Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Speck of Dust

Byline by M..J. Akbar: A Speck of Dust

We no longer expect politicians to write, but we still expect them to read. There will probably come a moment when they will neither read nor write. The descent from Jawaharlal Nehru will then be complete.

The lady who would be President, Mrs Pratibha Patil, clearly did not write the speech she delivered at Udaipur to mark the 467th birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap. What is less clear is whether she had paused to read the transcript. In any case, she has offered a view of history that might have been entertaining were it not so frivolous.

Muslim women, she claimed, began to wear the veil during Mughal rule in order to "save" themselves from "Mughal invaders".

Was this a slip of the tongue? No. Your tongue can slip for a sentence, or even two; it cannot slip for two paragraphs.

Mrs Pratibha Patil was obviously referring to the face-veil, rather than a head-cover. Why? Well, to begin with, Mrs Patil covers her own head in public. She certainly chose to do so when she came to Delhi to be presented as the ruling coalition candidate for President. Check out the pictures.

I am no advocate of the face-veil, a practice that was borrowed by the Arab Umayyads in the seventh century from their elite counterparts in the Christian Byzantine and Zoroastrian Sassanid lands that they conquered. Covering the head with a scarf, or the pallav of a sari, or a dupatta or a scarf, but keeping the face visible, is the more traditional expression of modesty among women across faith lines, as is evident in the manner that Mrs Patil wears her sari. I do not know if this will surprise her, but when Muslim women go to Mecca for Haj, they are not obliged to cover their faces. Iran has women in its armed forces: they carry guns and do not cover their faces. They only cover their heads.

The logic of Mrs Patil's thesis runs thus: Indian culture has always respected women; the face-veil - which is an affront to self-respect - system began during Muslim rule to "save women from Mughal invaders". Muslim women used the face-veil to hide their beauty, to avoid becoming targets of Mughal lust.

From one angle, of course, I suppose those who are interested in protecting the reputation of "Muslim rule" should be delighted. The Mughals were the last Muslims to invade India, not the first. If, as per the history of India written by Mrs Patil, the veil began only during Mughal rule, one must infer that there was no need for it before. This is high exoneration of all Muslim invaders prior to the Mughals. The ghost of Mahmud of Ghazni is probably writing a thank-you note to a possible future President of India at this very moment.

I do not want to show the tiniest bit of disrespect to Mrs Patil, who has made the dignity of women the central point of her manifesto. But I have to add, with the greatest respect, that she was talking utter rubbish.

Purdah existed among the upper echelons of Indian society long before the Mughals came to our country; and it existed, in different forms, in the ruling Rajput families. This did not mean that women were not respected; it was part of the elite culture of the time. In addition, the practice of sati was prevalent among Rajputs.

Mrs Pratibha Patil did not mention this, not because she forgot to, but because she was selling an argument.

Part of her motivation was, I suspect, political. She was a surprise nominee; in fact, it was a male Patil, home minister Shivraj, who did most of the running till the last minute. Since loyalty could hardly be advertised as her principal virtue, a politically correct justification had to be drummed up. Gender was the easy way out. The bureaucrat who wrote the speech may have shoved in the theme of "women's self-respect" to bolster the new image. Nothing in Mrs Pratibha Patil's record suggests that she has ever launched a crusade against the veil during many decades in public life.

The issue is not that the facts are wrong: politicians who barely read and rarely write are prone to such mishaps. The problem is a mindset in which the most obvious communal overtones never raise the slightest inner doubt.

The Pratibha Patil thesis is a perversion of history in which the Muslim has been vilified into an iconic invader and rapist. It is not an accident that the Mughals, arguably among the most enlightened and sophisticated of the many dynasts between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, are being vilified, for to destroy their reputation is to distort in public memory the finest examples of political synthesis and shared culture.

Mrs Patil was not a politician bending the rules in search of votes when she made the speech; she was governor of a state of the Indian union, and guardian of a Constitution in which secularism is a basic principle.

India's political class has long lost the sensitivity that would have once made such a speech a touchstone. Her invidious reference to 'Mughal lust' has already been shrugged off as a speck of dust that can be dusted off without any damage to the official ideological lustre.

I wonder what Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh would have said if President Kalam had ever made a speech like this.

But little specks of dust are like little drops of water. They add up. The Mumbai Central District Cooperative Bank has sent a notice to a sugar factory in Jalgaon, which was floated by Mrs Patil, for default on a loan of Rs 17.70 crores. The notice is not part of a conspiracy; it was sent following a Nabard directive to cooperative banks to recover bad debts after all efforts to do so had failed. People with political clout tend to believe that they will never be held accountable for loans taken from a government bank.

Whatever this may say about Mrs Pratibha Patil, it does say one thing about the Congress: the simplest form of due diligence was not done when nominating a candidate for the office that may not be the most powerful in the country, but certainly remains the most honourable.

By coincidence, the 39th volume of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, edited by the eminent historian Mushirul Hasan, reached me while I was writing this column. On 31 October 1957, Nehru sent a note to his Principal Private Secretary about a riot in 1956, at a place called Orai, in Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the Congress. "As a result of this, I am told that twelve Muslims and two Hindus were killed," writes Nehru. "According to the report I have received, no step was taken against any Hindu, although so many Muslims were killed. A case was, however, started against the Muslims, and recently judgment has been given in this case, convicting about nine of them. I should like you to get full particulars of this case from the Uttar Pradesh Government. A copy of the judgment should also be obtained. You should enquire from them also, if any steps were taken against any Hindus because of these disturbances at Orai."
Nehru spent his life in service, to his nation, and to the minorities whose pain he felt deeply. Many Prime Ministers later, service has changed to lip service. If Mrs Pratibha Patil becomes President, even that lip will be removed from service.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Watering Hole

Byline by M.J. Akbar :Watering Hole

Governments do not generally fall; they erode. They dislocate before they disappear, slip by little slip.

A government is the opposite of a jigsaw puzzle: it starts as a jigsaw without the puzzle, and ends as a puzzle without any jig. It begins not as a jumble of little pieces in a bag that has to be laboriously put together, tile by tile, but as a fully formed scenic panorama, offering bright weather, fresh flowers, flush fields, and smiling children. Then, without anyone paying much attention, a nose falls off here, the sky gets punctured there, the balmy weather is sabotaged by a bad monsoon, inflation twists the smile.

When you take another look at the jigsaw, disarray has replaced array. Ambitious ministers, once so brilliant in their plumes, are plucking one another’s feathers with leaked documents. Bureaucrats pick up the tatters and redefine policy to their own ends, certain that distraught ministers will have neither the time for nor the interest in governance.

No one hears the sound of a falling chip, for its passing whisper gets lost in the surrounding din. Not all chips are equal. Those on the margins of the larger picture do not affect its core. But when a chip from the core disintegrates, or falls, it leaves a hole through which you can see the heart of government, and scan its ideology. One such small chip fell off last Friday evening and exposed the dangerous myopia that has seized the Manmohan Singh government.

Finance minister P. Chidambaram told a television channel on Friday that he could not understand why people did not mind paying ten or twelve rupees for a bottle of mineral water but made such a fuss when the price of wheat went up by one or two rupees. That throwaway remark revealed the mind of a government that has forgotten how it came to power, one that was elected by India, but cannot think beyond the logic of the elite.

Bottled water is the privilege of less than one Indian in a hundred. At the height of this baking summer we in this newspaper published a picture of children in Madhya Pradesh slaking their thirst in punishing heat by drinking from a public hose. That is how the poor of urban India get their water, and along with it the killer diseases that become little more than a paragraph in media. Rural India still, by and large, depends on nature. We have systematically turned some of our greatest rivers into polluted swamps for most of the year and destroyed the environment that feeds the rain cycle. On 21 June, S.K. Mishra, the eminent former civil servant who now chairs INTACH, and Prof. M.G.K. Menon, scientist and ex-Union minister who is the current president of the India International Centre, are conducting a discussion on the tragedy of the historic Yamuna, being strangled to death by pollution, encroachment and misrule. Their theme? "All this is happening because of the nexus between various vested interests and those who are directly responsible for protecting the river and its environs…"

Modern India’s extraordinary destruction of its water supply, in both quality and quantity, is collective suicide. The water that came from the goatskin of a bhishti of the Gunga Din variety a hundred years ago, or was offered in cool earthen pitchers fifty years ago, was better than the squalid liquid that emerges from a contemporary municipal tap. Indians who vote drink this water; Indians who rule drink bottled water, or buy small water-purification devices for their homes. Ten rupees, it is perfectly true, does not matter to the ruling class. But a rupee matters to the poor who eat wheat. The finance minister’s statement was not the view of an insensitive mind. It was the remark of a mind that has forgotten the difference.

Fortunately for governments, such erosion-chip-sentences do not add up to news: the television channel did not even challenge the comparison. It was not tantamount to a finance ministry policy statement either. But it does reveal the priorities of a person who plays a crucial role in policy formulation. And somewhere in that great collective consciousness of public opinion, it registers.

Paradoxically, the big story does not have as much impact on events as the small story. The headlines at the moment belong to the elections for the next President of India. The ruling coalition’s nominee is in effect Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s candidate. Her victory will be Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s victory, but her defeat will be every other partner’s defeat as well. That is the loop which has been effectively used by the Congress leadership to round up the allies behind Mrs Pratibha Patil, a lady who has climbed the charts from obscurity to limelight with a rapidity that rejuvenates Delhi’s faith in astrology.

A big story may have a dramatic beginning but it generally has a pretty tame ending, because every player knows the self-destructive powers of drama. Those who have something to lose take great care to protect what they possess. Whether their stakes are high or low, they are happy as long as they have a seat at the table. They are still in the game. They have to have a very strong reason to upset the stability of the table. It is certain that the table will topple eventually. Already a couple of props have been placed under a leg or two to prevent it from wobbling. But why cut off a leg before the life of the table comes to its natural end in five years?
The big story, with its tame ending, can preserve a government, but it is the small story, with a twist in its tail, that determines the fate of an election.

It is curious, therefore, while all the powerful leaders spend so much time on the management of the big story, no one has any time for the small story. The Congress spent a month tossing at least twenty names into the air, waiting for some to be shot down by allies, some to sit still on the tarmac, unable to fly, and yet others to float until they could be brought down by lame excuses. Raisina Hill is still echoing with the yodel of broken hearts. The hearts might have been of variable size, but they belonged to some pretty heavyweight egos. The more adept will swallow their bitterness and soldier on, but it will hurt. For the senior contenders this is the last dream. It hurts to walk through the live ashes of your lost ambitions. One Congress leader has publicly said that if Mrs Indira Gandhi were alive she would have made him President. He believes it, so it is true for him.

When was the last time that the Congress, and the ruling alliance — to be fair, any alliance, including the preceding NDA — spent a month, or even a week, discussing how to bring clean water to every Indian, and a clean environment to every river?

If all goes well for Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, their candidate will become President in July, and the Prime Minister will make a speech in August and feed the hungry with a reshuffle in September. Parliament will sit, MPs will stand; a Budget will be presented before anyone realises it is the last Budget of the government. The politics of elections will then begin.

They will fight the elections with a slogan in one hand and a bottle of mineral water in the other.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Past Forward

Byline by M J Akbar: Past Forward

On the morning of the results of the elections for President of India in 1969, Mrs Indira Gandhi had two speeches ready, one to be delivered in case her candidate, Varahagiri Venkata Giri, won, and the other to be delivered in case he lost.

The second was a resignation speech. But Giri won, thanks to about 10,000 second preference votes cast in his favour by a barely-remembered politician, Chaudhry Charan Singh, who became Prime Minister in 1979 with Mrs Gandhi's help and lost his job without ever facing Parliament when Mrs Gandhi withdrew support within a matter of weeks.

Giri's victory in 1969 launched the Indira Gandhi era in Indian politics. Before that she was her father's daughter; after that she became the head of a family that has given us at least one other Prime Minister and remains in politics in an effort to provide more. It is likely of course that Indira Gandhi would have called for early elections in 1969 and might have pulled off the kind of victory she did in 1971, but not probable. She used the authority she derived from the victory in the Presidential elections to offer the country a new legislative, left-leaning programme, and it was this that caught the imagination of the poor and enabled her to base her 1971 campaign on the remarkable, and undefeatable slogan: "Woh kahte hain mujhe hatao, main kahti hoon Garibi Hatao (They say, remove me; I say, Remove Poverty)".

Without a spate of decisions like bank nationalisation and the abolition of princely privileges, this claim would have been unsustainable. Indira Gandhi broke the mould of politics as usual.
Does this mean that a government that cannot ensure the victory of its candidate in the election to the office of President must resign? No. More specifically, Dr Manmohan Singh will be under no compulsion to resign if the Congress candidate does not, by some mischance, become President of India in July.

Mrs Indira Gandhi was vulnerable only because she had taken a risk so volatile that it amounted to a gamble with her political future. She had split the Congress after the announcement of an official Congress candidate and set up her own nominee, V.V. Giri, as an independent. Giri wasn't much of an independent; he was completely dependent on Mrs Gandhi, but that takes us to another story. The culture of the President's office shifted subtly but sharply; Presidents became personally beholden to their benefactors.

The Prime Minister of India is in office through the will of only the Lok Sabha, whose members are directly elected by voters. A government does not need a majority in the Rajya Sabha, whose members are elected indirectly, to survive. The electorate for a Presidential poll extends not only to the Rajya Sabha but also the Assemblies in the states, which have no part to play in the creation of a Union government. The President has a diffused constituency, relevant to the diffused nature of his responsibilities. The Prime Minister has a specific constituency and he lives or dies by the will of just the Lok Sabha. A Prime Minister's majority could be on a totally different trajectory from the President's.

In fact, this is the emerging scenario of the next few years. Power at the Centre will have little relation to power in the States. At one point, the Congress ruled 15 states while the NDA was in office at the Centre; within three years of reaching Delhi, the Congress has been reduced to Andhra, Assam, Haryana, Delhi and a bubble called Goa.

There is one simple message: Big Power politics is over in Indian democracy. Or, more accurately, it has been suspended until the Small Powers self-destruct, which may take a while. Decisions will have to be made through consultation and cooperation, rather than imposition.
However, despite being honed down to a Medium Power the Congress still cannot quite get out of the Big Power mentality, whether in government or as a party. We have just witnessed the faintly ridiculous sight of the Manmohan Singh government describing India as a Big Power, and dictating to Sri Lanka the policies it would prefer a "Small Power" to adopt. This is not the language of strength. It is the language a government uses when power has gone to its head, affecting it with cerebral malaria.

The Congress cannot take the Big Power approach towards partners in government either. Patronage is not the best way to protect a long-term relationship and an ego massage provides only very temporary relief from the headaches of co-existence. But if the Congress is tempted to insist upon a preferred party nominee, rather than a compromise consensus, for the next President, then there are good reasons.

The first, and most important, lies in the nature of the office. The President of India has, by the standards of Delhi, a sedentary job. His general requirement is to be nice, which, one may add, not all Presidents manage. But at crucial moments on the political calendar, he has to rise above partisan concerns and protect the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Very often, it is the spirit that determines what the interpretation of the letter should be. The most important of these moments for the next President will come after the next general elections, when the new government will be patched out of post-result alliances. It will lie in the President's will to give the first option on the basis of whichever standard he selects. It could be on the basis of the largest single party, or the largest bloc: the choice will be his.

The Congress is not buying the consensus-candidate bait for the very good reason that the consensus that is holding up the UPA will break down before the general elections. The Left, for instance, and the Congress will not have an electoral alliance. The Congress would prefer a President, therefore, who would be more sympathetic to its needs than to the interests of the Left Front after the results.

All political parties are, logically, playing the long game. This Presidential election is not about the politics of 2007, but about the potential formations of 2008 and 2009. If the Congress bends today, it might not be able to stand up next year. That is the thinking that has made Shivraj Patil the most likely candidate of the ruling coalition. Those who doubt his ability to win will hear a threat: the failure to elect Patil might bring down the government, and eliminate nearly two years of ministerial joy. That is not strictly necessary, at least according to the Constitutional fine print. If there is any erosion in moral authority, it will not trouble anyone's sleep. Political advantage, or necessity, is the glue that keeps a coalition together. No President, of any hue, would dare challenge a majority in the Lok Sabha.

There has been only one election for President that has shaped the future; every other President was elected without fuss, because he was a creature of the present, and represented the will of a consolidated establishment. The establishment was cracked open by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1969, and out of that split emerged President Giri. Comparisons are never exact, but this much is evident: the Centre is not holding in 2007. This too has become an election about the future.

Get ready to count those second preference votes.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Byline By M.J. Akbar : Speechless

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a thoughtful speech at the annual session of the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry for all you yokels who do not know what the country's most powerful acronym stands for). He asked the captain, majors, colonels and generals of Indian business to remember that those who are not members of the CII are also Indians. The speech was overdue by about three years, but no matter. The poor are ever grateful for the smallest mercies. He also made the speech to the wrong group. He should have begun with an audience of one.

There is an exclusive telephone system in Delhi meant only for the Very Very VVIPs called RAX. It is an internal line for the highest of the high in government. Dr Singh should have picked up his RAX phone and called his finance minister for a cup of tea. Over tea, stressing each sentence till there was no room for misunderstanding, Dr Singh should have read this speech to finance minister P. Chidambaram.Mr Chidambaram has produced three budgets. How come no one told him that Prime Minister Singh was interested in the welfare of the poor, and that he had thought out a Ten-Point Charter to save the nation? Each one of the issues raised by Dr Singh could have been addressed in the national budget. None was. Why should the CII listen to the Prime Minister when his own Cabinet could hardly care less?

Let's start with executive salaries, which Dr Singh condemns as "excessive remuneration" which can lead to "social unrest". Let us say that the owner-chief executive of a major company pays himself around Rs 2 crores as salary for working hard, and delivering profits as chief executive. He pays the maximum-slab tax on this sum. How much does the government pay him for being the owner? The latest issue of India Today informs me that in just one year, 2006-2007, Dr Singh's government permitted the shareholders of 1,100 companies to pocket Rs 40,000 crores in dividends. Did they pay any tax on Rs 40,000 crores? Not a rupee. Take out a calculator and do the math.

Why preach about Rs 2 crores a year, with tax, when you have handed out an untaxed Rs 40,000 crores a year to the members of the CII?Does Dr Singh listen to himself?

Just after he finished scolding the CII about salaries, he went on to ostentatious weddings, because the expenditure on them "insults the poverty of the less privileged, it is socially tasteful and it plants the seeds of resentment in the minds of the have-nots".

Very noble. Could we know how many such weddings Dr Singh has attended as Prime Minister, when he could have sent a polite (perhaps even warm) letter to the couple being wed ostentatiously, wishing them a very happy future but indicating that he would prefer not to give legitimacy to such vulgarity by his presence?

Why preach about vulgarity when you do not have the courage to reject it?

The sixth point of this Social Charter should have been Message Number 1, given the heavy damage that the continuous price rise has done to Congress fortunes. Dr Singh has named at least one of the villains. I had better quote the strong words used by the Prime Minister to avoid any accusation of misrepresentation. "The operation of cartels by groups of companies to keep prices high must end… It is even more distressing in a country where the poor are severely affected by rising commodity prices. Cartels are a crime and go against the grain of an open economy. Even profit maximisation should be within the bounds of decency and greed!"

I hasten to point out that the exclamation is the Prime Minister's, and not an intrusive addition from the fevered brain of a mere journalist.

What do we learn from this searing paragraph?

1: Cartels exist and control prices.
2: They are willing to push up prices even of basic commodities, the bread line of the poor.
3: Cartels are a crime.

So what has Dr Singh's government, now in power for over a thousand days, done to punish this crime? Even one gesture, executive or legislative, would be worth knowing. When an ordinary thief steals, the majesty of the law imprisons him and the less than majestic baton of the police turns his back into a sore mess. When a criminal cartel of businessmen, probably all CII members, robs the poor of food, and exceeds the limits of decency and greed (the Prime Minister's words, not mine), all that the Prime Minister of India can do is plead self-restraint! (This time the exclamation mark is mine.)

Why preach when you are so utterly helpless?

There is a certain inevitability about Point No. 9 on Dr Singh's Social Charter, because everyone in public life tends to use this cane as a crutch. May I quote? "Nine, fight corruption at all levels. The cancer of corruption is eating into the vitals of our body politic. For every recipient of a bribe there is a benefactor and a beneficiary."

How true. So who is this mysterious recipient? Trust me, without a recipient, with hand outstretched and power in his eyes, no one would pay a bribe. No business enjoys giving a bribe. He would rather spend the money on creature comforts. So who does he give the money to?

The politician. What has Dr Singh done to curb corruption in his government? Nothing. His personal honesty can no longer disguise the fact that money is being made at a rampant pace by many of his ministers. He knows this and is silent.Why preach about the mote in the other's eye when there is a beam in your own?Point No. 10 has an inevitable ring to it as well. He asks industry to "finance socially responsible advertising". I hope you know what "socially responsible advertising" means. It means taking out acres of full-page ads, paid for by taxpayers' money, telling the world how wonderful the government is. With Dr Singh's picture at the top, of course.

"India has made us," says the Prime Minister. "We must make Bharat." That is a good two-sentence one-liner, which rather forgets to mention that Bharat is no longer in any mood to be patronised. Bharat is setting Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and Bengal and Haryana on fire. Bharat has trapped both the BJP and the Congress in Rajasthan. Bharat has decided that downward mobility might be more useful than upward mobility: there is no point aspiring to be the equal of a Brahmin when the illusionary job quotas are for the depressed classes. Bharat's young men are brandishing country pistols in preparation for civil wars over employment. Bharat is indifferent to good intentions, and impervious to statistics. Bharat is ready to torch the super highways being built for the vehicles of 9% growth. The capital of India is Delhi. The capital of Bharat is the home of the farmer who has committed suicide.

Dr Manmohan Singh has given us three budgets since he became Prime Minister. All three were budgets for India. He has only one budget left. The election process will have begun by the time his budget of 2009 is due. Perhaps he can make the next budget for Bharat. As we have noted, the poor are always grateful for small mercies.