Sunday, September 30, 2007

20-20 Politics

Byline by M J Akbar: 20-20 Politics

Politics is not a 20-20 game, or even a limited overs match; it is a patient Test series, with long stretches of grafting and boredom, and innumerable breaks for lunch and tea. Excitement is limited to crunch time, and such occasions are rare.

Those who celebrate India’s victory over Pakistan in the final of the Twenty20 tournament celebrate the least of the team’s achievements. The game was superb precisely because it was so evenly matched, the teams separated, in the end, by the strength of a single flick of the wrist. The youngsters led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni deserve applause because they defeated much more than the best cricket sides in the world.

They defeated, for starters, Shoaib Malik. The young Pakistani captain ended a glorious tournament on a silly note when he thanked "all Muslims" for their support to Pakistan. Pakistani players seem obliged to appropriate the Almighty into all proceedings, but that is their privilege. They would be wise, however, not to appropriate all Muslims on their side, for the good reason that all Muslims are not in or with Pakistan. Perhaps Mr Malik lost the match because he was wearing a blindfold. That is the only explanation for his inability to recognise that there were two Muslims in the Indian side. Irfan Pathan, Man of the Match, did everything possible to remind Pakistan that Indian Muslims wanted India to win. It may be news to Pakistan’s players that Irfan’s father was a muezzin in a small mosque in Gujarat, and his mother wears the hijab in public. The subcontinent apart, does Shoaib Malik believe that a billion Muslims, Indonesians, Malays, Arabs and Turks, were sitting closely glued to their television sets, cheering Pakistan? It would be a miracle if 99% had heard of cricket, a game as foreign to them as the English language.

Perhaps the difference between victory and defeat is the gap between a closed and open mind.
Dhoni’s boys did their country great service in a second subliminal region: they defeated the egotism that has bogged Indian cricket for so long. The egos of the Big Three, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have become bigger than the team. Three ex-captains in a single eleven must be some sort of a world record. The team was divided into three individuals in different moods, ranging from sulk to self-interest to petulance, and eight other players trying to fit into the minimal space these three left for others. Trust me, if the Big Three had any idea that the 20-20 victory would be as big as it became, they would have been in the team: fitness is not a problem in this form of the game, because 20-20 is only half as demanding as the full one-dayer. On the other hand, if the Big Three had been there, the youngsters might not have won. Alone, they had a different body language, a palpable common commitment, and unity of spirit. This was a victory for new India, which has now marched a step ahead of modern India. It was a triumph for small-town India, for popular rather than rarefied India, for an inclusive nation, not an exclusive elite. If this is the future, the future is bliss.

It is tempting to see this as the defining culture of contemporary India, the essence of a confident democracy, its populism rid of both elitist genuflection and sectarian tensions. No definition of popular culture can encompass the whole of India; but will there be enough such Indians to control the balance in the next general elections?

The thought did occur to me that one section of India had adopted the basic tenets of 20-20 cricket even before the rest of the country became addicted: television news. Frenzy, drama, nasal diction and a compulsive need for instant decisions have become its hallmarks. Not all Indian television is there yet, mercifully, but the attitude is pervasive enough to spill over into parts of print. And so, when the Left was playing chess with the government on the nuclear deal, much of the media kept covering it by the rules of 20-20 cricket. Artificial teams were conjured up to lend excitement to developments. The CPI(M) was split into the pro-Congress Bengal Lions, led by Souradeb Bhattacharya, and the China Contras, led by Rahul Karat. Journalists were chasing their own version of the story, reporting the collapse of the China Contras in the twelfth over, or a compromise when the collapse did not take place.

There is a useful rule to remember when covering the Left, and they will demand coverage for some time yet. It functions democratically; they take the politburo and the central committee seriously. This means that there is inevitably debate on issues as important as the survival of a coalition that rules the country. But this debate is not conducted in public. Differences are sorted out behind closed doors, and when they cannot be reconciled a vote determines their fate. The CPI(M) does not conduct its debate through media, much as it may dishearten media to discover this. When the party’s general secretary takes a position, he does so after taking a sense of his committee. It is not arbitrary imposition. No comrade is impressed by traditional media games like twisting half of a quote to suit an editorial line.

What is surprising is not the media’s willingness to see what it wants to see, but that so many seasoned politicians fall into the same constricted mire. Almost everyone in the Dr Manmohan Singh government had convinced himself that the Marxists would have an epiphany moment at their party conclaves in Kolkata, and return, sheepishly no doubt, to pay homage at the feet of the Prime Minister. The venerable Jyoti Basu was meant to bring the Marxists into harmony with the American timetable for the nuclear deal.

Clearly the first thing that happens when you join government in Delhi is amnesia about anything that might be inconvenient. Jyoti Basu was on the verge of becoming Prime Minister of India in 1997 instead of Mr Inder Gujral, when he was stopped not by his allies but his own party. The politburo voted against the idea because it was not ready to permit the party to share power in Delhi. Jyoti Basu did not utter a word of protest, although much later, in an interview to this columnist he did call that decision a "historic blunder". Any party that lives by such rigid discipline cannot be split by media whims.

If the Manmohan Singh government does not halt the process by which the nuclear deal travels to the next stage, through the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Left will withdraw support. This is what the Left has been saying and this is what the Left will do.

Politics is not a 20-20 game, or even a limited overs match; it is a patient Test series, with long stretches of grafting and boredom, and innumerable breaks for lunch and tea. Excitement is limited to crunch time, and such occasions are rare. One is due in the first week of October, when the next, and perhaps final round of talks take place between the government and the Left. The chief negotiator for the Congress is foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, but he is not the chief decision-maker. He would have happily bought six months of silence so that the government could get on with the rest of life.

But whatever happens, do remember that the game in Delhi is chess, not 20-20 cricket.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Amoral Code

Byline By M J Akbar : Amoral Code
In India, secularism means respect for the other’s right to practice faith in whatsoever manner the other chooses. Hindus and Muslims have lived with each other almost as long as Muslims and Christians.
When a coalition begins to melt, its partners subtly, if not silently, begin to shift their public agenda from common concern to individual need. The debate over the bridge built by Lord Ram between the Tamil Nadu coast and Sri Lanka is hardly new. A year ago, the supreme leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Mr M.K. Karunanidhi, would not have fractured sensibilities nationwide with intemperate, unacceptable remarks about Lord Ram, revered and worshipped by Hindus as the paradigm of virtue. Today, the political calendar has a premature general election marked within the first half of 2008. His party’s fortunes are now more important to him than his coalition’s fate. After all, what use is any coalition to him if he cannot get the seats that can make him a power broker?

Under pressure, Mr Karunanidhi is dipping into the source of Dravida nectar for sustenance. The origins are lost to public memory, so it may be useful to recall them.

The movement began in 1914 when Dr C. Nadesan Mudaliar started the Dravida Association. But it got its first impetus when the son of a rich landlord, privileged enough to be educated in England, walked away from his background to fight for the lower castes against the domination of the Brahmins. The name of this remarkable man was E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, popularly known as ‘EVR’ and then ‘Periyar’. His philosophy was practical: he likened caste to malaria and said that his search was not for medicine but for the mosquitoes that spread malaria. He declared himself an atheist and went to war against Brahmins, the chief perpetrators of caste iniquity. He launched an agitation against his personal friend, the Maharaja of Travancore for reform: an Untouchable could not walk on the streets of the princely state, let alone raise his eyes in front of someone from an upper caste. You can get a flavour of EVR’s views from this quotation: "(Aryans) concocted absurd stories in keeping with their barbarian status… The blabberings of the intoxicated Brahmins in those old days are still faithfully observed in this modern world as the religious rituals, morals, stories, festivals, fasts, vows and beliefs". Inherent in the doctrine was the Aryan as an outsider, who had driven true Indians, Dravidians, south and then maintained his power through an iniquitous system. Brahmins were agents of that domination. The Dravida movement would move away from the eccentricities of EVR into the sager leadership of C.N. Annadurai, but the basic philosophy did not alter. When the DMK was formed after the split in the Dravida Kazhagam on 17 September 1949, it did not name a chairman. That chair was kept vacant for the "soul of Periyar".

Mr Karunanidhi has made two basic miscalculations in trying to revive his party by resurrecting the spirit of Periyar. No faith has undergone more dramatic reform than Hinduism has in the last seventy-five years. This is a tribute to both Hinduism’s leaders, the most notable of them being Mahatma Gandhi, and to ordinary Hindus, who realised that the excesses of caste were self-defeating. The India of 2007, with a supremely confident Mayawati as chief minister of India’s most important state, would be unrecognisable to the Hindus of 1932, a dramatic year in the history of caste relations. A nation cannot be modern until it destroys the shibboleths that have kept it chained to regression. There is much talk of a Hindu renaissance in the 19th century. That is a myth compared to the true renaissance that came in the 20th century, and became the engine of social change, a vital necessity for the kind of economic growth that India is witnessing. When the Brahmin votes for Mayawati, he makes Periyar, once a crucial catalyst of change, irrelevant. Periyar’s genius created the change that has made Periyar unnecessary. Tamil Nadu has changed as much as the rest of India. The "low caste" Hindus of Tamil Nadu are no longer subservient to the Brahmin. Mr Karunanidhi’s electoral success is evidence of this.
Mr Karunanidhi is talking to the Tamil Nadu of 1967, not the Tamil Nadu of 2007.

Nor does the venerable Dravida leader quite understand the meaning of secularism, at least as we practise it in India. The European benchmark of secularism is the separation of faith and state. In India, secularism means respect for the other’s right to practice faith in whatsoever manner the other chooses. Hindus and Muslims have lived with each other almost as long as Muslims and Christians. But there is no instance of the kind of ferocious diatribe that Dante, author of Divine Comedy, indulged in against the person of Islam’s Prophet, in any epic written by a Hindu. Similarly, there is not a single writer of any standing among Muslims who has ever been insulting towards a Hindu god. We do not have to believe in each other’s creeds to have respect for each other’s religions. That is the essence of co-existence. Mr Karunanidhi, who is probably an atheist, forgot that simple rule.

The debate about proof is inane, to opt for the most polite word. I cannot ‘prove’ that Allah exists; a Jew cannot ‘prove’ that Jehovah exists; a Christian cannot prove that ‘God’ exists. This may be, for all I know, less a reflection on divinity, and more an indication of human limitations. It is arrogance to believe that truth is merely the little that the human brain comprehends.
Gravity existed before Isaac Newton’s brain "discovered" it; indeed, it would be presumptuous to claim that the Pyramids were built without a thorough knowledge of gravity. The human brain is a work in progress.

Belief that has sustained itself for centuries is rarely constructed on a chimera, no matter what deviations (like caste) men may impose on the original faith. The past is littered with forgotten claims. Mr Karunanidhi would have been wiser to respect the faith of the millions who have prayed in the temple at Rameshwaram, the offshore island also called the Kashi of the South: no prizes for guessing that Rameshwaram is named after Lord Ram. It is interesting that a Sri Lankan, King Parakrama Bahu, built the sanctum sanctorum of the Ramanathswamy temple. Incidentally, "mythology" has an answer to Mr Karunanidhi’s question about whether Lord Ram was an engineer: the bridge between the mainland and Sri Lanka was constructed by Nala, the son of Vishwakarma. But such political wisecracks only trivialise a sensitive issue.

A voter decides on the fate of a ruling party because of a bouquet of reasons. There is rarely just one reason that becomes the decisive driver, submerging others. What parties need to worry about is the tipping point, the final straw that persuades a voter to move from the past to a different future. Many voters, across the country, will be hurt by the insult to Lord Ram and establishment’s inability to do anything about it.

Mr Karunanidhi has one advantage over his critics. He knows that no one cares how you win an election, or what you do to stay in power; the only thing that matters is numbers in an age of coalitions. His allies may fudge and squirm but no one will dare ask him to leave the alliance. If he retains his MPs after the next election, he will be welcome in the next permutation and combination, whatever it might be.

Power has its own moral, or amoral, code.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Joke Too Far

Byline by M J Akbar: A Joke Too Far

President Pervez Musharraf is proving to be a far better tactician with politicians than his commitment to an Army uniform might suggest. Ms Benazir Bhutto is not even back in Pakistan and her credibility has already been eroded. General Musharraf has many disadvantages after more than seven years in power, but he does have one serious advantage in terms of public perception. No one has accused him of being individually corrupt.

Which of the two is funnier? Take your time, there is no hurry, for the competition is keen. If one of the gems is priceless, then the second can only be called invaluable. Ladies first, so let us quote Pakistan’s Prime Minister-in-Waiting Ms Benazir Bhutto. She called her rival Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to return to Pakistan to contest elections, "a mockery of democracy".

If this statement encouraged a belly laugh, as it should, then how do we react to the claim by Pakistan’s Prime Minister-in-Exitmode Shaukat Aziz? The dapper Mr Aziz had this to say about Nawaz Sharif’s brief stay at Islamabad airport, before he was deported to the ever-accommodating Saudi Arabia: "The government did not force Nawaz Sharif to return to Saudi Arabia. We did not force him. I have been told that he was given two options, either go to prison or proceed to Saudi Arabia."

There used to be a gentleman, or not very much of a gentleman, in Victorian England named Thomas Hobson. He used to hire out horses. If any customer wanted a horse, he had to take the one nearest the door or he would not get any. The horses did not become famous, but Thomas Hobson did. His name is immortalised in the phrase ‘Hobson’s Choice’, which implies that you really have no choice. Shaukat Hobson Aziz’s nuanced proposition to Nawaz Sharif would have pleased the old Englishman. Nawaz Sharif was not "forced". He was told, as rudely as possible (simply shoved into a bus and bumped into a waiting plane, while Army commandos laughed and joked), that he could either return to a harsh prison in Pakistan or a gilded cage in Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister Aziz, alumnus of the World Bank School of Diplomacy, was careful not to take the blame himself. He is Prime Minister of Pakistan but, according to his own version of events, he seemingly had nothing to do with the decision. He was informed after the event. "I have been told," he said. If this is true, he is not very prime in his ministership. Would Benazir Bhutto, who is desperate for Shaukat Aziz’s job, accept such a limited, primitive prime ministership? Would she be a quiet little dormouse if Nawaz Sharif turned up at Islamabad airport while she was sitting in Shaukat Aziz’s office, and the President decided whether Mr Sharif should go to prison or purgatory or a democratic paradise called the election trail? I daresay she would, unless she wanted to join Nawaz Sharif in Jeddah or Riyadh.

Careful observers will, of course, have noted that Shaukat Hobson Pontius Pilate Aziz has washed his hands of any suggestion that he might be involved in the persecution of Nawaz Sharif. The first lesson World Bank diplomats are taught is that governments might come and governments might go, but the World Bank lives on forever.

The only bank that Expectant Prime Minister Bhutto can depend upon is the vote bank left by her late father, Zulfiqar Ali, assassinated by the cruel rope of a flawed judicial process. She has depleted the Zulfiqar Bank resources substantially with a murky triangular deal between her individual self, Washington and President Pervez Musharraf. It takes some gall to describe a self-serving deal with Army rule as restorative democracy, and dismiss Sharif’s attempt to join the electoral process as a "mockery". It says something about the state of Pakistan’s polity when a lady who would be Prime Minister has to wait in Washington for permission to seek her nation’s foremost executive post.

One has no idea who advises Benazir Bhutto, if, that is, anyone has the temerity to do so, but she might want to forget about the forty suitcases Nawaz Sharif apparently took with him when he was exiled seven years ago. Benazir Bhutto took away a whole English castle when she was turfed out by the Army, not to mention fairly healthy bank accounts in Switzerland. Nawaz Sharif may indeed be as black as black money, but it does not behove a pot to call a kettle black.
What is quite extraordinary is the duplicity of the Pakistan People’s Party over the legitimacy and authority of the nation’s Supreme Court. PPP leaders, most notably the pre-eminent lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, were in the forefront of this year’s passionate, nationwide movement to restore Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to office. This struggle was said to have marked the beginning of a fresh chapter in Pakistan’s democracy, and was certainly instrumental in forcing the Army to compromise with civilian power. The moment Benazir Bhutto was offered the scent of office, she joined the Army in trampling over an order of the Supreme Court permitting Nawaz Sharif to return home.

The Benazir argument, echoed by her parrots, that Mr Sharif should stay away because of some verbal agreement made seven years ago, is specious and untenable. A Supreme Court’s decision supersedes any private agreement that is disputed by one party and, in any event, has no basis in law. Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan with the specific permission of the Supreme Court. The Pakistan People’s Party has just dug a future grave by treating the Supreme Court so contemptuously.

President Pervez Musharraf is proving to be a far better tactician with politicians than his commitment to an Army uniform might suggest. Ms Benazir Bhutto is not even back in Pakistan and her credibility has already been eroded. General Musharraf has many disadvantages after more than seven years in power, but he does have one serious advantage in terms of public perception. No one has accused him of being individually corrupt. He is unlikely to surrender that advantage by withdrawing corruption cases against either Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif. He might bend under pressure from his mentors in Washington, but one doubts if he will stoop so far. Ms Bhutto will not be deported when she returns to Pakistan in late October, since Washington insists upon some cosmetic changes in the power structure of Islamabad. But that is not quite the same thing as re-gilding the lady in honest hues.

Now that Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party has become the King’s Party, Nawaz Sharif will inherit the popular space along with those smaller parties who see merit in his continued confrontation with Army rule. The most vocal of the latter is surely the former cricketer Imran Khan, who commands the attention of the media and makes effective public interventions. Imran Khan possesses the virtue of clarity. He told President Musharraf fairly bluntly that it was about time he woke up. "If you think that by sending Mr Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia you can save your skin, you better stop fooling yourself. Neither can America save you, nor Benazir, and not even the PML(Q) turncoats… God willing, the entire Pakistani nation will rise against you and we will fight you in the streets."

One can see a new political compass drawing fresh arcs: Benazir Bhutto, pro-Musharraf elements in Nawaz Sharif’s party and America are placed in one group; Nawaz Sharif and friends are now the legitimate opposition. It may be too early to claim that the entire Pakistani nation has joined this opposition. But presumably God, whose will Imran Khan has invoked, will soon let us know — through events on the Pakistani street rather than deals in the Islamabad secretariat.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Look East for the Left

Byline by M J Akbar : Look East for the Left

The nuclear deal was the perfect opportunity for the Marxists to walk out of the Bengal trap, precisely because it was an ideological issue. The Manmohan Singh government wants to bind India into a strategic relationship with the United States, specifically targeted against Iran (in writing) for starters but developing into a larger axis of the kind that America once had with Pakistan through the Baghdad Pact.

One of the oldest laws of politics is back at work: when a government is not in control of events, events take control of a government. Delhi, obsessed with itself, believes that events only take place in Delhi. Government is in a tight geographical ring; voters live outside this pseudo-magical circle.

If you want to understand what the Left is doing, you have to hop across from Delhi to Kolkata. The Marxist machinery has been cranked back into gear. You can hear the occasional squeal of age, of course. And the design is not pretty. But it still works. This week saw the surest sign that the Marxists are getting ready for a general election. I don’t mean the posters and the processions, evocative as they are. The CPI(M) brought out its genuine heavyweight and put him into political play. When Jyoti Basu speaks Bengal listens. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that Mr Basu’s influence extends over much larger space than the Marxist vote bank or the Bengali world: the Indian poor know he is on their side even if they do not have his party’s candidate in their constituency.

Mr Basu made two statements, connected by an unseen cord. He remarked that "anything" could happen if the Manmohan Singh government went ahead with the 123 Agreement. It does not require a philologist or a scientist to decipher the meaning of "anything". His second public statement was in response to Mamata Banerjee’s rather facile explanation that she was in the previous BJP-led alliance only because of her personal respect and admiration of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Mr Basu thought that he had never heard, in his 67 years of public life, anything more ridiculous. Mr Basu rarely makes a point unless he has a point to make. If that is the best reason that Mamata Banerjee is going to offer for being an ally of the BJP, it is not going to wash. She would have been far more credible if she had been a little more honest. She could have argued that defeating the Left was the most important part of her political agenda, and she chose to align with the BJP precisely because she thought this alliance could take on the Left. After all, if she thought the Congress was good enough, she would never have left the Congress, would she? But some politicians continue to believe that the simple truth is injurious to their health. They must be firmly convinced that the voter is a fool.

A primary reason for the split between the Congress and the Left is the secret understanding between the Congress and Mamata Banerjee’s party that they would contest the next elections in harmony even if they could not manage a complete alliance. The alliance was not formalised because the Congress needed the Left’s support in Delhi to survive. But workers of the two parties had begun to cooperate on the ground, the parties were together in the Singur and Nandigram movement, and when Mamata Banerjee decided to go on her famous hunger strike Congress ministers made every gesture of sympathy and support.

The announcement would have been made just before the elections were due, after the Congress had made full use of the Left’s support in Parliament, and in the process neutralised the Left’s ability to criticise it on the hustings. How do you attack, in an election campaign, someone you have defended during five years in power? The Left was in a trap, a clever one set by the Congress, and unable to wriggle out of it. Moreover, some Left MPs had succumbed to the obvious temptations of being associates of a ruling alliance; the beneficiaries were loath to end this relationship prematurely. But realpolitik had to supersede the preferences of individuals. As the Left moves towards departure mode, Mamata Banerjee turns up in arrival lounge. This is not the only trap that the Congress has set for partners that it does not consider reliable enough for a long-term alliance. When the escalating price of food becomes a subject of steamy exchanges during the coming election campaign, will the Congress blame Sharad Pawar, the agriculture minister? Priya Ranjan Das Munshi has already gone on record to suggest that the wheat purchases were mishandled because Mr Pawar is more interested in being president of the cricket board than in being agriculture minister.

The nuclear deal was the perfect opportunity for the Marxists to walk out of the Bengal trap, precisely because it was an ideological issue. The Manmohan Singh government wants to bind India into a strategic relationship with the United States, specifically targeted against Iran (in writing) for starters but developing into a larger axis of the kind that America once had with Pakistan through the Baghdad Pact. This was sweetened by much talk of nuclear energy on rather salty terms, intrusive, expensive and imbalanced. The Left could hardly have found a better reason to take a stand. Incidentally, those who are waiting for the Left to split on the nuclear deal do not understand Marxists.

We live, thank Heaven, in a free country, but freedom does not give anyone the freedom to dictate the pace of a vital national debate.

The most important point relates to common sense rather than special expertise: what is the hurry? Why cannot Parliament and the people be permitted time to discuss a matter that will set the course of investment and strategy for the next four or five decades? China took fifteen years over its negotiations with America; why can’t India be permitted a few months to examine the complex issues? Most people simply do not know the meaning of the strategic embrace that seeks to create a nexus of long-standing American allies, Japan, Australia and Singapore, with India. All these countries go to war when America goes to war, as they did in Iraq, even when majority public opinion is not in favour of self-defeating conflicts like Iraq. How many Indians are aware that there are four clauses in three sections of the Hyde Act which bind India to a "congruent" foreign policy with America on Iran, and that they express and impose an operational obligation on the US administration to bring India into full compliance? Link this with statements made by American officers that the current war games between the "allied" navies are designed to achieve operational compatibility in war. One has a right to ask whether this is preparation for a potential conflict with Iran, particularly when Pentagon sources are openly talking about an Iran plan in which the country’s nuclear and other assets will be flattened by three days of intense aerial bombing. The government has an obligation to discuss this.

Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh is still waiting for a response to his query on the price and value of the peaceful nuclear energy that has suddenly become the key to the future. I hope he is not condemned as a traitor — or even a Marxist! — for asking inconvenient questions. But such is the hurry of the Prime Minister that he even had a chat with Mr Amar Singh in the hope of getting the support of the Samajwadi Party. There is no danger to the government if it doesn’t rush through the deal: why would the Prime Minister want to risk his government when he can tell George Bush that he needs a stable majority in Parliament behind this deal before he can go through with it? Surely Dr Singh can crave for something without being craven?
India has begun to ask questions. A slogan is not an answer.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Clues in Candlelight

Byline by M J Akbar : Clues in Candlelight

The basic question before the nation is actually a fairly simple one: is the future of India linked to every Indian? Or is Dream India the destiny of only some Indians? Has Jawaharlal Nehru’s tryst with destiny been converted from a national challenge into a self-satisfied statistic?

The decisive moment in Indian politics comes not when leaders believe that they have convinced the electorate but when they are certain that they have convinced themselves. The system is then informed: Members of Parliament, party officials, and whatever is left of the structure down the scale. If you want to know when a general election is likely to be announced, check the faces inside Parliament. If the leaders look buoyant and the MPs glum, you know an election cannot be too far away.

Any half-decent Sherlock Holmes could have offered a reasonable guess on the date of the next general election. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has strewn his public utterances with clues. It is obvious that, although a man of laconic demeanour, he cannot resist a riposte. When CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat indulged in the metaphor of a nuclear winter, Dr Singh asked whether spring could be far behind. It seems that a spring general election is about to be sprung.

While Pranab Mukherjee was defending the "mechanism" set up to calm nuclear nerves between the Congress and the Left, and implicitly purchase amity for another year, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, who as information minister is also reasonably well-informed, sabotaged peace prospects by saying that talks with IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group had not been cancelled. It only remained for the dates to be finalised.

This date, doubtless, will be finalised the moment the present session of Parliament gets over on the 14th of September. An Indian team will be in Vienna as part of routine discussions with IAEA. They might not be required to return to India, and could take up discussions on the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left would then be welcome to do what it liked. Or didn’t like.

Here is an even more revealing clue. Minorities minister A.R. Antulay was pulled out from the woodwork this week to announce a "follow-up" to the Sachar Committee recommendations for Muslims. When Congress throws sops in the general direction of Muslims by the Congress, can elections be far behind?

Sometimes I feel that the ruling class must consider Muslims to be the biggest idiots in India. In 2006, Dr Manmohan Singh, possibly moved by the Sachar Committee report on the abject plight of Indian Muslims, promised something of an extraordinary multiple rise in the budgetary expenditure for their welfare. When his budget appeared in 2007, the allocation for minorities had actually been slashed. The finance minister apparently forgot to read the Prime Minister’s instructions. The Prime Minister of course forgot to do anything about it. Now Antulay, who was given a ministry without an office, has announced a few more committees.

They must also believe that every Muslim is illiterate, and does not know the difference between a guideline and a law or an order. The government has sent "guidelines" that Muslims should be given more jobs in the bureaucracy. These are not orders, just guidelines. I can visualise every secretary of every ministry, his visage flush with the excitement of a new purpose, getting into office on Monday and ordering the immediate hiring of millions of unemployed Muslim youth. It is one thing if they cannot give jobs; why twist the knife with jokes?

Why does Shelley’s line about the desire of a moth for the flame keep coming back to me?
India is in the throes of a violent fever. You can see it shivering everywhere. There is a bus accident in Agra and the young turn to stones and arson. A dalit dies in Haryana, and the community is out on the streets. Caste wars surface only sometimes, but the turbulence is a permanent stream just under the surface. Muslims are restless and angry, imbued with a sense of betrayal as yet another government they helped elect has given them committee reports rather than justice. One part of the crimes of the winter of 1992-93 has been punished, but those who indulged in anti-Muslim riots, including policemen named by the Srikrishna report, are untouched by the law. Any protest is fobbed by the promise of action tomorrow. Tomorrow is a day that never comes.

The poor, of all regions, faiths, castes, economic denominations, want economic and social justice; they want life and sustenance, and if they do not get it they will make their voice heard, and their anger evident. Whenever they ask a question, they are told by the government to wait till 2020 for an answer. They are not looking at 2020. They are looking at deprivation and death. There is no 2020 for the farmers who have committed suicide. There is no 2020 for vegetable vendors and the egg-suppliers who see their only form of income being swallowed by a retail giant. A policy for 2020 can work only if sustained by immediate programmes for those who are being dispossessed on the way to El Dorado. A limited dole is not a policy, particularly when it is punctured by corruption.

The nuclear deal with the United States will be an issue in the next general elections, but it will not be the only debate. Campaign season is question time, so the questions that have not yet been articulated will rise to the top of the debate. One can understand, for instance, the family silver being hocked to protect or expand India’s military nuclear programme, but why get into an embrace as demanding, one-sided and restrictive as that detailed in the Hyde Act for civilian nuclear energy? We have enough fuel for our military purposes.

This nuclear deal was not part of the Congress manifesto in the last elections; it did not exist in the Common Minimum Programme that is the basis of the ruling alliance. When the last civilian energy policy of the country was announced, a document which was the sum of collective effort, there was no hint that nuclear power was to become so crucial to India’s energy requirements. From which bottle did this genie suddenly materialise? And if nuclear power is so green and so beneficial, why has America not invested heavily in civilian nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979? America doesn’t need either the Hyde Act, or anyone else’s technology to do so. As this column has argued before, it would be a very foolish country that would prefer hostility with America, but the fundamental requirement of friendship is equality. Subservience is not an equitable or sustainable long-term relationship. How cost-effective is nuclear energy? There is never a direct, or even an indirect, answer from the government to this question. Can those at the bottom of the pile afford this energy, or do they need more hydro power? Water is one natural resource that is not going to disappear, for if it does there will be nothing left to protect.

The basic question before the nation is actually a fairly simple one: is the future of India linked to every Indian? Or is Dream India the destiny of only some Indians? Has Jawaharlal Nehru’s tryst with destiny been converted from a national challenge into a self-satisfied statistic?
Shelley’s flame drew the fluttering moth. Ghalib’s flame, methinks, defines the vote. Shama har rang main jalti hai sahar hone tak. The flame sparkles in every colour until dawn. What comes at dawn when another multi-dimensional electoral candle is exhausted? The clarity of sunlight, I hope.