Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Nilgiri Viewpoint

Byline by M J Akbar: A Nilgiri Viewpoint

My name Kennedy, sir!" exclaimed the chauffeur of the black Ambassador driving me up to the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, from Coimbatore airport through blaring city, quiet woods and picture postcard valleys to a 6,000-foot high perch in the Blue Mountains. He glanced back to confirm my curiosity. "Born day Kennedy died. Father thought good man," he explained. Kennedy proved to be a driving encyclopaedia of Coimbatore’s virtues: four medical colleges, 28 engineering colleges et al, but was just a shade apprehensive about one statistic. A quarter of this Tamil city’s population was from next-door Kerala. "Kerala no space for legs," he added on a forgiving note.

As behoves a good chauffeur, Kennedy was an incisive analyst of national as well as regional politics. He approved warmly of Abdul Kalam, and turned 120 degrees to shrug at the worthy Tamilian scientist’s successor. He had heard about only one of the candidates for Vice-President, Najima Abdullah. Like any shrewd pundit, he laid out the analysis but reserved final judgment lest time might prove him wrong. He was eloquent about his state. Jayalalithaa had polled only 15 lakh votes less than the DMK-led alliance; Vijayakanth 28 lakh votes; in many constituencies Amma (Jayalalithaa) lost by less than a thousand votes, five hundred, even two hundred! I asked about the future. "DMK, free TV, two-rupee rice. TV going only to DMK worker, rice going to Karnataka, Kerala, selling twelve rupees."

I had no idea whether his figures were correct, but only a very courageous person would argue with the authority in his voice. When, like weasel journalist I did check later, these were the facts: Vijayakanth had launched the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam in September 2005, positioned himself as the "Karuppu MGR" or "Black MGR", contested 232 of the 234 seats, picked up 8.33% of the votes, or nearly 28 lakhs, and although he was the sole person in his party to actually win a seat he had taken enough votes away from Jayalalithaa to ensure her defeat.

The Nilgiris are a gentle range, the valleys undulating and verdant, the hills flecked with floating garlands of clouds. Builders have hammered smallpox marks on the face of nature with rows of tightly strung matchbox houses. The thirst for occasional pleasure and permanent status will of course only rise with economic growth, as greater numbers enter the holiday-home class. Aesthetics is not necessarily a handmaiden of success. Kennedy slows down and to the left spreads the green bowl above which Lawrence School, Lovedale, has been built. "Fully viewpoint," says Kennedy, and I agree. Other points are less than fully viewpoint. The town just before we enter the Army haven at Wellington is a mess of modern mismanagement: roads dark with broken tar, traffic at both cross and illogical purposes, policemen bored with their thin benefits, small shops that have miraculously preserved a sense of dust despite the generous sprinkle of rain. India changes as you cross the gates into defence discipline and budget. The tar isn’t different, but it is cleaner. It is a realm of order; work by the clock, leisure by the clock. Stuff happens outside. Things happen in Wellington.

Lt. Gen. Bhaskar Gupta (Gurkhas, as his distinctive soft hat confirms) offers a brisk and hospitable welcome. I learn, with added pleasure, that he is from Bengal; his father was in the Army as well. Naturally we slip into Bengali as often as circumstance and vocabulary will permit. He invites me for dinner at 2000 hours. Informal, even a kurta will do, although it is not advisable: the clouds can dissolve without notice, and the temperature can drop by ten degrees. The locals wear a sweater at all times. (Tourists from Tamil Nadu, in my considered view, come only to be able to wear a sweater.) But the lecture the next evening is tie and jacket, as is the reception at the Mess later. Abashed, I find my small suitcase is without any ties to formality. Who can conceive of a tie in half-baked Delhi? I am promised a regimental tie. Kennedy has the rest of the answers. We head off to Ooty to find a jacket.

A Shrine to Our Lady of Health, followed by a wine shop, the Holy Spirit Church, a notice welcoming the imminent presence of Charing Cross and a wax museum pave the way to Ooty. A lovely British cathedral dominates one side of the city; the other side of the road is largely the property of an Afghan called Baba Seth, who arrived many decades ago, possibly along with dry fruits and built up one of the finest car collections in the South. His heirs now live in the traditional manner, by selling off their inheritance, bit by bit. Inevitably, Charing Cross has gone native, and been renamed Charring Cross by more than one shop. I am directed towards the upper floor of Mohan’s where the lights are switched on but the dust left in place. A proud sign promises "Service Quality Value since 1947". The jackets are double-breasted, and top half of a suit. The salesman has no qualms about selling me only the top half. While the service is kind, the material of good quality, the suits were probably made in 1947. Stopping at the Savoy for a cup of tea, I ask for a table with a view. The young man is charmingly honest. "We don’t have a view," he says.

Before dinner Bhaskar points to distant lights from the lawns of his glorious residence at the top of his Wellington mountain. That is where Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw lives. The Army remembers its Field Marshal with respect and affection. The conversation with senior officers from all the services over dinner is splendidly convivial, and the morning alarm is birdsong. The past has been improved but not changed at the exquisite Wellington Club. Bhaskar Gupta was the last golfer to get a hole in one, says a scroll of honour. The librarian unearths just the book I was looking for, a 1941 biography of Gertrude Bell, the British civil servant instrumental in making Faisal king of the newly created Iraq in 1921, although Faisal had never set foot in the country before he accepted the British-sponsored crown. About 240 officers are selected each year for the Staff College course through a written examination. This splendid institution is gate to the haven of senior command.

The jacket was the easy part; I simply didn’t wear one. The regimental tie constituted summer formal. They didn’t buy my bluff; they were just being decent to a thoughtless civilian. The auditorium, everyone in dark suit, was stiff with discipline, but eyes and faces were relaxed. This was both reassuring — there was absolutely no chance of getting booed; and discomfiting — you don’t want your audience to be too polite either. There was no doubt about the interest. Islam and terrorism is not a favourite subject anymore; it seems to be the only subject anyone is interested in. I suppose the only reason I get invited is because I have some familiarity with both Islam and English grammar. Lots of people have one or the other. The questions were articulate, and rid of either ambiguity or hypocrisy, which was a relief because the answers were offered in the same vein.

Early next morning, before goodbye, I put on the regimental tie, albeit briefly. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tomorrow's Agenda

Byline by M J Akbar: Tomorrow’s Agenda

You can argue with success but can you win the argument? An argument is a conversation about detail, and the more minor the nuance the finer the argument. Success is a heavy blanket that tends to shroud details. A happy result diffuses blemishes and paints a positive gloss on reasons for victory. But an election in a functioning and even zealous democracy is only a link in a chain that connects to the next poll, and only an honest analysis of the reasons will determine whether they become seeds of future fortune, or misfortune.

The election for the President of India on 19 July had a limited electorate. Only legislators, either Members of Parliament or the Assembly, could vote.

No legislator voted for either Mrs Pratibha Patil or Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Each person voted for himself or herself. Those who abstained were equally motivated by self-interest.
The result was determined early on, when the Congress softly dropped the message that the defeat of its candidate would mean the collapse of the ruling alliance. For the allies, the risk was not worth any alternative game, for the very good reason that there was no alternative game. Neither was heroism on the agenda of the non-Congress parties outside government, whether in the chipped NDA or the confused Third Front. They preferred any possible local gain to a national objective. Shiv Sena opted for sect instead of its traditional political alliance with the BJP, and its leader Balasaheb Thackeray was duly rewarded with a formal visit by the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra, who decided that this was not the right moment to consider whether Mr Thackeray was communal or anti-Muslim. Another partner of the BJP, Mamata Banerjee, decided that she did not need to alienate any Bengali Muslim sympathy by voting for Shekhawat. With friends such as these, the BJP could hardly hope for fervour from possible bedfellows. Chandra Babu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh are anxious for Muslim support in the next election. Why would they risk the future, and a probable alliance with the Left, for a present that was at best uncertain? The cause was lost before the election was lost.

Neither character nor ideology, or what passes for ideology, made any difference to this limited electorate of legislators. The BJP believed that it could make corruption a decisive difference, which would sway legislators. Corruption is an issue with the man on the street, who is forced to give bribes in order to survive. It cannot be much of an issue among those more accustomed to taking money rather than giving it. At least one of the voters, a Member of Parliament, took a break from jail, his residence since arrest for kidnapping and murder.

The Congress made much out of the fact that their candidate would be the first woman to become President. But Mrs Pratibha Patil is going to Rashtrapati Bhavan by accident rather than design. Hers was the last name on a long list that was discussed among the UPA partners at much length. Women’s liberation would have been far better served if her name had been at the top of the list rather than at the bottom. A fluke cannot be converted into an ideological virtue.

All the problems of last-minute selection were immediately apparent. Even minimal due diligence would have disclosed a rather awkward proximity to political and fiscal improprieties that are easily hidden under a distant carpet in a small town, but can hardly escape the glare of a searchlight that is thrown on a presidential candidate’s track record.

Mrs Patil’s exotic habits extend to an optimistic conversation with a dead guru, but that may be less of a problem in a country where no respectable politician would be seen without his astrologer. In fact, there may be politicians searching for the dead guru now after her spectacular rise from anonymity to President. The only question now is whether she carries such a spirited view of destiny into the office that she will inhabit next week.

The outgoing President, Abdul Kalam, was an apolitical bachelor-rocket scientist who created a formidable constituency among children by promising them an India that would rise to the leadership of the world in the 21st century. Mrs Pratibha Patil will be more representative of today’s political class: holier than thou in public and shadier than thou in private.

Elections to the office of Prime Minister and Parliament are about power. Elections to the office of President are about dignity. That is an office that has been, more or less, preserved from the fetid whiff of politics ever since Dr Rajendra Prasad became the first President of the Republic of India. The new incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan brings with her a bit of malodorous baggage that will need some urgent spring cleaning to prevent the odour from spreading.

The new President will get the palace, but the loser could get the sympathy of the ordinary voter, who did not elect the President of India this week, but will certainly elect (or not) the electors of the President very soon. A Catch 22 lurking around the corner if the Congress does not take pre-emptive action. President Kalam has now made it virtually a part of the President’s duties to interact freely around the country, and meet children. I do hope that President Patil refrains from theorising about the barbaric Mughals and how they forced Indian women to wear veil for self-protection.

The Congress is making a mistake when it compares Mrs Patil to her opponent. The comparison that should worry the party is between Mrs Patil and the candidate that the Congress could have had. Home minister Shivraj Patil was the public frontrunner for weeks. I do not know what the Congress or the allies had against him, but he would have been an infinitely better choice. Pranab Mukherjee would have lent maturity and finesse to the highest office of the land. The UPA has selected an excellent candidate for Vice-President in Hamid Ansari, a distinguished diplomat who will, unlike Mrs Patil, happily declare his assets.

The shambles within the Opposition is already deflecting the Congress from its own inadequacies. There is a mood of mini-euphoria, and a feeling that the election for the Rashtrapati Bhavan is the prelude for re-election to Prime Minister’s House. General elections will be fought on different territory, by different rules, among different voters. A victory on Raisina Hill is no substitute for defeat in Uttar Pradesh. The agenda for today’s friendships, for example with Mayawati, is exhausted with this victory.

Next year’s agenda is a different one: who will dominate the next Parliament? All bets are open.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Any Questions?

Byline by M.J. Akbar : Any Questions?

Is the world under siege? Are Muslims under siege? If you know the answer, go collect your Nobel Prize for Peace, or at least an invitation to a seminar in Europe.

Is the world under siege by Muslims or are Muslims under siege by the world?

Now that the last hope of liberals, Indian Muslims, seem to have joined this world in Glasgow, or perhaps the world has reached their doorstep through Australia, the question has shifted yet further from an answer. Are we in that dark penumbra of history when the only response to a question is more questions?

Let me unburden myself of the one at the top of my mind. Which of the two is more self-defeating — the bruised breast of a self-flagellating Indian liberal who moans that all certainty has collapsed ever since Kafeel Ahmed drove a flaming Jeep Cherokee into Glasgow airport, or the crude fist of the zealot who gloats that you can put the Muslim anywhere but you cannot change his fundamental fanatic character? On consideration, the first is the bigger problem if only because nothing better could be expected from the second. Both positions are based on the same fallacy. They lay the sins of a few upon the head of the community.

Must all Indian Muslims be punished with collective guilt because a Kafeel or a Shakeel, provoked by memories and images that could easily range from Babri to Basra, has chosen to vent his rage through unacceptable violence upon innocents? Do we blame Hinduism or Hindus for the malevolence of those who killed and terrorised Muslims in Gujarat five years ago? We do not, and must not. Is there any reason why Muslims converge so easily into a category?
A related question: how Indian is the Indian who has left India? Think about the nuances before jumping into that dangerous pit called a conclusion.

Those of us who live in India, and have worked through the snide insults of the Sixties, the jeers of the Seventies, the doubts of the Eighties, the despair of the Nineties to arrive at the rising confidence of this decade have a right to some marginal satisfaction at our nation’s achievement. We have no right to be smug, though, as long as half a billion Indians go to sleep hungry, perhaps even famished. Our social fabric has strengthened, but is still vulnerable to wear and tear. The immediate future is going to be as difficult as the past, as the guns of Naxalites constantly remind us. But there is a question: is India of the 21st century only as strong as its weakest link?

If that is true then there is something untenable about the structure of success.
Cause and effect are such troublesome concepts. Which comes first? That is only the beginning of another round of questions. Cause and effect mutate, then interlink and spawn bastard progeny. In Iraq, George Bush has trapped America in the coils of linkages that have now escaped the limitations of logic.

Five years ago, there was only one terrorist in Iraq: Saddam Hussein. He terrorised his people, perhaps the worst form of terrorism. There was one reason for anger five years ago. Who can count how many reasons jostle for attention in a young person’s mind after four years of war, mayhem and occupation? Four million Iraqis have been displaced; the demographic equivalent in India would be more than 200 million uprooted. That is the scale of the human disaster. No one has an accurate count of the Iraqi dead. Bush spends a quarter million dollars a minute on just the war in Iraq. Read that again, it isn’t a mistake: a quarter million dollars every minute. That bill doesn’t include the costs in Afghanistan. Even the British appetite for Bush has ebbed, with a Cabinet minister saying that British policy will not be joined at the hip to Washington. British casualties are now approaching the rate suffered in the Second World War. And only 22% of Iraqis support the presence of Anglo-American troops.

Whatever the cause, such are the effects. As Paul Wood, defence correspondent for British television’s Today programme, said on Friday, "Who wants to be the last man to die for a lost cause?"

A newspaper is life distilled into still life. If the siege we mentioned is global, then perhaps a good checkpoint is a global newspaper through which we might ponder the mysteries of cause and effect.

The top of the front page of the 12 July edition is a moving photograph of a woman, her head bowed beyond sight, her tears hidden in the cusp of an anguished hand, sobbing on the coffin of a lost son or husband, one of the over 8,000 Muslims massacred by Serbs in Srebrenica twelve years ago, during the ethnic cleansing that began on 11 July 1995. They have just identified a fresh lot of 465 victims.

Where is one of the principal leaders of this genocide, a mass murderer called General Ratko Mladic? If you want to chat with him, down at the nearest cafe. If you are the European Union or America, then he becomes invisible. He cannot be found.

Below this picture is the story of Lal Masjid, a citadel of paranoia, xenophobia and terrorism masquerading as a mosque and madrasa. There are no Christians or Serbs in this battle in Pakistan, which has taken at least a hundred lives. This is a war between different attitudes to faith. And this is proof that terrorism is a fire that can also burn the hand of those who feed it.
To the left of this picture is a story about Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s top security official, a heavyweight in Angela Merkel’s Cabinet. He is demanding the detention of potential terrorists in Germany and the extermination (death, in simpler language) of their leaders outside Germany. Schauble, but naturally, will determine the definitions of "potential" and "leaders". He will not send anyone to exterminate General Ratko Mladic. He is on the lookout for Lebanese Muslims.

Turn the page. A suicide bomber kills 10, wounds 35 at a military camp in Algeria. Turkey complains about American arms in the possession of Kurdish secessionists. In Britain, four young Muslims, in their 20s, who "very nearly" succeeded in another outrage on the London Tube two years ago, are sentenced to forty years’ imprisonment at the very minimum. What will Iraq be like when they emerge from jail in 2045? Which passions will remain unspent four decades later?

Is the world under siege? Are Muslims under siege? If you know the answer, go collect your Nobel Prize for Peace, or at least an invitation to a seminar in Europe. To me, six of one looks suspiciously like half a dozen of the other.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Gordon's Knot

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Gordon’s Knot

On the evening of 5 July, with the unerring instinct of an ass, I missed a great opportunity to become a sycophant of the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. We were at the summer party of the Spectator in the garden of their new offices in London. There had been an unfamiliar stiffness at the entrance as invitation cards were checked, double-checked and ticked off in the manner of a functioning police station, but once inside it was again very British and very jolly. A very British fellow guest welcomed me to the Mad Mullah side of the fence upon being introduced and then described how his daughter had been converted to Islam. Apparently her maternal grandfather, a Muslim, had picked her up when she was born and whispered a prayer in her ear before he, a fulltime agnostic like most other Londoners, could do anything about it.

I escaped to the back of the garden, away from such moral dilemmas, to chat with old journalist friends, when a small gate near the hedge opened. Gordon Brown strode in without fuss and made straight for our group to greet my columnist friends. Here is what I wanted, very sincerely, to tell the new Prime Minister of Britain. "May I, Prime Minister, use the opportunity of this accidental meeting to say how relieved most of us are at the quiet, efficient, unfussy manner in which you have handled the terrorist attack at Glasgow airport? You refused to make political capital out of this nasty business. You set the tone for London and your country with your calm, reminding us that ‘phlegmatic’ is a British rather an English word. Within three days you actually reduced the threat perception level rather than pushing it up further. This may not seem very much, but the rest of us, particularly in the Muslim world, have seen how your predecessor, the unsurpassed drama queen Tony Blair, flooded every television channel with his quivering lip. Blair would have probably banned all transatlantic flights from Scotland, rushed across to visit George Bush, prohibited all carry-on luggage on every plane by now even while his home secretary debated the merits of more legislation to curb British freedoms."

In my imagination I see Gordon Brown listen intently, if modestly, to this fulsome praise, his eye lighting up only once, at the description of Blair as a drama queen, then summon the aide lurking pretty obviously two steps behind him, and ask him to take my mobile number so that he can sip at the fount of my genuflecting wisdom for the rest of his decade as Prime Minister.

Alas, the truth is different. I was more or less a silent bystander, not because one is tightlipped by temperament, but because I had absolutely no clue to the subject they were discussing. What do the high and mighty ask a Prime Minister at a social gathering? It would clearly be crass to discuss policy or war. They discussed the comparative merits of 11 Downing Street, Brown’s home as chancellor of exchequer for ten years, and 10 Downing Street, the famous official residence of British Prime Ministers. I know now, from the sidelines, that No. 10 has an extraordinary number of rooms behind that unassuming, even deceptively quiet facade. Had Brown actually moved in yet despite being PM for a week? No, not yet.

My cue to butt in. "You aren’t waiting until you’ve been properly elected, are you?" I suggested gingerly.

Over a lifetime of journalism, I have experienced my share of dirty looks. This one was brief, very brief, but unmistakeable. And a few seconds later Prime Minister Brown had moved on to a more salubrious group.

For those who might miss the point, Brown is a bit touchy about the fact that he has become PM through a mechanism of the House of Commons and the Labour Party, rather than the morally proper process of a general election. Be that as it may, let it not be said that a mere, fleeting dirty look put me off my admiration.

Within a week of being in office, Brown has altered the culture of power beyond recognition. I am writing this column on 7 July, the anniversary of the horrific London bombings that left 52 dead in underground trains and shattered a nation’s nerves. Brown remembered that moment with dignity and calm, recalling the pain of families who had lost their loved ones and reaffirming national resolve without stopping traffic or massaging tears. The clever manipulation of pseudo-hysteria, always carefully monitored to remain below the top rather than go over it, the continuous mobilisation of spin doctors and media hype, have suddenly vanished like a punctured bubble.

Gordon Brown used the word "change" eight times in the short speech he made the day he became Prime Minister. It is already evident what he meant. It is not simply the fact that he has created a Cabinet of young people who would probably not be considered old enough to lead the youth wings of Indian political parties (the new foreign secretary is only 41 years old, and certainly got his job as much for his youth as for the fact that he was publicly critical of Blair’s hirsute warmongering). There is no sophisticated finger-pointing, the kind in which you never actually raise your hand in any direction but nod so heavily that one would have to be a cretin to miss the meaning. Men of Indian origin are involved in the Glasgow outrage; that is well known. But an individual’s sins are not being transferred to a community or a country.

Where is Tony Blair? No one vanishes faster than yesterday’s Prime Minister. After a decade of media dominance he is nowhere. He can be glimpsed occasionally, bland and uncertain, lost in the withering fire of drawing room jokes. But you can still gauge the success of his extraordinary media management skills. Most people in Britain remain convinced that he is the new Peace Czar of the Middle East, even though both the White House and the European Union (more gently) have clarified that peace talks are outside his mandate, and that his only job is really as the new fund collector for Palestinian institutions.

Gordonian sobriety is certainly good governance, but does it also make for good politics? Blairite hype may be distasteful to columnists who do not have to get elected, but it won Blair and Labour three general elections. You do not argue with such a rate of success.

The answer to such a question is not available in the murky logic of an opinion or the opaque density of a government position. It can only be found through a general election. One of the finer points of British democracy draws a distinction between legality and legitimacy. Brown became Prime Minister through the support of Labour MPs. That is perfectly legal. But his tenure at 10 Downing Street will not become legitimate until it has been endorsed by the British electorate. It is Brown’s decision as to when he takes the legitimacy test. Some are urging that he go for an election as early as in October, particularly since he has a bounce that has taken Labour once again ahead of the Conservatives. That must be a hard call. When you have waited ten years to become PM you want to savour a little more of the satisfaction before risking a gamble. No matter what opinion polls might say, every politician knows that every election is a gamble.

Democracy is a huge casino. But that gamble is compulsory, not optional.

Gordon Brown will shift, in his mind and his heart, from No. 11 Downing Street to No. 10 only after the results of that gamble are known.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A long Goodbye

Byline by M.J. Akbar : The Long Goodbye

One must not be harsh: it is not true that liars do not have a conscience. Why else would Tony Blair edge, at the cautious pace that public life demands, towards the Roman Catholic Church? He dropped in on Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on his farewell free ride around the world, and British media is full of stories about his proposed conversion to Catholicism.

Why would Blair want to become a Catholic except to confess? This Catholic practice has a unique advantage. Its details can never reach the front pages of the "feral" British newspapers. The Father Confessor shares details of the guilt only with God. Such a privilege is not available in the many schools and sects of the Protestant dispensation, a revolutionary theological movement inspired by a German reformer in the early 16th century, Martin Luther, because, in his view (with much evidence to back him) the Papacy had become dissolute. There were many venal sins that individual Popes were prey to, but Luther was angered most by the degeneration in the system of "indulgences" by which a sinner could, literally, pay his way out of sin. Money to the Church purchased forgiveness. The key to heaven lay in the treasury of the Vatican.

Protestants seek a solution. Catholics can get an absolution. True, matters are not quite so simple, for the Roman Church has long ended such deviations. Blair can’t sell the mortgage of his homes in London, and send a cheque to the Vatican appropriate to the dimensions of his lies on Iraq. But he is not turning into a Catholic to find out how many angels can dance on the head of a needle.

Somewhere in his conscience there must be a thirst for redemption. The guilt of young lives sentenced to war must be heavy.

It is entirely in character therefore that he is trying to relaunch himself as a missionary, with Palestine as his mission.

There is some confusion about the precise profile of the mission. His few remaining friends are suggesting that Blair has been appointed some sort of High Plenipotentiary who will bring peace to the Middle East with the same skills that he displayed to bring amity in Ireland. But Blair’s Boss, George Bush, has just put in a corrective. State Department officials clarified on Wednesday 27 June that his only responsibility is "shoring up" Palestinian institutions, and not trying to negotiate a peace deal, or "final status", between Israel and the Palestinians. This
latter job is for the Big Boys. And for a Big Girl. The State Department said that Condoleezza Rice would handle the serious bit herself, because, as she and Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have said, the United States is the only country Israel trusts as broker. Blair is a "true friend of Israel" agrees Olmert, but Britain is not the United States.

Blair’s mandate is really not much more than to ensure there is enough money for the Ramallah municipality to clear the garbage, and wheedle out all the Palestinian cash that Israel has withheld on one excuse or the other.

Blair’s parish is not even the whole of Palestine. He deals only with the part under the control of Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas and Gaza are out of his bounds. As presently defined, Blair has even less responsibility than once entrusted to the former World Bank President, Jim Wolfensohn, by the Quartet (America, European Union, Russia and the United Nations). Wolfensohn was told to get on with the economics of Palestine but to keep out of politics.

Blair, to state it simply, is no longer one of the Big Boys. He may or may not get a salary in his new mission, although he will certainly get a plane. I do hope, however, they don’t send the bill for the costs of the plane to Mahmoud Abbas. Nothing is impossible in the worldview of accountants.

Wolfensohn, whose sincerity and stature were beyond question, failed because the economics of Palestine is inextricably linked to its internal and external politics. Assuming Blair can manage more elbow room than a World Bank official, can he do any better at a moment of severe crisis?

What can Blair do as part-time envoy over the next one year that he could not do during ten years as full-time Prime Minister?

What can anyone do during an American election year, when balance is held hostage to election sensitivities? This process used to last less than a year. It has now extended to almost two years. New ideas do not get an airing during the missile wars of election debates. The risk of a missile becoming a boomerang is too high.

Blair’s mandate is limited to the patch controlled by Mahmoud Abbas. But the difficult part of the story is Hamas and the support it commands, not Abbas. Or is it the new strategy that Blair can mollycoddle Abbas while Israel goes to war with Hamas? It would be an easier war for Israel than Lebanon last year. Unlike hilly Lebanon, Gaza is flat, and Hamas is not Hezbollah.

Can Blair, perceived by most Muslims as part of the problem, reinvent himself as part of the solution? Blair represents a past that must be swept out of the way if a new route map is to be found. His successor, the new Prime Minister of Britain Gordon Brown, understands this. He has appointed David Miliband, a critic of the Iraq war and of Blair’s foreign policy, as his foreign secretary. Jack Straw led the campaign to make Brown Prime Minister but did not get his old job back because Straw was too closely identified with the war. Even before being sworn in, Brown said, "I would like to see all security and intelligence analysis independent of the
political process and I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to do that." This was as sharp a slap across the Blair face as it was possible for a colleague to deliver. It was candid admission that Blair had manipulated intelligence (a charge Blair has assiduously denied) to build his case for the Iraq war.

A last question: was giving Salman Rushdie a title the best career launch for a job as middleman in the Middle East? Or even for a role as do-gooder for Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine?

But there is some good news for Blair. His famed and accomplished ability to lie with smouldering conviction should stand him in very good stead in his new mission. Who wants the truth in the Middle East? No one. The truth would upset too many governments. It might even uproot some of them.

Blair now accepts that Iraq is a "disaster". In his farewell remarks, he expressed his sympathy for the British troops who had sacrificed so much in his cause. He wished both his friends and his foes well as he said goodbye, but could not hide his long-suppressed hatred for the "feral" media (in a category beyond either friendship or enmity) which had been instrumental in aborting his term to a mere ten years. But at no point during his long goodbye did Blair apologise for Iraq.
Being Blair means never having to say sorry. Except, possibly, in the solitude of a confession in a Roman Catholic church some time soon.