Sunday, January 27, 2008

Friends and Masters

Byline by M J Akbar: Friends and Masters

Being an unrepentant optimist, let me begin with the good news. (Pessimism may be reasonable and even virtuous, but it is just too boring.) Pakistan’s trauma seems to have become a serial saga, with every episode raising the intensity of pain. But as a Pakistani friend visiting Delhi remarked, the events that culminated in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto were the first occasion when neither the Pak establishment nor the Pak street blamed India for any role in the tragedy.

At the root of the India-Pakistan problem is the Indian conviction that Pakistan will use any means, including war, to get Kashmir; and the Pakistani fear that India wants to destroy and subjugate their nation. There is sufficient evidence for the Indian conviction, the two wars of 1947-48 and 1965 and the present support to certain jihadi elements operating in the valley. Pakistanis see their evidence in the war of 1971, and the politics leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. They trace their angst to statements made by some prominent Congress leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, that it did not seem likely that Pakistan would survive. That was a misjudgment by Nehru: nation states, once formed, do not disband themselves voluntarily, although the creation of Bangladesh did confirm that the original idea of Pakistan had to be kneaded and reshaped. This fear has fed such suspicion that almost anything that goes wrong internally is instinctively attributed to the enemy. It may have needed an awful tragedy, but Pakistan has clearly begun to shed that fear.

This cannot be either instant or accidental. It takes time to peel skin from the psyche. It was the nuclear bomb that gave the Pakistani street the confidence that "bigger" India could no longer destroy "small" Pakistan. "Big" and "small" are notional facts. Britain could have fitted easily into Bengal but still ruled half the world. But the correlation between big and strong is so deeply ingrained that it is almost impossible to remove it from the subcontinent’s dialectic. When India and Pakistan went formally nuclear, the MAD doctrine was in place: war could only lead to Mutually Assured Destruction. Fear and anger, the two dominant attitudes, began to ebb.

Anger has not disappeared from Pakistan. It has turned direction. It is now primarily directed at the Army, which has usurped power too often, raised itself above accountability, and delivered neither inclusive politics nor good government.

At one level is the wrath of the liberal, symbolised by the lawyer but extending to other sections of the middle and upper middle class. It is angry at the complete abolition of values by the Army in pursuit of power. No one expects the Army to be a paragon of democratic virtues, but General-President Pervez Musharraf has assaulted institutions and robbed them of a powerful virtue, self-respect, in order to preserve himself in office. The judiciary has been castrated, and media bled. The democracy that he is advertising as his creation is a car with five wheels, in which he is the fifth, and biggest, wheel. Of course the coming elections in Pakistan will be free, although not quite fair; because the voters will be free to defeat anyone except him. He remains in power. An election is nothing if it cannot also be a popular judgment on the incumbent. But Musharraf’s term in office is outside the frame of this poll’s reference. Whoever wins, Musharraf cannot lose. Such is the logic of Army democracy.

A number of retired generals, not all of them hostile to Musharraf for personal reasons, have described him as the problem, and asked him to step down. There are indications that senior serving officers have recognised that what is at stake is the credibility of Pakistan’s most important institution, its Army. They have begun to withdraw Army officers from civilian space. Musharraf used to buy peace with his peers-in-uniform by shoving them into comfortable jobs as head of public sector companies, or quasi-government bodies. Generals were not only fighting wars on the Frontier, but also running cricket. This had nothing to do with patronage. It was that old sin of autocratic rule: back-scratching. Backs were scratched so often that the country got eczema.

There is another, stronger, reason for anger on the street, creating a problem with inflammable consequences. The Pakistani in the bylanes, bazaars and villages wants to know why Musharraf is fighting America’s war against fellow Muslims. An answer is essential in order to make this war legitimate in the eyes of the people. It is possible that the jawan in the Pakistan Army might be asking the same question as well, although discipline would prevent him from voicing it. Strange stories are seeping through from the battlefields where the Pak Army is engaged with the Taliban and its allies in Swat and the Frontier, leaving observers to wonder whether in some cases there is any engagement at all. The dry fact is that large parts of this region are outside government control, and Taliban presence has not only crossed into Rawalpindi and Islamabad, but also reached Lahore.

As a retired Pakistani diplomat remarked, a Nato defeat in Afghanistan would no longer mean the Talibanisation of Afghanistan alone. It could lead to a surge and victory for the Taliban in Pakistan.

There are danger signals popping up all over Delhi as well, if there was anyone capable of reading the message in flashing lights. India has launched a spy satellite for Israel, and is planning to send up two more. If these were media satellites, it would be explicable. But Israel uses its spy satellites as weapons against the Palestinian people. Someone is bound to raise the question: why is Delhi fighting Israel’s war against Palestinians? Silence will be treated as a guilty plea.

The reason is not complicated. George Bush created an international alliance after 9/11, but he has failed to convince even his allies that he is fighting a genuine war against terrorism. Most Muslims — make that over 90% — believe that he has started a war against Muslims rather than against terrorism. If they had any doubts before, they were removed after America’s wanton invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The consequences of Talibanisation in Pakistan are not limited to Pakistan. They will have a direct impact. We do not have to buy into dread scenarios being offered in gruesome books about a coup that brings a Taliban-general to power in Islamabad and threatens India, and the world, with the nuclear arsenal under his command. Such hyper-drama may be off the wall. But common sense suggests that Indian foreign policy should tread a far more careful path than Pakistan’s gung-ho generals did.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called Bush India’s best friend. He might want to ponder over the long-term implications of such friendship. Bush has another best friend. His name is Musharraf.

Tailpiece: The surprise name in the annual awards handed out by the Government of India to the worthy and the faithful was external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee. Governments do not generally hand out gongs to a Cabinet minister. As a retirement benefit, it was a few rungs lower than an alarm clock; but clearly Mukherjee is not in any mood to retire. What on earth was the Prime Minister trying to tell Mukherjee? "Sorry, I couldn’t make you Prime Minister, which I know you want to be, but I’ve got the job; I could not make you President of India because you were apparently too invaluable at a more junior level. So here, take this gong. You are now at least as good as Sachin Tendulkar, Asha Bhonsle and Ratan Tata."

Even more intriguing question: why did Pranab Mukherjee accept the award?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Roman Diary (Blood Brothers)

Byline by M J Akbar: A Roman Diary

India is the world’s latest quotation mark. Nepal has become a question mark, Sri Lanka an oversized exclamation mark; and Bangladesh is imprisoned between brackets, the space for leeway decreasing by the day. Pakistan is teetering towards a full stop.

China has turned into yesterday’s paragraph: still impressive, but with the contradictions becoming evident through cracks separating sentences.

What a wonderful feeling to be an Indian at that moment in history when the world begins to applaud as India comes within reach of that long-promised tryst with destiny, and shifts imperceptibly towards the centre of the stage. The auditorium is packed with distinguished Roman faces and eager journalists. The launch of the Italian Edition of my book Blood Brothers (published by Neri Pozza as Fratelli di sangue) is the excuse. They have come for another glimpse of the Indian story. The book is a portrait of the heart of India, pumping blood to its veins through valves distinct in faith but united in purpose. Italy is waking up to a question that has been asked and answered in India for a thousand years, that runs through three generations of blood brothers: how can different faiths live together? There are many convoluted answers. Here is a short one.

It takes two sides to make war. It also takes two sides to make peace.

The weights on the panel for the discussion about the book are heavy: Sandro Gozi, president of the Italian-Indian Association; Dr Roberto Colaninno, president of Gruppo Piaggio; Dr Guidalberto Guidi, president of Ducati Energia and Dr Giuseppe Marra, president of GMC. Italy’s businessmen are more interested in India than Italy’s politicians. That is the good news. The future is bright.

Businessmen succeed because they can read a balance sheet with bifocals. They also use night vision. They will not rev up the engines without foreknowledge of roadblocks in the night. I was asked direct questions. Let me mention two. What could sabotage India’s growth? And whatever happened to Gandhi?

Honesty demanded candour. Growth would be sabotaged only if there was continued neglect of the undergrowth. Growth was incompatible with poverty, or that corrosive, besetting sin, communal violence. The reason is not virtue. Morality is important, but pragmatism is more effective. Conflict is injurious to economic growth. Mumbai can have either riots or a booming stock exchange, not both.

As for non-violence: it was a brilliant strategy against an "invincible" empire. It is a hopeless glue for a nation state. The state cannot turn the other cheek against secession or terrorism.

One should have expected the favourite question of TV, print and radio journalists. What is common between Italy and India? I can think of two attributes immediately. Both Italian and Indian men are in love with, and in awe of, their mothers. And both drive cars in the heart of the city with the imperious impatience of maniacs. The Italians have an advantage though. Don’t bother if you are hit by most cars in a city like Torino. The car will get hurt. The small car is not only alive and well in Italy, but has all the impishness of a brat.

One could also suggest a unique sense of logic common to elements of both societies. The room service waiter at the friendly, gracious and very pretty Hotel Locarno in the heart of Rome, once a boutique residence of filmstars on a Roman holiday or on Hollywood business, was irrefutable. Twice he responded to my request for a bucket of ice and soda by saying that he could not take my order because his phone was not working. The third conversation was at his initiative. He, considerately, made the call. The phone was working now, he said, with more than a hint of triumph. I wanted to check how we had managed to communicate on a variety of subjects on the two previous occasions when his phone was not working, but decided that the dialectic might be in contravention of some labour law. I decided to let sleeping telephones lie.

Every human being has a friend. But only a few are privileged to have a friend like Dr Pippo Marra, the large-hearted baron of a flourishing media empire. Roman doors never remain closed before him. He had the imagination to start an Arabic news service that has become a hit across the Mediterranean: Italy is divided from the Arab world by a calm sea. His company shot to international fame when Al Qaeda chose to deliver its last message through his Arabic service. A cynosure of the media, he was the architect of the generous attention that Blood Brothers received. He offered me the ultimate hospitality, the liberal gift of his time. The highlight of his programme for me was a football match, AS Roma versus Torino FC, at the famous Roma ground, in the second of the two encounters between the teams in the knockout Italy Cup.

If news had spread that I was going to see Romano Prodi, it might have provoked a yawn or two. When people learnt I was going to see Totti, even friends could not disguise their envy. Prodi is a mere Prime Minister. Totti is a genius, star of Roma and sun of Italian football.

And how that sun dazzled! He did not come on to the field till about ten minutes after half time. Roma were still two goals in deficit from the previous game. The scoresheet was as blank as an accountant’s face. Play was stopped. Totti arrived. A thunderclap from Zeus roared down from the stands. Suddenly, touch, weave and thrust shifted the dynamic of a game that had plodded down narrow furrows. Totti flicked the ball, darted across, changed position. The field became wider side-to-side and shorter goalpost-to-goalpost. The Roma midfield and front line became touched with mercury. They found the net thrice in quick succession before Torino could understand what was going on, and then banged the ball into the net a fourth time after Torino lost their will. Totti scored his 200th goal in Italian football and received a standing ovation. I expect a standing ovation from my son when I eventually receive the signed Totti shirt that Dr Marra has promised to parcel.

It is mildly reassuring to be addressed correctly. Italians call people of the Islamic faith "Mussalmano" rather than the inelegant British "Moslem" or the absurd "Saracen". Crusaders used Saracen because they thought Arabs were children of Sarah, Abraham's wife. Mecca owes its origins however to Hajr, Abraham’s second wife. In such a fragment of language lies history. Arabs ruled Sicily till the 11th century.

Thoughts on a literary festival in Torino. The last temptation of an author, creator of characters, is to become a character actor in front of peers. Authors tend to write from the head and speak from the imagination. Perhaps it should be the other way around, but that would be far less interesting a spectacle. A literary festival is the space between ego and alter ego. Give an author a stage and watch a peacock dance. Some do it elegantly enough. Those with borrowed plumes never stop short of the Bhangra. The best, a rare few, sit on a stone in the corner of the stage, either waiting for Godot or chuckling at themselves.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Knockout Time

Byline by M J Akbar: Knockout Time

The logic of the last round can be significantly different from the strategies that have sustained a heavyweight bout thus far. When the contestants hear the final bell, they can be sure of two things in a democracy tournament: there will be a winner or a loser, because there is nothing called an inconclusive draw. Two, time is finite. This is a moment for decisions; the options of weave-and-duck are over. You need to conserve your maximum strength for the knockout punch in this winner-takes-all struggle.

Gujarat seems to have opened both the pores and the eyes of the Congress. From the pores has oozed some panic-perspiration. It remains to be seen whether open eyes will bring clarity. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has authorised some mobilisation of fresh recruitment to the ranks, and the person at the top of the wooing-list is Mulayam Singh Yadav, after three years during which Yadav was the target of some fairly ferocious pummelling. This is ironic, of course, since Yadav was humiliated, and then kept out of government, after he offered and gave full support to the coalition now in office in Delhi. A little more civility three and a half years ago, and the deal might have been in place all the while. Of course, if politics brings such bedfellows together, the Congress will suddenly convert Amar Singh from brash-lip to gentleman, and issue a character certificate to Amitabh Bachchan that he made no efforts to evade income tax and all along had been a bosom family friend. This is politics, or at least personality politics, a bane of Indian democracy.

The glue for a potential alliance is a common enemy, the forthright Ms Mayawati. The Congress should have realised many years ago that Mayawati and the Congress are incompatible because their vote-structure overlaps. If Mayawati succeeds, the Congress is sunk. She damaged the Congress in a dozen constituencies in Himachal Pradesh, and perhaps as many in Gujarat.
What can prevent a Congress-Mulayam alliance now? The same thing that sabotaged it to begin with: personal angst. Samajwadi Party leaders now have long lists of grievances, and unless they are remedied the acrimony will not suddenly disappear. The Congress will need more than one remedy in the North in the general elections that seem destined for this year.

The Left is still in a daze in Bengal, stunned by the virulent public anger over Nandigram and Singur. This is not an urban phenomenon, but has spread to the villages. The coming panchayat elections this summer will be as tough as any that the CPI(M) has fought. Moreover, the Muslims, who have been the strongest supporters of the Left, are slipping from its grasp. Justice Rajinder Sachar’s report has exposed the neglect of the community in Bengal; he is identified now not only with discrimination but also with justice. There is a double trap here. Even as the BJP plans to call Sachar report appeasement, Muslims are distancing themselves from their preferred parties out of disillusionment. The vacuum is being filled by the religious leaders, who have now created political platforms. The Left, averse to identity politics because of its conviction that class was the principal determinant, has become marooned.

To its credit, it has got the message and is addressing the problem, not just by windbag rhetoric, the traditional medication offered by politicians, but with a series of grass-roots’ programmes that have been sanctioned, and aim at basics like education and employment (including in the government sector). This may be insufficient to salve wounds before a general election, but it will be recognised before the next Assembly elections. The problem of Taslima Nasreen’s controversial book, and her immense desire to live among friends in Kolkata, has the potential to resurrect passions at any moment. If this book goes on sale at the Kolkata book fair in the last week of January this year, there could be trouble. The venue is the Park Circus Maidan, close to the Muslim localities of the city.

Can the Left do anything to recover before the Lok Sabha elections? It has one hidden asset, a bit of a negative one, but substantial nevertheless. We know what the Left Front is all about: the cumbrous economic transition process which has turned into a lurch rather than a trot; a stagnant administrative delivery mechanism that aborts the best of intentions; the weariness of incumbency. We know the size of each wart, and it is not a pretty sight.

But what precisely is the alternative, Mamata Banerjee, all about? We know she wants to be chief minister and throw the Tata car project into the Bay of Bengal. But how does she plan to provide jobs to Bengal’s young? We know she is censorious about the Marxist neglect of Muslims, but how precisely is she planning to deliver salvation? We have a lot of silence instead of coherent answers. The Left can exploit contradictions inherent in the personality-and-martyrdom politics of Mamata Banerjee if it has the skill and the will to do so. There was a time when ‘if’ would have been redundant. These days a qualification is necessary.

What can Dr Manmohan Singh do in the last months of his prime ministership? For starters, there is something he should not do. He must avoid the temptation to turn the last budget of his administration, due in February, into a charity jumble sale. Throwing money at vote banks simply does not work. It infuriates those who have been denied, and bores the beneficiaries, who wanted such inducements in the first budget, when there was time for implementation, and not in the last, when there is time only to ask for votes.

Everyone knows Dr Singh is a mild Prime Minister. That is admirable. Very few men are capable of modesty in high office. Power generally travels at lightning speed to their head, propelling them upwards like a gas balloon without a tail. Dr Singh remains simple and honest — even as all around him ego-wrecked ministers stack it up in sackfuls.
But the question Dr Singh must answer is this: has he been a weak Prime Minister? He has only one way left to kill such an allegation, and he has perhaps up to February and possibly March to do so.

The central thrust of his years in office has been the Indo-US nuclear deal, now wandering in the limbo of uncertainty and headed towards the purgatory of lost souls if left without a tether. The Americans are irritated at what they see as betrayal, or at least bad judgment. Indian supporters of the deal are aghast. If Dr Singh lets down the passion that he himself generated, he will not be given time for penitence.

As readers of this column are aware, I have opposed the deal because of many of the provisions of the Hyde Act, which I consider intrusive, abrasive and even impudent. (Why should Iran be mentioned 18 times in a bilateral deal between the United States and India?) But the Prime Minister believes very deeply that India can live with such conditions, and the trade-off is worth the benefits that will accrue to the country. He has always argued that the deal is in the national interest, in which case it is axiomatic that the national interest should prevail over the government’s interest, which is really nothing more than surviving a few extra months. It is not as if Dr Singh was being asked to sacrifice three years of his term. If Dr Singh stakes his government even now on the deal, you might be able to call him mistaken, but you will not be able to call him weak.

Without strength, he and the Congress might as well not even begin sparring for the last round — otherwise, instead of a knockout, we will witness a knockabout.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Policket Quiz

Byline by M.J. Akbar :A Policket Quiz

Test your knowledge, analytical ability and skill as an astrologer through this simple quiz on two of the three great national entertainments of India, politics and cricket. Tick your preference, cut out, keep and check how right or wrong you have been by the end of 2008. (Even 2008 will come to an end, in about 360 days.)

1: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will
a) Abandon the nuclear deal and remain in office for another year
b) Go for it, and challenge the Left and Opposition to a sudden-death election in May
c) Do neither and hope for the best.

2: The Padma awards on 26 January this year will be
a) Dominated by CEO-types as government reinforces its liberalisation image
b) Full of handouts to unknown sycophants backed by unknown ministers
c) Go to those who genuinely deserve them.

3: The Union Budget will be
a) More leftist-than-thou, a sudden reversal to pro-poor policies
b) Packed with subsidies to minorities
c) A repeat of last year’s neither-here-nor-there prescriptions, but this time overdosing on quotations from Tamil poets.

4: The BJP will
a) Return to depression after losing in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan
b) Discover stability and an alternative economic policy and win
c) Behave as if it has already won the next general elections and swagger to another defeat.

5: Sharad Pawar will
a) Send flowers every month to Bal Thackeray
b) Smile at the Congress and sabotage it at every level
c) Import huge amounts of wheat when international prices are at their highest.

6: The decisive factor in the next general elections will be
a) The nuclear deal
b) Rising prices
c) Narendra Modi
d) Fractious alliances
e) Mayawati’s ability to cut the Congress vote in seats she can’t win.

7: Bengal’s chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee will
a) Reinterpret Marxism through a thesis titled Bindas Capital, which will be popularly known as Buddhism
b) Be replaced as chief minister after severe reverses in the summer panchayat elections
c) Re-establish control over Bengal through guns, cadres and sops.

8: The Left will
a) Play hide-and-seek with the Third Front
b) Play hide-and-seek with the Congress
c) Play hide-and-seek with itself.

9: The Congress will paint Prime Minister-in-waiting L.K. Advani as
a) Modi without a beard
b) Modi without Gujarat
c) Modi without Modi.

10: The BJP will portray the Manmohan Singh government as
a) Do-nothing jee huzoors
b) Do-nothing minority-appeasers
c) Do-nothing except both of the above.

11: The Congress will
a) Taking a cue from Barack Obama, project Rahul Gandhi and ‘change’ as the theme song of its next election campaign
b) Stick to the comfort-level of Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership
c) Leave matters ambiguous, wait for the results to come in, and then see how the politics of power play out.

12: India and Pakistan will
a) Let relations stagnate for yet another year, using the excuse of uncertainty at the top and instability at the bottom
b) Search for a surrogate war in Afghanistan
c) Miraculously discover common sense and realise that unless they sort out Kashmir, and swim together against terrorism India will suffer and Pakistan will sink.

13: Rahul Dravid will unfreeze when
a) He realises that he was nicknamed The Wall, not Wall’s ice cream
b) Gets written orders from his wife to relax
c) Listens to his personal manager
d) Drinks six large malt whiskies in half an hour at a good Australian bar
e) Gets dropped.

14: We will get English cricket commentary when
a) Ravi Shastri realises that "batter" is a mixture of flour, egg and milk or water, used for caking food before frying, and not a man with a bat at the crease
b) When some unmentionables stop saying that it was not a very difficult chance, but not an easy chance either
c) When other unmentionables stop reading English in the Urdu script
d) When a basic grammar test is a compulsory requirement for anyone aspiring to be a commentator
e) When one or two commentators learn that people are interested in cricket and not in the volume of gas in their vocal cords.

15: The Indian Cricket XI by the end of 2008 will have
a) The present level of four Permanent Oldies, two regular Middle-Agers and young floaters
b) Seven Oldies, two MAs and two floaters
c) Three members of the Supreme Committee of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, seven Oldies and Shah Rukh Khan as coach-captain.

16: Sachin Tendulkar will score his fiftieth Test century in
a) 2010
b) 2012
c) At the age of 50.

17: Sourav Ganguly will
a) Be reappointed captain
b) Become chief minister of Bengal after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
c) Refuse to retire until he signs a Rs 100 crore contract to advertise casual shirts that come off easily without tearing.

If by the end of 2008 you discover that you have mastered both politics and cricket, you will be made a member of the Rajya Sabha and chair a special committee to investigate the role of bookies in fixing cricket matches.