Sunday, November 25, 2007

Calcutta Volcano

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Calcutta Volcano

A democracy does not eliminate alibis, but it certainly reduces them. There is a thin line between anger and violence, but that line is drawn very clearly in a free nation. Because democracy provides so much unique space for anger, it demands that its citizens do not cross that line.

Calcutta’s Muslims crossed that line on Wednesday, during their protests against the presence of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in Bengal, and the publication of an article about her that they considered unacceptable.

Indian Muslims have much to be angry about. Some reasons are genuine, but some continue to be byproducts of that siege mentality that crept into the consciousness of the community at the beginning of the 19th century and has not quite left two hundred years later. This perhaps is why Indian Muslims sometimes forget that they also have a great deal to celebrate in their country, not the least of them being that their identity has found a powerful place in Indian democracy.

Indian Muslims are the only Muslims in the world to have enjoyed more than five decades of uninterrupted, unconditional, adult franchise democracy. They remain marginalised economically, but the polity has empowered them vigorously. In large and decisive states like Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh they control the swing of the electoral pendulum. They constitute 27% of the population of Bengal, but I suspect that they add up to more than 30% of the vote since they vote in larger numbers, which is excellent. If there is any tendency to become smug, all they have to do is take a look to the right and left, towards fellow Muslims who created separate nations in the name of liberation, first from India (in 1947) and then from Pakistan (in 1971).

Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh have achieved independence, but they have not found the freedom that should have come with it. Their freedom has been patchy. They have been imprisoned not by foreigners but their own elites, and subjugated by their armed forces who have distorted patriotism to seize power and institutionalise dictatorship. Pakistani Muslims today thirst for a democracy that Indian Muslims take for granted.

This, and it is important to stress it, is not a special favour to Indian Muslims. They have as much right to liberty as any other Indian. Democracy does not belong to any faith. Equally, no particular faith is synonymous with democracy. Islam did not make Pakistan a natural democracy; nor did Hinduism turn Nepal into one. Buddhism has not ensured democracy in Burma; its generals bow and bow and still remain autocrats in uniform. India is unique because of the ideology that won it freedom from the British: a commitment to multi-cultural equality and a celebration of the unequivocal rights of individual and collective liberty. But that freedom is not a licence to hysteria. Crowds have the right to gather, people have the right to be heard, but they have no right to descend into a mob. The means of protest also determines the degree of its acceptability.

What bands of Muslims did in Calcutta was, therefore, unacceptable. It is curious that, for a variety of seemingly unrelated reasons, a city that has enjoyed peace for three decades under Marxist rule is beginning to rumble dangerously. How many volcanoes have begun to smoke in its alleys? How many explosions will erupt and how much lava will flow through its urban ranges? The anger of one community, Muslims, is only a part of the story.

The causes of Calcutta’s periodic outbursts are both visible and invisible. In the last instance there may have been festering fury against provocative remarks in a magazine article, and the presence of a writer. This is information at the news level. But an unknown, or barely-known, "minority" organisation cannot manufacture such a corrosive event unless it had succeeded in stoking the embers of many hidden fires. All you have to do is take a look at the inner city of Calcutta, by far the poorest part of the metropolis and populated almost entirely by Muslims. The young Muslims of Bengal, whether Bengali or Bihari, are feeling totally alienated from economic growth. Worse, no one has time to draw any kind of route map for their aspirations. It is as if because they have been permitted to survive and vote, they do not deserve anything more. They’ve got a life, why do they need a job?

The political class is either patronising, indifferent, exploitative or hostile. The code is not difficult: each one of those terms is applicable to one mainstream party or the other. The only adjective they could easily share is "exploitative". The BJP, which does not get the Muslim vote, is either indifferent or hostile. The Congress, Left and the "secular" regional forces treat Muslims as election fodder that can be mass-produced by an appeal to the mosque, or the manipulation of the mosque leadership. The political parties have no interest in encouraging genuine leadership capable of guiding the community’s young through their problem towards that degree of hope which is rising as the Indian economy surges forward. The Muslims play an infinitesimal part in this "economic miracle". The cynicism of the Congress is acute. The Planning Commission, which is part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s area of interest, has just rejected a comprehensive sub-plan for Muslim welfare as part of the Eleventh Plan, while approving similar plans for Dalits and Adivasis. No reasons have been offered for this partisan decision. How should Muslims react? By falling at the feet of the government? Don’t wait for it; it won’t happen.

Why should the mainstream parties wring their hands in hypocritical despair when mavericks or fire-breathers occupy the space that they have left vacant? Older Muslims may be tired or resigned, but the young are angry and volatile. We have seen but a glimpse of this volatility in Calcutta or Nandigram. It is only the beginning of a process that could become a horror story.
How do we prevent a pool of anger from becoming a cesspool of violence?

The silliest diagnosis would be to treat it as merely a law and order problem. The Army marched through Calcutta’s streets last week; the last time it did so was in 1992, when a sudden spike of fear shook the city after the demolition of the Babri mosque. Fifteen years have passed between the two events. A child born on 6 December 1992 could easily have been a member of the mob in November 2007.

Is it only the child who is at fault?

1992 came and went; once calm returned, those in power confused it with peace. For fifteen years that child has watched India turning into someone else’s paradise on the flickering screen of a street corner television set. No one has sent him an entry ticket to that paradise. He has not even been allowed to smell the flavour of the gate. No one has shown him a future to which he could belong. He has been told, implicitly, to content himself with squalor while others on the same level as him have begun to take tentative steps towards new horizons. How long would it be before the temptation to slash and burn seized him?

India’s opportunity lies in democracy; India’s solutions lie in economic growth. It is dangerous to provide the first and deny the second.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who Killed 2007

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Who killed 2007?

It is with some regret that I note that the year 2007 passed away under mysterious circumstances. Time dies every moment, and we are so inured to its passage that we welcome the arrival of the new, rather than mourn the death of the old, year. So why should 2007 merit regret? The reason is sentimental. It died prematurely on the Indian subcontinent, and one must shed a tear for anything that ends before its time is up. The remaining weeks between mid-November and early January have been put on hold in both India and Pakistan. (Bangladesh is in an exceptional situation; the whole nation has been put on hold till further notice.)

Was this premature death murder or suicide? The coroner is undecided, but the evidence points to homicide.

President Pervez Musharraf has completed his agenda for the year: sacked his Supreme Court, then packed his Supreme Court; switched Prime Ministers from the submissive World Banker Shaukat Aziz to the pliable Mohammadmian Soomro; put on his uniform and signed a decree giving special powers to the President of the nation to lift the Emergency "whenever he sees fit", taken off his uniform and gratefully received those powers as President of Pakistan; arrested and incarcerated the bold, house-arrested and released the beautiful; won the endorsement of his mentor President George Bush, and announced user-friendly elections for early next year in which everyone's job is at stake except his own.

How could life be better for someone who was supposed to have cut the branch on which he was sitting? His opponents might get awards from Harvard; he remains the one with medals on his chest, or his chest of drawers, but firmly with him. Political business in Pakistan is, apart possibly from a whiff of occasional grapeshot from lawyers, and the more regular potshots of terrorists, closed till those user-friendly polls.

The Internet has become a vehicle for fraud chain-mail messages purporting to be pearls of great wisdom. However, some are not too bad, if only because they are culled from the original in order to strengthen the credibility of the interspersed rubbish. Two adages are currently floating around in the name of the great pre-Christian era Indian (or, technically, Pakistani, since he lived most of his life at Taxila, which is north of Islamabad), Chanakya: "A person should not be too honest. Straight trees are cut first… The biggest guru mantra is: never share your secrets with anyone; it will destroy you." President Musharraf has been a good student of the fake Chanakya.

It is holiday time in India as well. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken his nuclear deal with America to as satisfactory a pause button as he could have hoped for. He and his troubled and troublesome allies on the Left have found a very delicate, if somewhat tenuous, line on which to declare a ceasefire in their war over relations with the United States. The ceasefire line is this; the Left has given permission to the government to go to the IAEA, but not to go on to its board of directors for approval. This may seem a simple enough compromise, but there are nuances that can be exploited. India only has to conclude a safeguards agreement, not sign one, in order to begin consultations with the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations. Technically, the reference to the IAEA board can be made even after the NSG round. So Delhi can argue that it has operationalised nothing after having squeezed out this concession from the Left. The Left has made this concession because it is in desperate need for time: the longer it can delay the inevitable general elections, the better it will feel.

When Indian politicians talk about saving face, you can be certain that what they really mean is saving their necks.

Both sides know that this ceasefire line can hold only up to a point; since the Bush boys will work overtime to rush through the next stages so that it goes on the agenda of the US Congress by late January. The chief American negotiator, Nicholas Burns, has already explained why America wants India to sign on the dotted line.

Let me quote from his article in Foreign Affairs. "The benefits of these historic agreements are very real for the United States. For the first time in three decades, India will submit its entire civil nuclear program to international inspection by permanently placing 14 of its 22 nuclear power plants and all of its future civil reactors under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Within a generation, nearly 90 per cent of India's reactors will likely be covered by the agreement. Without the arrangement, India's nuclear power program would have remained a black box. With it, India will be brought into the international nuclear nonproliferation mainstream".

The deal takes India into the non-proliferation regime, in America's assessment, through a side door, while America of course continues to proliferate in the name of one war or the other. And Burns goes on to stress India's potential role in America's war in Afghanistan.

The Indian National Congress knows this, and is putting in place its political strategy for elections. The AICC session in Delhi on 17 November was summoned to formalise the obvious: castigation of the BJP as an all-weather menace, attacks on the Nandigram-tainted CPI(M) as a seasonal plague, and the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as successor to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and leader of the party in the next general elections. The party will seek the youth vote through Rahul Gandhi, the "hriday samrat" (emperor of hearts) who can be trusted with the future, when all other parties are led by men of the past. The nuclear deal will be sold as the beacon tracing the way to new horizons.

For the Congress, the utility of 2007 is over.

This, of course, is good news for the rest of 2007. If the politicians need a respite from politics for six weeks, guess how much respite ordinary citizens need from politicians.

2007 is in delete mode, but should it be preserved in the memory bin or sent to the trash can?
There will be no debate in Pakistan: 2007 was a year that they wish had never been born. The genesis of its troubles lay in Musharraf's uncertainty about whether Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry's Supreme Court would institutionalise his, and by implication the Army's, place in the power structure. There would have been no fuss if the Court had readily ruled in his favour. Months of strife later, a reliable Court is in place. Those who argue that Musharraf has no popular support rather miss the point. He did not become "Chief Executive" through popular support, so why should he worry about it now? He is ready to offer pseudo-democracy to democrats. It does not, in the final analysis, matter much to him whether Shaukat Aziz is his Prime Minister or Benazir Bhutto, as long as he is President. If Ms Bhutto becomes Prime Minister will she dictate what the armed forces do, or will the armed forces dictate what she should do? The answer is obvious.

2007 came and left India on the wings of the nuclear deal with the United States. If governance was crippled in Pakistan, it was certainly hobbled in India. Will the two governments walk by 2008? An Indian general election is medicinal. Whoever comes to power will canter in the first year, slow down in the second, stumble in the third as the medicine wears off and a fresh dose is needed. A Pakistan general election will only elect a parallel government. It will get into office, but not necessarily into power. The future gets dim without power.

So was it murder or suicide? Murder in Pakistan, and a bit of a heart attack in India I think.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Band-Aid for Cancer

Byline by M.J. Akbar: A Band-Aid for cancer

Pakistan’s dilemma can best be described as a conundrum. Over the years, the nation’s polity has discovered a means of bringing military dictators into power, but no way of removing them from office.

The first two, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Yahya Khan, were wrenched out of office by failure in wars against India. The third, General Zia ul Haq, arguably the most skilled of the lot, needed the intervention of the Almighty. Zia opted for a proxy war with India, a game he could not lose because he never admitted he was playing. The fourth, General Pervez Musharraf, the most accidental of the dictators, who owed his beginning to a flight that went awry, fought his India war before his coup, and has spent eight years alternating between peace by proxy and war by proxy.

The conundrum is further mystified by a paradox. Each dictatorship was legitimised by the guarantor of the Constitution that had been usurped: the Supreme Court blessed each new "Chief Executive" of the nation, the term Musharraf fondly bestowed upon himself before turning to more grand appellations, through the tired "doctrine of necessity". General Musharraf received this benediction from the Supreme Court as well. No court ever asked who considered every coup to be necessary. The people were never a referee, and had to be content with the lies that periodically wafted over the airwaves promising a restoration of "democracy". Ayub Khan’s democracy was so basic that he won more than 95% of the vote; Yahya Khan nullified the results of the free elections he held; Zia ul Haq smuggled Prime Ministers in through rigged polls and kicked them out before they grew too big for his boots.

The Zia model is a tempting one, and Musharraf has fallen for its lure except for two problems. Musharraf is no Zia. And Pakistan between 1999 and 2007 is not the Pakistan between 1976 and 1986. Nor are the Afghan wars, the central facts of their terms of office, the same. There was clarity about the enemy when the United States, and the Pakistani intelligence, military, government and people fought the Soviets. Today, the Americans may be certain that they are fighting the Taliban, but where is it? In Afghanistan? In Pakistan? Within the Pak Army?
Ronald Reagan needed Zia more than Zia needed Reagan. Musharraf needs Bush more than Bush needs Musharraf.

That is the sand under Musharraf’s feet.

He is not the only one child building fortresses on sand. If Musharraf is no Zia, Benazir is no Zulfiqar either. It would simply never have occurred to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that the route between Karachi and Islamabad was via Washington. Benazir’s case for power rests on her proximity to Washington. She is eager to go the extra mile required for genuflection to George Bush on her journey to power. She did not, for instance, need to offer the Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan’s head on a stars-and-stripes platter. But the rewards of power are substantial. Corruption charges have been forgiven, and the comforts of office beckon. Khan is a tarnished and dead pawn in her game.

Ironically, A.Q. Khan (described by Musharraf as late as in 2003 as a nuclear giant and a gift to Pakistan from Almighty Allah) was a protégé of Zulfiqar Bhutto, who started Pakistan’s nuclear programme and can legitimately claim to be the father of the Pakistani bomb. He picked up finance for the project from the Muslim world by claiming that it would be an Islamic bomb. We are not done with irony: neither Zulfiqar, nor his cheque-mates, nor the American administrations that quietly gave the nuclear programme a pass in the cause of friendship, understood then what connotations the term would acquire in the first decade of the twenty first century, or that America’s primary dread would be the thought that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might end up in the private arsenals of warriors with long beards.

America is now a direct player in Pakistan’s internal affairs, and in the enviable position of being wooed by the establishment as well as most claimants to power.

In the absence of democracy, the struggle for power is between two unelected constituencies, the military and the judiciary, and one pseudo-democratic force, Benazir Bhutto. America is a hovering referee, choosing to intervene either when the situation threatens to slip into chaos, or to prop up those it considers reliable. The judiciary is the weakest of the three, because its only weapon is public sympathy for a much-eroded legal framework. It has no executive at its command, and there is always a queue (as Zia proved) at the door of the judges’ chambers. This is why Musharraf could replace the Supreme Court before the Supreme Court could replace him. Benazir’s over-insistent emphasis on democracy is bogus, because her democracy does not include competitors like Nawaz Sharif. She wants to rig the elections before they have begun, by the neat method of eliminating the one person who can challenge her party. America has come to her help, through Saudi Arabia, which leaned heavily on Sharif and took him back from Pakistan. She may tolerate the Jamaat leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, because he is the establishment Islamist, but will endeavour to scissor out even Imran Khan, whose individual credibility has risen sharply because of his courageous and consistent opposition to military dictatorship.

It is often said that nations have no permanent friends or enemies; they only have permanent interests. Their friends and enemies are as variable as global warming, but Musharraf and Benazir do have one trait in common: permanent individual self-interest. America has welded this into a temporary alliance, shaped long before the Emergency (the not-so-secret meetings in Dubai are hardly forgotten) and sweetened by the withdrawal of corruption charges against the lady. The Emergency itself is a blip in the plan, which will be corrected once the military is satisfied that a court cannot interfere with its grip on decision-making. The Bhutto rhetoric about democracy is too thin to hide the fact that she has compromised with the military. Stimulated debates over Musharraf’s uniform beg a simple question: if Musharraf does not represent the military, then what is he doing in any office? He surely isn’t there because of the overwhelming love of the masses.

The alliance is vulnerable to self-inflicted wounds. If the Pakistan military begins to believe that Musharraf’s mistakes have damaged the institution he represents, then it might seek an alternative leader. Washington will have no problem with that, since America is interested in the military, not an individual. Its interpretation of democracy does not stretch so far as to exclude the military from power. But the greater difficulty will arise when the time comes to share office. Benazir’s definition of an "elected" leader’s authority could so easily conflict with the implicit limits laid down by the military.

The election that Pakistan needs is not for a new government, but for a new Constituent Assembly that can, for starters, eliminate the "doctrine of necessity" from the options before the Supreme Court. The debate between democracy and stability is facile, because, as experience has proved, one cannot exist without the other. There is a civil, and civilian, society in Pakistan that has been waiting too long for an opportunity to lift the country above dictators and corrupt politicians.

Pakistan’s polity has developed cancer. A Band-Aid, even one made in America, will not do.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Left with an Alternative

Byline by M.J. Akbar : Left With An Alternative

The Indian Left is much larger than its most visible face, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It is split three ways, each currently pointing in three directions. The CPI(M), CPI and their smaller partners represent the institutional-democratic element. The Naxalites, or Maoists, are the unstructured, undemocratic but increasingly potent dimension.

The recognised parties are restricted to one large, one medium and one small state. There is reasonable dispute over the true strength of the Naxalites. Some argue that many state governments are too eager to declare some of their districts Naxalite-infested because this translates into non-budgetary assistance from the Centre to curb the "Naxalite menace" in the name of that variable virtue called "law and order". But even if the Naxalites are not as powerful in the claimed 170 districts, there is no doubt about their influence in over 80 districts — sufficient to direct the course of the vote if they choose to do so. The Naxalites do not have a coordinated view on important issues, but it may be relevant to note that they were the first political force in the broad opposition spectrum to take an unambiguous view of the Indo-US nuclear deal. They rejected it comprehensively. We do not know if this will be reflected in the elections within those 80-odd constituencies, but it might if, as seems likely, the nuclear deal becomes a central focus of the next general elections.

A third aspect of the Left base goes largely unrecognised because it is not obvious. This is the vote that would have gone to the Left, if the Left had existed on the electoral map of that region. This is the "poor" or "garibi" vote that once automatically went to the Nehru-Indira Gandhi Congress, but which no longer recognises the party. Congress sensitivity is so heavily magnetised by the Sensex that it has no space for any parallel reality. This vote has switched twice, in the North, to regional parties. The first time it did so was in 1967; the second time was after 1989. The patterns in the South followed a different course, but there too the vote has shifted or swung between the Congress and regional parties.

The latest beneficiary of this phenomenon has been Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. There are two reasons why the BSP could break out from the limits of provincial success. Its core base, the Dalit, is spread across the country. The Dalits and Muslims constitute the only powerful nationwide vote blocs. Other vote blocs may be national in their sentiment, but they are not nationwide in their presence. There is also great overlap between the Dalit, Muslim and "poverty" identities. If Mayawati can harmonise and then mobilise these identities, she can extend her UP numbers into a much larger calculus.

Mayawati is essentially occupying the space left vacant by an absent Left. This is why she cannot make much headway in the states where the Left is entrenched. Alternatively, she succeeds handsomely where the Congress has ebbed.

What are the chances of a Left crumble, if not collapse, in the next general elections?
Kerala is a seesaw, so the Marxists cannot hope to repeat their success of 2004. They will succeed, however, in tiny Tripura, because they have delivered on the two basics of good governance: distributive economic growth and social harmony.

Uncharacteristically, the CPI(M) has fumbled on both counts in the critical state of Bengal. While Nandigram may continue to dominate the headlines, Bengal’s Marxists should be equally worried by the riots against ration shops in their heartland constituencies, like Birbhum. Food riots destroyed the Congress before 1967, and they will eat into Marxist margins in 2008.

One of the curious myths, sponsored by the current mania within the upwardly mobile middle class, is that the underprivileged are either unreasonable in their demand for exclusive attention, or, worse, simply unworthy of too much attention since they are a drag factor on economic growth. It is obvious that such self-comforting panaceas have infected Bengal’s Marxists. The truth is that the poor are far more realistic than they are given credit for. They do not believe that there is some magic wand. They have more patience than the better off; not because they are more saintly, but because they have fewer options. What the poor do possess, however, and have every right to retain, is a powerful sense of justice. They can read a signal, or detect a nuance quickly, for they do not have the luxury of complacence. The Bengal government has increasingly indicated that it prefers middle-class cosiness to street sensitivity. The manner in which, for instance, it has repeatedly snubbed Muslim sentiment is spectacular in its amateurishness.

How big a price will the party pay? The Marxists may still be rescued by the stand that the national leadership has taken against the proposed strategic alliance with the United States that constitutes the core of the so-called nuclear deal. In real terms, this strategic alliance means involvement in American conflicts in the Middle East. The Muslims have a rather unique distinction: they are possibly the one Indian community with a foreign policy. They have no sympathy for George Bush, and there could be electoral rewards for the Marxists in Bengal and Kerala, if they retain the clarity to find it. This will compensate for some of the malfunctioning in governance.

But the true opportunity for the Indian Left lies in the phase or politics after the next general elections, between 2008 and 2012. And this opportunity will open up in the Hindi heartland. One can see the impetus that created the groundswell for regional parties (most of them splinters of the old Socialist movement) beginning to fade. We might not see the explosive self-destruction of 1971, but it will be difficult for the regional parties to hold their own against the resurgent claimants of this space. The Hindi heartland will probably return to one of the two mainline parties by 2012, either the Congress or the BJP, depending on which of them has managed to preserve its credibility. The outside option in this game is the BSP, but its rise will only be a consequence of Congress implosion, since their vote base is similar if not the same.

The only alternative to either the BJP or the Congress will be a Left Front on the lines of the Bengal or Kerala model. The Kerala model, in fact, may be more relevant, but with a northern manifestation of the Muslim League thrown in. The ground for such a coalition will have many seeds, from the old Socialist movement of Dr Ram Manohar Lohia to the spadework being done by the Naxalites in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The Naxalite tactic of violence cannot be an end in itself; it must be the means towards a more sustainable political objective.

The future of the Left does not lie in the continuation of poverty. That is negative bias disguised with clever semantics. No one has a vested interest in poverty, least of all the Left. The future of the Left lies in justice, not poverty; in an economic programme that can create wealth without handing it over to a narrow apex.

That apex, however, is crowded by an orchestra of sirens. Can the Left leadership, as it negotiates its way through troubled waters in the next five years, resist the lure of those sirens?