared three years ago, has sagged visibly after his failure to deliver on the Sachar report. The Prime Minister raised hopes when he publicly promised a massive increase in government spending on development for projects that would benefit minorities. When the Budget was announced a few months later, we discovered that the finance minister had actually cut spending on this head. The Prime Minister did nothing, and has now relapsed into his all-too familiar, and convenient silence.

Once again, lots of pregnancy, but no baby.

His reputation for honesty has also soiled just a bit. No one in his senses believes that he is personally culpable. But a very damaging question is being asked. It is common knowledge that corruption is rife in the present Union Cabinet. Of what use is the Prime Minister’s honesty if he is presiding over a dishonest government, with some ministers collecting money with both hands, and a couple of feet as well? Dr Manmohan Singh’s silence is a form of abetment, and worse. He has compromised in order to preserve his job. It is guilt by association.

In a smart piece of positioning, Dr Singh has preserved a waterproof image despite 16 years in the thick, and occasionally muck, of politics. The contradictions are beginning to chip at the waterproofing.

For starters, you cannot be above politics in a job that demands consummate political skills. Manmohan Singh has all the virtues required of his principal secretary when he needs the qualities of a Prime Minister. He is the first Prime Minister of India who cannot communicate with the voter. He goes to election meetings only because he has a wide-bodied aeroplane at his command, paid for by the voters. No one listens to him. Drummed up crowds fidget or yawn, eager to be released from ennui. Rahul Gandhi has to do the campaigning for him in Uttar Pradesh. Manmohan Singh has power without responsibility for the vote, which leads to disconnect with the voter.

It is now common to suggest that the Congress vehicle is stranded because it has two steering wheels. But consider another possibility. If Dr Singh had the qualities of a political leader, with the flexibility and communication skills needed to move forward, this vehicle might have acquired two engines instead of two steering wheels. Instead, Mrs Sonia Gandhi has had to write letters to the Prime Minister recording her objections to government policy. This means, at least in her mind, that even the single engine of this vehicle is stalling because the government has either gone into neutral gear, or is in reverse. Why else would she place her qualifications on record?

The voter has no sympathy for excuses. He — or, more important, she, for the really decisive voter is now the woman — elected a government that would deliver, not one that would dither.
The allies of the Congress know that they will have to share the costs of failed leadership without having been given the most important portfolios in this government. Their unease is seeping through in their body language, and is getting vehement in their private language.

When the Left and the BJP set aside their almost irreconcilable differences and came together on the floor of the Lok Sabha over the blatant attempt by some American legislators to pressurise Delhi over our relations with Iran, they were sending two messages, one explicit, and the other implicit. The first, obvious, one was to the United States: India is not, and never will be, a client state. The second message was unstated, and might even be denied if you discuss it. But they were also sending a signal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has eroded his credibility by seeming to cut corners in his hurry to push the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is true that Dr Singh was badly served by over-reaching bureaucrats who undersold the problems and oversold the advantages, but advisers don’t hang around to take the blame.

It is always bad news for a Prime Minister when Parliament feels that it has to draw a line he cannot cross on a matter of such vital national interest. A Prime Minister should know such cut-off lines out of a combination of instinct, knowledge, experience and honest advice.

Perhaps the reason why President Kalam smells of roses after five years in Delhi is because his job required him to be above politics. President Kalam was comfortable in this upper zone; he even enjoyed its temperate climate. A Prime Minister has no such luxury. He is a lung of Indian democracy, and democracy is a political nervous system. The Prime Minister is the executive authority of India, the first among equals in his Cabinet; he is not above his Cabinet. He cannot claim the Nobel Prize for Clean Hands while some of his Cabinet colleagues are mopping up the stuff from a swill.

It is possible that Dr Manmohan Singh’s preferred virtues would make him a better President that Prime Minister. President Kalam has laid down a condition for re-election that is virtually impossible for the political system to meet. He wants all three principal blocs, the Congress, BJP and the Left, to support him for a second term. Only a very remote set of compulsions could engineer that.

The President’s Palace is going to be vacant soon. Dr Manmohan Singh might consider changing his address. President Kalam has got us used to a soft-spoken, gentle, decent, likeable, honest, prudent, professional, courteous, educated person at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Dr Singh fits the job description down to every comma.