Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Certain Uncertainty

Byline by M J Akbar: A Certain Uncertainty

Two significant news items were circulated within twenty-four hours of each other by the Press Trust of India, an agency that believes, correctly, that the information it distributes should be independent of its consequences. It concentrates on what, not why or wherefore. It is left to us, hence, to wonder if there are any dots that connect.

The first item reported that the next session of the All India Congress Committee would be held in Delhi on 17 November. An AICC plenary can be fun. It is a wonderful party mela that attracts a spectrum of shapes, shades and shrieks, a collection of the washed and unwashed, starched and silken, lords, middlemen and peasants that reflect the national character of a party which has lost a national vote but retains a national aspiration. The speeches are predictable paeans of loyalty, but that is only to be expected. Once upon a time these used to be annual affairs, with resolutions discussed in the subjects committee before being moved at the full session, and new presidents elected with their own working committees. But those days are long over. The late P.V. Narasimha Rao attempted to revive inner party elections to the working committee (but not to his own job) at the Tirupati AICC but abandoned the exercise after checking the results. That was the end of that. Even the subjects committee is being abandoned now because very few can understand why it exists.

The last AICC plenary was in January 2006 at Hyderabad. It was a double-whammy celebration: for a well-deserved triumph in Andhra Pradesh, and a more crafted victory at the national level. Ritual homage was paid to the future in the praise for Rahul Gandhi and everyone went home to enjoy the fruits of office.

The coming AICC session in November is not a plenary, but a limited gathering of AICC members. It has been called at short notice. It has not been summoned to celebrate anything, because after three years in office no ruling party has more reason for worry than celebration. It is not being called to reassert its confidence in the leadership, because there is no question of any challenge to the president of the party, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. But it cannot be an exercise in nothing. So what is the purpose?

Is there a link to the second PTI story, which said that the American administration wants the Indo-US nuclear deal to be presented to the Congress by January next year? The specific PTI sentence is: "Harping on a year-end deadline for the nuclear deal with India, the US has said it will be good to get it voted in the Congress by the coming January."

The next meeting between the government and the Left on the nuclear deal is scheduled for 14 November. If the January deadline is to be met, this will also be the last meeting on the subject, for the deal must then pass through the IAEA in Vienna and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The AICC session therefore is perfectly placed for three resolutions: congratulating the president of the party and the Prime Minister for negotiating and implementing the nuclear deal; offering it as a panacea for prosperity; and welcoming Rahul Gandhi, with his young followers, into the top echelons of the party.

The Congress will fight the next elections on the twin slogans of the nuclear deal and youth. The November AICC is clearly designed to set the stage for trumpets. Generals sound the bugle only on the eve of battle. Logic suggests, therefore, that the Congress has made up its mind and will settle for a spring election, in either February or April. Expect a few "pro-poor" announcements soon.

All the factors that must be taken into consideration also suggest this. If the nuclear deal slips out of control, and ends up in political never-never-land, the Congress will have nothing to show for its three years in power. It is banking on the youth of the urban middle class, which is a natural ally of America and disdainful of the Left, to provide the necessary impetus to its election prospects.

Moreover, the politics of the impending Assembly elections in Gujarat has revived the Modi-riots issue. Crime and punishment have a tenuous relationship when it comes to communal riots against minorities. The fact that those who killed in Gujarat had the support of Narendra Modi, or are still free, will astonish only those who wear tinted eyewear. Modi, unsurprisingly, believes that electoral success places him above the law, and he can get away with shooting the messenger. There is no penance in his soul, or even mild regret.

Unwashed bloodstains form a macabre backdrop to our social history. The gruesome Bhagalpur riots, when Yadavs massacred Muslims, took place in 1989. A token few were convicted for their role in it only this year; the rest are nearly twenty years older, and possibly parading as respectable pillars of the community. But the conviction of the few must be considered an achievement. Many of those who were directly involved in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 are in high office; most are comfortably forgotten in the anonymity of Delhi. The killers of Mumbai’s Muslims in 1992 and 1993, a process that lasted for intermittent days spread across weeks, could have been stopped by the Congress government then in power, but were permitted to indulge in mayhem. A commission of enquiry has named dozens of the guilty, including policemen who became part of the murdering mobs, but for fifteen years successive state governments, including Congress governments in the last eight years, have protected rather than prosecuted the killers.

Each general election becomes a purgative for a multitude of sins. The sins are placed before a jury of voters that measures them on the scales of self-interest. It is natural for the scales to keep swinging in a volatile democracy. Political parties, if they have it in their power, choose the moment when they believe the tilt is in their favour to go to the polls. The Congress seems to have convinced itself that 2008 is a better year than 2009 for elections.

All facts are not equal in an election. There are facts, and then there are decisive facts. The great charm of democracy is that the voter never quite lets on which is the fact that is going to be decisive as he steps into the booth. Politicians who are confident about victory pay the bitter price of regret. This much can be said about the winter of 2007: there is a pall of uncertainty over every political face. This may be bad news for politicians but is extremely good news for politics. The equations that produced a government in 2004 have fractured, but alternatives are tentative. The Third Front, equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP, began with a flourish, and then nearly collapsed on itself before showing signs of revival. There is no alliance yet which can promise a post-election government on its own.

The consolidation necessary for government-formation will probably take place around the numbers thrown up by results, rather than pre-election issues. The present government was formed after the results, not before them; you can expect that again, with the difference that the binding Common Minimum Programme will be even more minimalist in order to achieve a degree of commonality.

The size of the field is the same; the number of players has multiplied. The next general election will be the last to offer a flux. After that voters will veer towards one principal party. Which one? That depends on who does what over the next three years.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Item Number

Byline by M J Akbar : Item Number
Over three decades, the Left in Bengal has slipped, unconsciously perhaps, into another trap: "soft secularism". Because it has prevented riots, it tends to believe that it has done enough for the community.

Trust a Calcuttan to come up with the perfect political metaphor. We were chatting about the political mood of Muslims over tea and savouries on Id, and the conversation turned inevitably to the fate of Rizwan ur Rehman, the young man whose death in suspicious circumstances has set off a firestorm in Bengal. The Muslim vote, my Calcuttan friend said bitterly, had become like an item number in Hindi films. It was used to pump up the box office, and then dumped completely from the script.

For the very, very few of you out there who still do not know what an item number is in a Hindi movie: this is the generally raunchy song that is planted into the sequence without any pretence of reason, and with absolutely no consequence on the narrative. The Muslim voter feels similarly used by the political parties he supports. As my friend pointed out, at least those in the item number get paid for their contribution.

The best way to prevent disillusionment, of course, is to avoid the trap of illusion. And yet, the Left, spearheaded by the CPI(M), has given Indian Muslims cause for some comfort. Three decades of communal peace in Bengal during the reign of the Left Front have erased memories of what Bengal once was. Bengal is a border state that has been partitioned, and embers from 1947 raged till the mid-Seventies. In a sense the Marxist generation of Biman Bose, the present head of the party in Bengal, won its spurs during the frequent riots in Calcutta during the 1960s when it mobilised its cadre and stood on street corners, preventing hired goons from entering the city’s Muslim mohallas. Ever since the Left Front came to power in 1977, and Jyoti Basu became chief minister, a deft combination of political and administrative management has kept this particular beast out of people’s lives.

But over three decades, the Left in Bengal has slipped, unconsciously perhaps, into another trap: "soft secularism". Because it has prevented riots, it tends to believe that it has done enough for the community. There is an element of patronage in this attitude, as if providing protection to the lives of Muslims is a special favour rather than a government’s duty. One statistic, available in the seminal report on minorities prepared by Justice Rajendra Sachar, should be enough to make the point. Muslims constitute 25.2% of the population of West Bengal, but have only 2.1% of state government jobs. Kerala, which has almost the same percentage of Muslims (24.7%), has given 10.4% of state government jobs to the community. Assam’s ratio is similar: 30.9% and 11.2%. Bihar does better: it gives 7.6% of state jobs to Muslims, who add up to 16.5% of the population. Andhra Pradesh has the best record: 9.2% ofthe population and 8.8% of jobs. Uttar Pradesh, despite leaders who claim to be more-secular-than-thou has given only 5.1% of state government jobs to an 18.5% population. The situation is no better when it comes to health and education indices.The anger in Bengal therefore is much greater than the appalling mismanagement of one incident would warrant.

Muslim disenchantment with the Congress, the other party that received its enthusiastic vote in 2004, is more widespread and deeper. The cause is the same, a perception of injustice. Maharashtra’s Muslims are still waiting for the Congress to take action against those named in the Srikrishna report for fomenting riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque. The Congress and its ally, Sharad Pawar’s NCP, have been in power in the state for eight years. They have no alibis left.

A second reason is the treatment of Muslim suspects after the recent blasts by the Andhra Pradesh police. Torture was pervasive. This was the finding of the Andhra Pradesh State Minorities Commission, which sent its report to the government — which, till date, has opted for familiar silence. The street has its own means of forming an opinion, through what it sees. It notes police indifference in the investigation of the bomb blasts at Mecca Masjid, where only Muslims died and the zeal displayed elsewhere. A voter does not make up his (and more important, her) mind in one eureka moment. It is a slow accretion of evidence that takes the voter in one direction or the other when his moment comes, on polling day.

And then of course there is George Bush, the omnipresent ghost hovering over Dr Manmohan "Hamlet" Singh. The Muslim voter may not understand the finer points of the 123 Agreement, or the hammer blows of the Hyde Act, but he can see the headlong rush of Dr Singh into the embrace of the man who has wrought unprecedented havoc on Iraq, whose record is stained with the blood of perhaps half a million Iraqis, who has turned four million Iraqis into refugees and talks of permanent bases in a nation that wants his troops out yesterday.

Hamlet’s fatal flaw was not sleaze but indecision. The iron law of public life is clear: people will accept a wrong decision, but they have no respect for indecision. Dr Hamlet Singh’s sudden waffle on the nuclear deal has done the worst possible damage. It has made him look silly, and Bush look clueless. The latter may not cause too much damage to the American President’s reputation, since this is not the first time he has looked clueless. But for the Indian Prime Minister to slip from Super Saviour to Hiccup Hamlet is not good electoral news for the Congress. Dr Hamlet Singh is also probably beginning to appreciate the unpleasant fact that the admirers who basked in his kindness and favour for three years, were supporters of the deal, not supporters of the Prime Minister. The moment he suggested that life could go on beyond the deal, they began to demand his resignation. Hero-worship is a merciless profession.

Nor has the foreign policy story played out. Russia’s snub to external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was not permitted the customary call on President Vladimir Putin, and defence minister A.K. Antony, who could not even get an appointment with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, is a reminder that those who have stood by India with both military hardware and nuclear fuel have their own views on Dr Singh’s lurch towards George Bush.

It is already evident that while Muslims will still prefer Congress to the BJP in a straight contest in next year’s general election, Congress governments in the states and the Centre have done enough in three years to halve their support from this crucial minority.

How badly will the Left Front be affected in Bengal? There is one important difference between the Left and the Congress: while Muslims still expect some redress from the Left, they are cynical about the Congress. The Congress has habitually been long on rhetoric and short on delivery when it comes to affirmative action. The Left has a chance to cut its losses in Bengal but it needs to get its act in place fast.

What is beyond dispute is that Muslims are tired of being the item number of a general election, flashed out for five minutes and sent back to political purgatory when the elections are over. The elections of 2008 will probably be the last time that they will stick to their traditional anchors. If the only reward for their support is indifference, the item girl will write her own script for a movie in which she will be the star.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nuclear Winter

Byline by M J Akbar: Nuclear Winter

"A Prime Minister must ride high. You cannot rule India by riding low."

"Is there a difference between calculation and speculation? Not much perhaps, when it comes to Indian politics. But watch out for the omens."

The government’s retreat on the Indo-US nuclear deal, after three years of do-or-die bravado, can only be explained by that old adage: He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. Martyrs get memorials and medals, but they don’t get a second chance. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, sensibly, have opted for a second chance in preference to a charge of the light brigade towards immediate elections.

It is all a bit embarrassing of course. No general likes to march his troops to the top of the hill, heroic breastplates glinting in the sun, only to march them down again. Even if you do not lose a battle, you do lose face. But embarrassment is a small price to pay for survival in office. What the Prime Minister does need to worry about is loss of credibility. For three years he has told the country that the nuclear deal is central to India’s well-being and prosperity for the next five decades. At various points, opponents of the deal have been derided as unpatriotic and even enemies of peace. You cannot suddenly sit down to supper with pseudo-traitors and enemies with the thin explanation that life must go on. The Prime Minister raised the stakes. He invested more time and energy into this one policy than the rest of his decisions put together. This was the central fact of his administration. To walk away from such pinnacles of history with nary a whimper can only whittle the authority of a man leading a government.

A Prime Minister must ride high. You cannot rule India by riding low.

The only politician riding high now is Prakash Karat, and that is because he rode steadily through intense turbulence. That is always the litmus test in leadership, the ability to be steadfast in a crisis. He was steady because Marxists have a stabiliser called ideology. It would be incorrect to minimise the storms he was facing. If there was a typhoon charging at him in Delhi, there was a tornado behind his back, in Bengal.

The Prime Minister always maintained that he was motivated by principle, but when it came to the crux he succumbed to the politician’s irresistible lure for office. The Congress decision turned on something as insubstantial as opinion polls. You can see the relationship between public posture and psephologists. When some rather breathless television polls (where are they now?) predicted that the Congress would win 200 seats thanks to the nuclear deal, the Prime Minister picked up his lance and charged at the Left’s windmills, daring Marxists to do their worst. This was not a private dare; this was a public challenge. When the poll numbers began to drop, the triumphalism started to waver. The latest internal polling numbers must have been truly desultory to force such a retreat.

The paradox is that while it remains to be seen how helpful this will be to the Congress, the Congress has done the Left a huge favour. The Marxists are in a poor shape in Bengal (which makes Prakash Karat’s ideological clarity all the more praiseworthy). Ration riots — not seen since 1967 — have erupted in Marxist strongholds, and bode ill for the Left in an election. A Left bulwark in Bengal has been the substantial Muslim vote: Muslims account for 27% of the population and over 30% of the vote since they tend to vote in larger numbers. This support has weakened in rural areas because of Nandigram, and in Kolkata because of the case of a young man called Rizwan ur Rehman. He died recently in unexplained circumstances after falling in love and marrying a Marwari Hindu girl. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage, and the girl was content with a middle class home despite the fact that her father, Ashok Todi is supposed to be worth over Rs 200 crores. It is known that this money came from the less than respectable trade of illegal betting; you do not succeed as a bookie without a mutually beneficial relationship with the police. Rizwan’s family alleges that the police murdered him on Todi’s instance; the police claim it was suicide; the truth is in the hands of an enquiry, if the enquiry can find the truth.

Kolkata, true to its reputation as a bastion of spirited secularism, has treated this as a human rights issue, rather than a communal problem. Kolkatans have lots of reasons for pride in their city; this one is at the top.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is honest and sincere but he is no Jyoti Basu. Jyoti Basu was unique. He combined the patrician’s impartiality with a common touch. He could, through instinct and experience, read the common pulse and soothe the popular nerve at moments of crisis. Buddhadeb seems constantly torn between his administration’s self-centred advice and a public position that tends to suffer from poor counsel.

This is why Rizwan’s mother says that she would meet Jyoti Basu any time, but will not meet the chief minister. Buddhadeb was mature enough to visit the family despite the comment, which is an indication of how CPI(M) can turn things around.

In plain words, Bengal is in a bit of a mess. The one thing that the CPI(M) needs desperately is time to clean up the mess. It has the capacity to do so, with the help of Jyoti Basu, but it could never have managed this in the hothouse of an immediate election campaign. It needs a minimum of three months if not more. The Congress retreat has given it invaluable time.
The big mystery is: why did the Congress blink before it needed to? It could have waited till the CPI(M)’s politburo meeting on 18 October, or the next UPA-Left meeting on 22 October. A week is a long time in politics, and who knows who would have succumbed under internal pressure. The Bengal CPI(M)’s dilemma must be obvious. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s speech in Haryana was written to raise the pitch in preparation for an election. Why then the volte face?
Perhaps we need to return to our starting point: have Dr Singh and Mrs Gandhi survived to fight another day over the nuclear deal? If so, when is the "another day" scheduled?

The Bush administration has not changed its calendar. It still wants the necessary clearances from the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group so that the agreement can be sent back to Congress by March. It believes that it has enough leverage with both to complete the process in eight or ten weeks. Support in the Congress thereafter will be bipartisan. So, even if the deal were activated in December, it could still catch the March deadline. In other words, if you are a betting man, take your chances on a nuclear winter in India. That would of course mean an April election, but hasn’t the Prime Minister said, if winter comes can spring be far behind?
An April election would also be within the comfort zone of the Left.

Is there a difference between calculation and speculation? Not much perhaps, when it comes to Indian politics. But watch out for the omens. We already have one: the decision not to raise oil prices. Who wants higher prices in an election year? One can already see the whole Cabinet suddenly getting teary-eyed about the welfare of the poor, who have, for three years, been fed the old routine of minimal sops and maximum promises. That is another omen. If there is a sudden flurry of attention towards what are considered "Muslim" issues, that will be a third. Nothing sets off a frenzy of do-goodism quicker than the prospect of a general election. But you have to time these things accurately. This cannot be done too early, or time will expose them as hollow.

To govern you need balance, flair and credibility. The Prime Minister does much more than an administrative job. The momentum of power is not static. If you do not propel it forward, it pushes you back. You have to ride high. The only horse that moves on static is a hobby horse. Has the nuclear deal become one? The Prime Minister cannot accept yes as an answer to that tricky question.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Soft Hands

Byline by M J Akbar: Soft Hands

We think of political parties as either "big" or "small". The "big" are the Big Two, Congress and the BJP, because they spread across about half the country. The "small" are the rest, the regional powers.

Politics prefers soft hands. Why have Indian politicians suddenly started playing with knuckledusters? Democracy functions best when handled gently. Even an unrepentant villain knows that it makes sense to smile and smile even when he wants to be his natural self. That is the law of democratic behaviour. It is a gentle game, even if not a gentleman’s game.

All coalition politics begin with a promise. They survive when you add a "com" to the "promise". Compromise is the natural flow of give and take, an art that is familiar to Indian politics. In the last few weeks there has been an upsurge of a new mood: a desire to stick to a one-way street, to get away with what you can take.

Karnataka is a reflection of a larger phenomenon. The veteran of wile, H.D. Deve Gowda, has walked away from a commitment to hand over the chief ministership of the state to the BJP. Of course he hopes to walk all the way to an electoral vote bank, since his decision is an invitation to a fresh election, but his crutch is a lame excuse. How far can a lame excuse take him? The BJP has hardly been lily-white, provoking its partner at every opportunity. But it stuck to the letter of the agreement.

The hard lines in Tamil Nadu are, paradoxically, more fluid, but the alliance has gone askew there as well thanks to a gratuitous provocation. Chief minister Karunanidhi might believe that he can get away with an insult to Lord Ram in his own state, but there has been serious collateral damage to his principal ally, the Congress, whose fortunes are determined outside Tamil Nadu. The controversy keeps rising a notch a week, when it could easily have been calmed down by a suitable phrase of regret. Even when a sort of apology was offered, it was hemmed in by less than apologetic nuances. Curiously, the Congress seems either unconcerned or completely unable to do anything about the spreading simmer. Karunanidhi has been around long enough to know that a boomerang has struck the Congress even if it has possibly missed him. Does he care? Not by the evidence.

Never were soft hands needed more urgently than to save the coalition at the top of the bunch, headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. A Prime Minister who is in office thanks to support from the Left might have been expected to purchase velvet gloves for very very soft hands in order to massage the plethora of thorns in the nuclear deal he has fashioned with his now good friend, George Bush. Instead Dr Singh, who had the reputation of being the gentlest of men, has been swinging out with a passion that few expected. The worst of his anger has not been directed at the Opposition, but at the Left. In a series of comments he has literally dared the Left to do its worst, and now seems a little surprised when the Left has gone ahead and done its worst. A rigid certainty that he is right, and the only one who is right, does not help coalition sensitivities. There are many senior voices in the Congress who believe (naturally, only privately) that Dr Singh has hijacked the party with his inexplicable obstinacy. But any suggestion of even a mild compromise, like a little more time, provokes the muted threat from the Prime Minister that he will resign if talks with the IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group do not proceed according to the calendar set by George Bush. If there are any medals for political fidelity, the Victoria Cross for heroism in the face of common sense should go to Dr Manmohan Singh.

Is there a common strand in the sudden rise in the divorce rate in Indian politics? One explanation is obvious. The urge for power today has been replaced by the thirst for power tomorrow. The present coalition arrangements have clearly passed their sell-by date. Everyone has moved into election mode. The controlling force of events is not what will keep an existing government in power, but what will — hopefully, always only hopefully in a vibrant democracy such as ours — bring a party back to power.

But why should the prospect of a general election encourage fragmentation? Surely political parties need all the allies they can manage to cobble together before they ask the voters to choose?

Not quite.

We think of political parties as either "big" or "small". The "big" are the Big Two, Congress and the BJP, because they spread across about half the country. The "small" are the rest, the regional powers.

But this is not quite the way that the political players see themselves. Reverse the lens, and the second perspective might have more merit. The CPI(M) may be "small" vis-à-vis the country, but it is not merely big but dominant in Bengal. A Mulayam Singh Yadav, a Mayawati, a Chandrababu Naidu, a Naveen Patnaik may be dismissed as "small" in Delhi, but in their own playgrounds it is the Congress and the BJP who are small if not minuscule. In some states, the definitions are still in flux. That is why politics gets even more murky. The next election in Karnataka, for instance, will decide who is "big" and "small" between three claimants.

A progression process has now transformed into an elimination game in at least two states, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Maharashtra has two alliances, and four claimants. Intra-alliance tensions can become as volatile as inter-party antagonisms. The Shiv Sena and the BJP may have patched up for the moment, but their tensions will not disappear. The Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP can barely maintain a civil attitude towards each other. Everyone knows that the next election might change a rectangular balance of power into a triangular one. In other states, new forces are shifting traditional vote blocs. The biggest player in the coming churn will be Mayawati, who will foment a surprise or two in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

Partly as a consequence of competing ambitions, and partly because too many differences hinge on personality rather than ideology, there is recognition (albeit unmentioned) that the next coalition to rule India will be created after the results of the next general election are known, and will not emerge from a pre-election alliance. Only specific results can sift out ego and flatulence from fact. And so those political parties who can, or who feel confident enough, are ready to go their own way. They may return to present alliances, or they may go with a better offer. The players will sit at a tough negotiating table, confident that the one thing the game will not allow is a bluff. All cards will be on the table.

The cards will be hard, but that game will be played with soft hands. This is a democracy, after all.