Saturday, March 29, 2008

A real chance in Kashmir

Byline by MJ Akbar : A real chance in Kashmir

Terrorism is an internal threat, and far worse than any external threat could ever be, for the enemy within is always much more dangerous than the enemy without.

What do Pervez Musharraf, Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Altaf Hussain (chief of the MQM), Asfandyar Wali Khan (leader of the Awami National Party of the North West Frontier Province, soon to be renamed Pakhtunkhwa) and influential opinion-makers in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad have in common?

They have all come to a calculated conclusion: that the Indo-Pak impasse over Kashmir is now seriously detrimental to the economic and strategic health of Pakistan; that Pakistan has been held hostage to the Kashmir dispute and it is time to shake off the fetters of history and move on. These fetters have imprisoned travel and trade between neighbours and placed an expensive and unnecessary, if not quite unbearable, tension on the defence forces of Pakistan. They understand what common sense tells us: that free travel and mutually beneficial trade between India and Pakistan could transform the subcontinent, if not into a modern Europe then at least into the Europe of circa 1955.

They may not admit it publicly, but it is likely that the leaders of the Hurriyat in the Kashmir valley accept this privately. President Musharraf is on record as saying that borders do not have to change in any future accord. Zardari has told Karan Thapar in a television interview that Pakistan can no longer be held hostage on Kashmir to the detriment of its economy and defence. Columnists in influential newspapers like Dawn have written that Pakistan needs to break out of this suffocating straitjacket and get on with life. India and Pakistan have invested too much and too long in death.

This is not the view merely of an enlightened elite. The street is also tired of a hostility that promises nothing. War may have some meaning, however expensive and disastrous it might be, if there is a possibility of victory. But you do not have to be a strategic egghead to realise that Pakistan cannot capture territory in Kashmir from India. Since India is content with the status quo, it has no desire for a single square inch of "Azad Kashmir". What then is the point of confrontation?

The change on the street is reflected in an interesting shift of perceptions. 2007 was a traumatic year for Pakistan; the Afghan war had spilled over into the west of the country; the people were livid with Musharraf; and the turmoil peaked with the terrible assassination of Benazir Bhutto. But not once in the whole chain of lurching, searing events was India blamed for instigating any trouble. India and Kashmir were totally absent from the rhetoric of the Pakistan elections, for the first time in the nation's electoral history.

That old idiom has worn so thin that it can't be seen anymore. The people know that their problems begin at home and must be addressed there. A self-declared Arab friend of Pakistan was telling me, with despondent acerbity, that the national slogan of Pakistan has changed: "They used to say 'Pakistan Zindabad!' Now they say, 'Pakistan se zinda bhag!'" Terrorism is an internal threat, and far worse than any external threat could ever be, for the enemy within is always much more dangerous than the enemy without.

The solution is not with us yet, but it would be fair to suggest that the Kashmir dispute is over. The mutually-acceptable future border will be the present border: the line where the two armies ceased fire on the first of January 1949, and which they have guarded with such zealous ferocity for six decades. Six decades add up to two generations of lost sisters, forgotten cousins, and a relentless hostility that has aborted the potential of two nations. Everyone has heard the question: why do Indians and Pakistanis get on so well in a third country, and how come they do so well in a foreign habitat? The answer was always simple: because they were not living in India and Pakistan. Over the last decade India has begun to make such jokes irrelevant, but that is nothing compared to what it could achieve in harmony with a natural economic partner like Pakistan. It would vitalise SAARC, and set the subcontinent, which still has the poorest parts of the world on its landscape, on the long route towards self-respect.

Is this column too optimistic? Perhaps. After six decades of pessimism perhaps we should be permitted an hour of optimism. The dynamic of power has changed in Islamabad. While the military-civilian partnership could be fraught with tension in domestic affairs, it is a good fit for India policy. Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are talking the language initiated by Musharraf. (Now that Pakistan has also got a Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, it is more important to find out Zardari says.)

But of course the moment has to be propitious on both sides. One of the minor tragedies of the Indo-Pak equation is that when one side is ready the other is busy, or seems to be busy: it is easy to manufacture an excuse when you do not want to do anything. However, India is heading into its election season just after Pakistan has cleared its calendar. No one readily fools around with either war or peace on the eve of an election, unless you have become either careless or desperate. Delhi lost a great opportunity when Musharraf was riding high; but even if high drama is not possible, there can be forward movement on trade and travel. But whoever forms the government in Delhi after the next election cannot afford to waste time, because by then time might be running out in Islamabad.

Should those Kashmiris who challenged India on the strength of support from Pakistan feel betrayed or relieved by this swivel? Practical sense suggests relief, because they were caught in a deathly squeeze between quarrelling elephants. The idea of an independent Kashmir was always a lemon; neither India nor Pakistan would have permitted such a state on such a sensitive geopolitical flank. Punjab and Bengal were divided in 1947; Kashmir was divided in 1949. Those facts are unlikely to alter. The fate of Kashmir may be settled, but not the fate of Kashmiris. Peace between India and Pakistan will give them de facto if not de jure unity because it will restore free movement of people and goods across the ceasefire line. That is not a small gain in a life that is finite.

The danger of ignoring this moment should be obvious. If peace cannot be found when it is waiting patiently in the drawing room, then we are creating an opportunity for some future warmonger. The continued American presence in Afghanistan, the repeated American incursions into Pak territory and the resurrection of Taliban are creating tensions that are making Pakistan's Army vulnerable to internal pressures. Instability breeds unpredictable brats.

I have long held the slightly heretical view that India and Pakistan will have to work as allies in troubled Afghanistan, but for that to happen we have to find an alignment of self-interest and identify a common enemy. A resolution of the Kashmir dispute is a first, and urgent, requirement to meet a much larger challenge.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The World is Round

Byline by M J Akbar :The World is Round

The Congress theory of political success in the next election consists of simple arithmetic. Rural sops will bring the rural vote. The nuclear deal will bring in the urban vote. The massage of promises and words will retain the Muslim vote.

If Dr Manmohan Singh loses the next general election — predicted for October by the knowledgeable — he will know whom to blame: his best new friend George Bush. Bush has achieved something unique. He has globalised defeat.

The reasons and means vary. In Britain Tony Blair may be eased out and in Australia John Howard may be driven out, but the word in common is "out". Bush crippled himself long before time made him a lame duck. He began to cripple his friends at the height of his power, and the curse continues in the twilight of his term.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh escaped the swamps of Iraq, but he could become the victim of one bilateral Bush initiative, the potential nuclear deal with India, and the huge, chaotic mismanagement of the economy that has compounded the gushing fiscal wounds of the Iraq-Afghanistan war. Bush has financed this colossal misadventure with IOUs on history and debt from the world economy, setting off a sinful (as opposed to virtuous) cycle.

Debt and war have destroyed perpetrator and victim alike in the past. They are doing so again. Bush's wars cost $33.8 billion in 2002; they have ballooned to $171 billion by 2007. Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel for Economics, has estimated that the cost of the Bush wars could cross three trillion dollars by 2017, that is, in another ten years. Go figure, as they say in America. Where has the money come from? Debt.

Debt has helped weaken the dollar. Producers who sell oil in dollars, seeking to keep their income constant in real terms, and oil companies who profit in whichever direction the wheel spins, have kept raising the price of oil. A spiral effect has driven prices into the stratosphere. Oil was $23 a barrel when the Iraq war began; it is over $110 now. The pressure of prices has induced an impassioned chorus for alternative energy. Bush decided to subsidize the production of ethanol to produce this alternative energy. American farmers switched from food-for-the-stomach to crops-for-cash. There is now a critical shortage of wheat and rice around the world. The temptation of cash and higher prices impact on the pattern of agriculture. Cash crops replace staple crops. The prices of basic edibles join the spiral. India is now on the cusp of inflationary pressures that could go ballistic, even as the government has no solution in mind except a series of sops that will be throwing a bucket of water into a desert. Prices of basic food and oil in the Indian bazaar are rising at a dramatic pace. For the poor, this is a kick where it hurts most, in the stomach. Their pain will be reflected in the vote in the next general elections.

This too is globalization, a chain of sequence and consequence that is linked across the world.

The managers of 'globalization', a vast and varied array of vested interests that may not necessarily be in harmony on some issues but always closes rank to protect its core interest, take care to cohere globalization to good news. It is a brand that needs protection in order to get promotion. Bad news, even when it becomes a worldwide epidemic from a single virus, is never called globalization. No one uses the term when the New York Stock Exchange sneezes and Mumbai catches a cold. This would tarnish the image of globalization as the panacea in a post-Marxist age, a libertarian answer to socialism's impenetrable dogma. Very few — although Stiglitz is famously among the few — wonder about the tipping point, when the liberty of this philosophy morphs into license into virtually printing money.

One reason — of course, not the only one — why share markets today are as flat as the globalize world is because the meaning of capital has changed, shifting in the process the original goalposts of capitalism. Capital was the means necessary for the production of goods and services that could be sold for a profit, creating jobs and higher-standard lifestyles. Profit, of course, has always been an elastic word, stretching as far as the market will bear. Hence, marketing became a tool by which a need was enhanced into an illusion in order to raise prices and maximize profits. Thus soap, a need for the elimination of dirt, was elevated into a magic wand that would make you into a film star. Perfume is no longer a discreet veil over body odour, but a sex accessory. A handbag is no longer a convenience; it is a photograph of your bank statement. A watch no longer merely tells the time; it is a status symbol. But all this is acceptable because, at the core, there is a product, created out of capital.

But we have now moved into share markets and a world economy where there is illusion without a base, and value is attached to a fiction; and when the principal purpose of money is not to add to the quantum of goods and services but merely to make more paper or plastic money. The Sensex keeps rising in increasingly thin air, crossing peaks that are not made of rock but are arbitrary niches in the financial ozone layer. Even in the best of times, turbulence in the American economy, by far the most powerful, would have sent shudders. But connectivity now honed to marginal shifts in value, a sub-prime crisis in America wipes out ban profits in India. There is little insulation.

The Congress theory of political success in the next election consists of simple arithmetic. Rural sops will bring the rural vote. The nuclear deal will bring in the urban vote. The massage of promises and words will retain the Muslim vote. Hallelujah! We are all in power for five more years. The arithmetic could get disjointed by algebra. Prices cross the rural-urban divide, leaving anger in their wake. The minorities have heard the talk, and got nothing substantive; while Muslims are angry at the alliance with Bush which makes India a possible ally in Bush's wars against Muslim nations.

The most consistent fact of democracy is its ability to surprise governments who think they have won elections before the votes have been counted. This happened with the last national government in Delhi. The BJP has still not psychologically recovered from the shock that told the party that India was not shining as luminously as it thought. If the Congress does not watch out, it could face some shock therapy soon.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Long Onion Road

M.J.Akbar The Long Onion Road
For the Congress, the Budget is less important than the continuous reconstruction of Rahul Gandhi as a future Prime Minister. He has the privilege of dynasty, and is above conventions. One can understand a touch of nervousness in a first speech by a new MP, but after four years in the House you have to live by its rules.

A short cut is often the longest road in politics. As the time to the next general election shortens to months from years, both the Congress and the BJP are searching for a short cut to power.

The temptation is understandable. Politics is a difficult journey, rife with roadblocks and accidents. But who will persuade politicians that voters live on the long road, not the short cut?

There is something very irresistible about a short cut, with its promise of speed and good luck. The massive loan waiver in finance minister P. Chidamabaram's end of February Budge is such a classic short cut that the only reaction from ruling coalition MPs has been a demand for more handouts. They want waivers on everything: you merely attach 'poor' to a bank loan and sanctify a political purchase. Debit is being converted into political credit. When you have run out of good sense, you throw money and hope for the best.

The opposite of a bad debt is a good debt. If you could make a nation rich by handing out cash to the poor, every nation in the world would be wealthy. It costs very little to print cash, as the Germans of the Weimar Republic discovered when they discovered that it was cheaper to burn currency notes for heating rather than buy fuel with it. Eventually the Germans burnt their respectable inflationary government and brought Hitler to power. There are many factors that are pushing up today's Indian inflation, but the sudden injection of non-productive cash into the system will certainly not bring inflation down.

You don't have to win the Nobel Prize in Economics to realize that an economy is lifted by an investment of good debt. How does that concept translate into policy in the case of a starved rural economy? You have to invest in a ruined farm, not in a ruined bank account; the future earnings of a revived farm should pay off the debt, which can be amortized over a longer period. It took no more than a day for the synchronized post-Budget applause to muffle. Economists and analysts punched holes in it.

Congress used an old tactic to cover up mistakes in the hurriedly-packaged offer, by packing remedies into Rahul Gandhi's speech on the Budget, which he read from a prepared text. He may not have fully understood the details, since economics is not his strong subject, but his staff did a good collage of newspaper clippings.

Why is there a convention in Parliament that you do not give your speeches from a prepared text? Parliament is not a test of memory. Parliament is not a classroom where the student with the highest rote-quotient wins the most coveted prize. An MP is permitted use of notes, and the best orators refer to them during a debate. Most debates are on complex matters of governance; much of the detail can be infuriating in its obscurity. But that is what governance and Parliament are about. The reason why you do not read from a prepared text is because you are meant to have a grasp of your subject. You place your own views in front of the House, not a speechwriter's; that is the difference between a speech that is delivered and one that is read out from a prepared text. For the Congress, the Budget is less important than the continuous reconstruction of Rahul Gandhi as a future Prime Minister. He has the privilege of dynasty, and is above conventions. One can understand a touch of nervousness in a first speech by a new MP, but after four years in the House you have to live by its rules.

A further privilege is that the dynast is placed in charge of all the good news. The bad news is left for minions to handle.

The BJP is consistent; it does not change its short cuts. It has only one short cut in its route map: how to bring Muslims into every argument. This has become a bit of a yawn, but it seems to have run out of other things to say. Or perhaps it is simply on-message: Muslims are not going to vote for the BJP so why worry about them? It needed a terrific leap of imagination to link this Budget to that of another finance minister of India, Liaquat Ali Khan.

The two Indias were as unlike as the two finance ministers. Liaquat Ali Khan was finance minister of united India, or, more accurately, British India, for the princely states did not come under the purview of the government in which he was a Cabinet minister. He held the finance portfolio in the interim government formed a year before independence, in which both Congress and the Muslim League participated, a sort of partnership in regress. The two parties had nothing in common, not even a country. Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister: Gandhi and Jinnah, as symbols of their people, were above the latitude of mere governments. Finance was allotted to the Muslim League. Liaquat Ali Khan's most notable achievement was to throw dust in the machinery of government so that it ground to a halt; no one accused him of actually helping anyone, though he did hurt some businesses because, in the lexicon of that period, they were "Hindu". His name has been forgotten not only in India, and I suspect is barely remembered in Pakistan, although he was Jinnah's successor. That service was brief, since he was assassinated in Rawalpindi in 1951. I doubt if millions of votes will take a fast short cut to the BJP's ballot box because of its reference to Liaquat Ali Khan but there could be an inadvertent, minor revival of Khan's name.

In its desperate search for votes, the government – surprisingly, for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an economist of standing, and has surely discovered the perils of electoral politics after four years in office – has taken its eyes off that dangerous curve ball that could become the most decisive factor in shaping the popular mood: prices. Inflation is running at over five per cent now, and the price of food is climbing at a much higher rate. This is not the first time that farmer-populism is being touted as the all-purpose panacea. One wonders if anyone remembers the name of Chaudhry Charan Singh. He too was a Prime Minister of India, if only for six months. Just before he took the top job he served as finance minister and threw as many lollipops as he could towards his core constituency in the only Budget he presented. Nine months later, Mrs Indira Gandhi swept to power on a decisive issue: inflation.

The price of onions made the government weep in the winter elections of 1979-80. Watch out for the onions, Prime Minister.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Double Play

Byline by M J Akbar: Double Play

The Congress election formula is in place. E=M multiplied by C raised to the power of 2. E stands for elections. M represents Money, public money of course. And C is for Chidambaram, the finance minister who delivers an annual elixir for permanent youth rather than a mere budget, unlike s more pedestrian finance ministers. When Chidambaram throws public money, he does so with a heft and dexterity that would be the envy of champions. Whether he heaves a discus or hurls a javelin, his target is the same: the ballot box. He is so delighted with the cheering from government benches during the presentation of the national Budget that he has been urging all and sundry to think of a general election as early as in May. He believes that Congress can sweep back to power on a Chidambaram wave.

Actually, he may get his wish, although not quite in the manner he expects, if the Left withdraws support to the UPA government this month over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Hallucination comes easily to anyone in power, but is there any merit in the Congress presumption that it can pick up the rural vote with this massive loan waiver, and the urban vote with the Indo-US nuclear deal? The political argument for the nuclear deal was put forward by Mrs Shiela Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi, just after Prakash Karat, general secretary of the CPI(M) asked the government for immediate clarity, and set a deadline for 15 March. Mrs Dikshit was given this difficult job because she is one of the few Congress leaders who still retains some credibility with voters. Electoral politics is never an easy partner of credibility, and Mrs Dikhshit’s might have suffered a scrape or two when she charged the Marxists with being anti-national Chinese agents who were coming in the way of India’s progress. This sort of thing is about four decades too late; it went out of fashion by 1965. Marxist leaders [including Jyoti Basu] were detained as potential fifth columnists during the Indo-China war of 1962, but proved, in the very next elections, in 1967, that the people thought them patriotic enough. The Marxists came to power for the first time in Bengal as part of a United Front in 1967.

They are still winning forty years later. The Marxists created history with a sixth straight victory in the Tripura Assembly elections. The Left Front got 49 out of 60 seats, increasing its numbers by eight; the Congress was down to 10, decreasing from 19. The CPM got 46 seats, a majority on its own; its allies got three. The Congress had done everything it could: it engineered an impression, pushed forward by sections of compliant media, that there was a huge anti-incumbency wave in the state. The Congress poured money into its campaign, and patched together a cynical and unhealthy alliance with a man who was on every terrorist list not too long ago, Bijoy Hrangkhawl. Mrs Sonia Gandhi raised the pitch with an intemperate speech that indicated what the Congress line on the Left is going to be.

The turnout was extraordinarily heavy: 92% of the voters cast their ballots. This is generally considered bad news for incumbents. The Left stood conventional wisdom on its head. There is no electoral bribe by the Congress that could have changed such a verdict.

Those who believe that they can hustle voters with large lollipops underestimate the maturity of the Indian electorate. The Indian voter can be persuaded with honesty and good governance; he cannot be purchased with handouts or fiscal tricks. In the last phase of its recent campaign in Gujarat, the Congress ran up a substantial laundry list of promises, including the offer to waive loans. It made not the slightest difference; the BJP won. Cabinet ministers like Kamal Nath have publicly voiced their skepticism, and serious economists have questioned the Chidambaram waiver [the details of which, by the way, are still the exclusive property of his intelligence, but will hopefully be made available for public viewing soon].

The Marxists, in the meantime, have decided to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh government if it does not end all negotiations on the nuclear deal. That is the simple meaning of the formal letter written by CPI general secretary A.K.Bardhan. The estrangement could develop into divorce even as early as next week. The Congress has bought time so far by deliberate waffle, but that purchase is now exhausted. The real arguments will begin, before the court of public opinion, after the break.

The Congress cannot pass the budget without support from the Left. If the alliance breaks, the Congress will accuse the Left and the BJP of sabotaging what it will surely advertise as the greatest gift ever made to farmers in the history of farming. That hoary old cliché, “an unholy conspiracy”, will be the centerpiece of every Congress leader’s cyclostyled speech.

The Left will respond with its own accusation: the Congress could have easily delayed the deal and pushed through the budget. But since Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi preferred America and George Bush to farmers, they sacrificed the farmers to placate America.

The BJP will watch the fun and talk of Rama Setu bridge.

The Congress is in election gear. It is looking for new allies everywhere, and pushing the patience of even loyalists like Laloo Prasad Yadav. Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently wooed Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with a trip to China. Amend that: he offered an ego trip to China in an effort to create a rift between Nitish Kumar and the BJP in Bihar. It has also thought up a facile way in which to challenge Mayawati, by throwing up the idea of a Dalit for Prime Minister after the next elections. Anil Shastri wrote a piece suggesting this in the official Congress publication, and then prodded journalists to spread the idea through their media. Such semantics will not dent Maywati’s support, which is rock-solid in her community; but they could
damage one of the very few clean faces the Congress has, that of Dr Singh.

Is everything fair in love, war and elections? Not quite. Love is a relationship between two individuals; war is a contest between two armies. The outcome of elections is determined not by the contestants, but by a third force, a massive jury, the electorate. The morality, immorality or amorality of politicians is measured against the values of the voter. The prevalent mood of the Indian voter is to reward honesty, and punish corruption and deceit. If the farmer thinks that the loan waiver is an elaborate hoax, the Congress will suffer.

All sides will make their case directly to the voter in rallies. The voice of India will become the noise of India. Peace will return only after the general elections.