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.