Saturday, May 31, 2008

From Promise to Compromise

Byline By M.J.Akbar : From Promise to Compromise

A government slips from "midterm" to "end-term" condition not when it has lost its majority, but when it has lost its ability to govern. Only a confident government goes for a midterm poll because it believes it will be re-elected; an "end-term" election takes place under an anxious one.

Language facilitates communication; but becomes a trap when misused. The misuse may not be deliberate, merely complacent. But a complacent phrase can enter the discourse, shape decision or indecision and leave a sharp, self-inflicted wound.

"Midterm election" is a case in point. One is not being pedantic; a midterm election does not have to be precisely in the middle of a government's term. But there is a political definition of "midterm" that separates it clearly from the "end-term" phase of a government's life.
In the British-Indian system of a parliamentary democracy, a "midterm" election means any election called prematurely, either because the government feels it is advantageous to go back to the people, or because it no longer has the majority to survive, and Parliament cannot offer an alternative ruling formation.

A government slips from "midterm" to "end-term" condition not when it has lost its majority, but when it has lost its ability to govern. Only a confident government goes for a midterm poll because it believes it will be re-elected; an "end-term" election takes place under an anxious one. Tony Blair, the most successful Labour Prime Minister in history, won three elections by going to the polls early. He had not lost his majority; he chose an earlier date because he considered it politically propitious, and it was the point at which he could maximise the extent of his victory.

His successor, Gordon Brown, took office a year ago and entered his "end-term" phase within four months, when he somersaulted out of an implicit promise to call an early election. He may retain the confidence of Parliament, but he lost the confidence of the country. Since then he has been Dead Man Walking. If Labour does not change him he will take Labour to the grave: where else would you expect a Dead Man to go?

A calendar has something, but not a whole lot, to do with a government's credibility. Governments do not explode suddenly, in a blaze of fireworks. The more objective metaphor is colder. Governments melt like icebergs, piece by piece, before sinking into oblivion. The moment this process accelerates, the "end-term" begins.

The decisive moment for the Manmohan Singh government came last August, when it seemed, for about a week, ready to challenge his coalition in pursuit of a policy which the Prime Minister believed was in the national interest: the Indo-US nuclear deal. The force and conviction with which the Prime Minister hyped up the deal was sufficient to convince many in-between that there must be something in what he said. The Prime Minister was, not so subtly, transferring his personal credibility to the deal, and many were ready to buy this transfer. But when the same Prime Minister walked away from the nuclear deal in order to save his government, his personal credibility took a beating. He became just another politician who was ready to compromise the national interest in order to remain in power. If the deal was truly so vital to India's future, then it was more important than the few remaining months of his government. And if it was less important than his government, then it was not so vital after all.

After that, the Communists began to wag the dog, creating just enough distance from the alliance they had delivered, baby-sat and nurtured. Last August, the Congress could have signed the deal and increased its seats in a subsequent election. After Gujarat, its tide began to ebb. In August 2007 the Gujarat elections had not taken place. The BJP was still a defeated party. Narendra Modi not only saved his party; he also shifted the key debate to governance. His victory was on the single issue of good governance. And just at that point, the Manmohan Singh coalition's reputation for competent governance, never particularly high, began to wither. If it had tainted itself with compromise on the nuclear deal, it began to seem pathetic in tackling economic issues.

It is now evident that inflation ate away any goodwill for the government at a rapid pace: the fire of the belly rarely leaves authority untouched. The mismanagement of oil prices speaks for itself. Oil prices did not start rising last week; this has been a phenomenon spread over the whole of last year. Many serious economists were predicting the prices we are witnessing today. A government with time on its side has the ability to take tough decisions. By winter it was clear that the government had limited options: it could raise prices, which would mean risking the stability of the coalition and a further push on inflation. If that was unacceptable, it could have initiated measures to reduce consumption. Or, it could have foreseen the crisis ahead, argued that only a government with renewed strength could handle such a crisis, and gone to the people. It did nothing. Today, it is in a complete bind. There is no money to meet higher costs (particularly after the great squander of national wealth in order to bribe voters in the Budget), and no will to raise it from consumers. If prices do not go up, we will see an oil famine in the country as oil companies run out of funds.

A government that could have won an election last August is sitting, heavy-bottomed, on a panic button eight months later.

There is only pseudo-drama in the much-debated question on whether the government should call an election in October-November or wait for the scheduled end of Parliament in March-April. It doesn't matter much anymore. The Opposition, which was once eager for a midterm poll in the forlorn belief that anything was better than the status quo is now quite happy at the thought that elections might take place only next March. In its view, the longer this government sticks around in office, the more seats it will lose. Yes, of course, a delay would enable some ministers to make more money, but who can argue with the kismat of the corrupt?

The Manmohan Singh government has travelled from promise to compromise; it will need huge dollops of good kismat to travel any further.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Double Jeopardy

Byline by M J Akbar: Double Jeopardy

The Marxists may believe that they can finesse public opinion with their periodic sulks against the Manmohan Singh government even while they dine in splendour to celebrate four years of joint rule. But the people are not that easily fooled. They know the difference between talk and action. They know that artificial froth costs nothing, while the price of food they buy in the market is rising each day.

There is a television game called "Double Jeopardy" built around the rather depressing thought that the answer to a problem might be a problem in itself. India's Marxists have just discovered that this game could spill over into reality.

Moralists have long condemned those politicians who enjoy power without responsibility. The CPI(M) is now discovering the pain of having responsibility without power. That is probably closer to a triple jeopardy.

If ever there was a double jeopardy in politics, then the hammering they have just received across West Bengal in the panchayat elections is a gloomy, or glowering, example. From control of 2,303 village panchayats in 2003, the CPI (M)-led Left Front has stumbled to 1,633; the Mamata Banerjee-led disunited Opposition ascended from 917 to 1,463. Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress won more than three-fourths of the village councils.

Two facts stand out in the Bengal results: Mamata won villages that she had not even bothered to campaign in; and the most decisive shift away from the Left was the Muslim vote which it has wooed so consistently with its absolutist opposition to the BJP. The upsurge against the Left in Bengal is therefore greater than these results indicate. If this pattern holds then the Left could lose more than 15 seats in the next general elections.

And it is no longer sufficient to go red each time you see saffron in order to pocket Muslim votes. Muslims want more, including bread and education. As the Sachar Committee's report proved, during more than three decades in power the Left has given neither to Bengal's Muslims. It has certainly provided security to the community, but that is not enough. You cannot take land with impunity from the Bengali Muslim peasant and yet frighten him into voting for you. That era is over. The tectonic shift in the Muslim vote has cut the ground from under the CPI(M)'s Fortress Bengal.

There are many reasons why the Muslims did not revolt against the Left Front before. The leadership of Jyoti Basu was both charismatic and reassuring. Basu knew the language that would communicate with the people, even if in practical terms (that is, bread and education) he did not do very much. He shepherded the community through its most vulnerable phase, 1970s and 1980s, with the kind of concern that the sentimental might even confuse with affection. It was psychologically impossible for Muslims to leave the CPI(M) as long as Jyoti Basu was at the helm. His successor, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, was another matter. Buddhadev had been insensitive to Muslim sentiment even when a minister in Basu's Cabinet. Muslims might have accepted his lectures on the aazan and madrasas if he had begun to address their bread-and-education concerns. Instead, the lectures came with the most appalling usurpation of land in Singur and Nandigram. Muslims were among the worst affected.

There is a phenomenon that is being shrouded by the shift of the Muslim vote towards Mamata Banerjee. In the 1960s, as Bengal's Muslims abandoned the Congress, many of them first went to marginal parties, including outfits led by the clergy. In the elections of the late 1960s, parties that were variations of the Muslim League set up candidates and got a reasonable chunk of the vote. The CPI(M), under the leadership of Jyoti Basu, weaned the Muslims towards the Left and eliminated such parties. They have returned to Bengal politics.

A little before the panchayat elections, Jyoti Basu made a casual remark that was not so casual: it was time for another Front, he suggested. The CPI(M)'s partners are displaying signs of fatigue. But an alliance with CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc may be a smaller problem than the Left's dalliance with the Congress in Delhi. The Marxists may believe that they can finesse public opinion with their periodic sulks against the Manmohan Singh government even while they dine in splendour to celebrate four years of joint rule. But the people are not that easily fooled. They know the difference between talk and action. They know that artificial froth costs nothing, while the price of food they buy in the market is rising each day. Blaming the rest of world doesn't really help: oil prices shot up to unprecedented levels in 1973 as well, but it did not help Mrs Indira Gandhi when she blamed the international situation for domestic inflation. The government can take comfort from clever opinion polls. A recent one showed that the UPA government had 34% support, as against 26% for BJP and its partners. Then buried somewhere deep in the copy lay an interesting fact: the survey was done among 1,600 respondents in the big cities, and restricted to the very rich, the topmost socio-economic categories. The rich find inflation less demanding than the poor. And if Dr Manmohan Singh cannot get the vote of this segment, which constitutes less than 10% of the population, then he has no vote at all. I am sure if you take a poll within my family, you will find my support at 34%. If you check with the whole mohalla, it could be a different outcome. The difference between the Left and the UPA might seem distinct over dialectical debates in Delhi; it seems a blur from the villages of Bengal. Jyoti Basu always had a wonderful alibi when faced with difficult questions. He would blame lack of cooperation from Delhi and send subliminal signals that this was also discrimination against Bengalis. Buddhadev Bhattacharya tried to blame the Prime Minister during the panchayat elections. No one bought his story. The voter had seen him cozying up to Delhi too often.

The Marxists will lose very little if they lose Delhi. The Left can afford to lose Delhi; it cannot afford to slip in Bengal, or it will disappear for a decade.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Dance of the Ghosts

COVERT (15-30TH MAY 2008)
Posted from Princeton University where he is giving a lecture on Talibanisation of Pakistan)
One suspects that Congress whizkids and a few whi­zuncles will rush to sell Rahul Gandhi as India’s Obama. The similarity is superficial, if there is one at all. Rahul Gandhi is an image of youth but not of change; he is yet another rung of an ageing idea called dynasty. The real parallel to Obama in India is the spectacular trajec­tory of Mayawati.

Old rules get old because they have legs to walk through generations. Time, then, to re­call one of the oldest: When you are dead, lie down. So many politicians simply don’t get this, whether they are provincial wannabes like the erst­ while Congress satrap from Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Das or the woman who wanted the White House, Hillary Clinton.

I am familiar with the face of defeat – not least my own in 1991, when I failed to get re-elected in the general elec­ tion, during my brief departure into politics. But never have I seen a visage as utterly depressed, seething with the last twitches of a withered dream, as that of Bill Clinton standing behind Hillary on the night of 7 May. For the re­cord, she was delivering a “victory” speech after the Indi­ana primaries, but her words turned instantly into ash the moment they left her mouth. Poor Bill got the blowback. He knew that this was the last dance of a dead campaign. Four more years of adulation and power had disappeared into a blank. I’ve seen long faces too, but that evening Bill’s jaw was nearer his nipple than his lip.

There are no exact parallels, least of all between de­mocracy in the United States and India, but common questions can open fresh lines of thought.

Does Barack Obama represent the arrival of a new role model? Will this drama of startling shifts energise hope elsewhere?

Barack is young, but he is not about youth. George Bush and Tony Blair were startlingly young when they won office; they have aged decades in less than ten years. Pow­er seems to be an aphrodisiac for the old (P.V. Narasimha Rao yesterday, John McCain today), and decomposes the young.

The Barack phenomenon is about identity, not youth, the vital first act as America attempts to exorcise the de­mons that have kept the enslaved and dispossessed on the margins, not totally excluded in these “liberal” times, but not fully included either. His personal history is the an­tidote of convention. He is a child of an absentee black, talented Muslim father and a white, bright, single mother who survived for a while on food stamps. His personality, his success and his dramatic invasion of the white political club, with -- to the shock of traditional America -- a coalition of white college kids and his black community, provokes reservations, suspicion and downright, barely-disguised hatred. The Clintons, who are brilliant at surreptitious pol­itics and viral-marketing, positioned him as the ultimate Manchurian candidate at a time of Bush’s war against “Is­lamofascism”: they converted him into a “closet Muslim” without of course letting the phrase escape through their noble, if clenched, teeth. Worse, he was an uppity snob who had the temerity to wear Gucci,drink latte, and, worst of all, dress and dance better than the Clintons. The Clin­tons have every right to a bank balance of $109 million between them, earned in the last eight years. An upstart should remain a degree below latte. Obama prevailed among the Democrats not because he had changed but because enough of America has changed.

One suspects that Congress whizkids and a few whi­zuncles will rush to sell Rahul Gandhi as India’s Obama. The similarity is superficial, if there is one at all. Rahul Gandhi is an image of youth but not of change; he is yet another rung of an ageing idea called dynasty. The real parallel to Obama in India is the spectacular trajec­tory of Mayawati. She never studied in Harvard, and the only law she knows is that of the jungle through which her elephant has had to fight for survival. But she rose from the margins and is imploding upon the Centre by extraordinary political skills. Her coalition of Brahmin, Dalit and Muslim is if anything more impressive Obama’s. She does not wear Gucci (she thinks Rahul Gandhi does). But she does wear diamonds; the contempt/anger/hatred and pseudo-morality that her wealth induces is evident enough. She does not belong to the class that has a hered­itary right to be dishonest. But the most important simi­larity is that she has energised her own community to an unprecedented degree. The Dalits are the blacks of India; Babasaheb Ambedkar is their Martin Luther King; Kanshi Ram is their Jesse Jackson; and Mayawati is their Obama. Being less suave than Obama, she is both the acceptable and unacceptable face of Change; she can apply the rhet­oric of Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr, the pastor who has made incendiary remarks against white racism and America, depending on the audience she is addressing, or dismissing.

Obama is leading a sophisticated upheaval. Maya is heaving against prejudice that has congealed over many thousands of years. In neither case has the Establishment surrendered, yet. The Republicans believe they can slice Obama up and feed him to middle America. The Con­gress is convinced it can undermine Maya after she has sabotaged herself. All options are possible, for the tur­bulence and direction of change can never be certain. Hillary Clinton refuses to lie down even when declared dead because she still hopes that the unpredictable will somehow emerge from the inconceivable. If the correct­ly-pigmented John Edwards had pounded her as Obama has done, she would have shaken his hand and accepted the Vice President’s nomination some time ago. But with chocolate-flavoured Obama, you never know when some circumcised skeleton will fall out from the cupboard.

The candidate may be dead. The ghosts dance on.

There is a second old rule in politics. Stick with friends, but stick closer to enemies. An Obama or a Mayawati has learnt that sentiment is a trap. Once you have fought a foe to death, you can always dance with the ghost on the way to power.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Will we, Won't we?

Byline by M J Akbar: Will we, Won't we?

Hearing about the indestructible indomitable will of the Chinese, in the solitude of my Singapore hotel, set me thinking about the kind of will we humble Indians have. Is our will, in comparison, highly domitable? What does domitable mean? Is it the opposite of indomitable? Is there a word called domitable?

One of the minor attractions of a foreign hotel room is the chance to switch on a strange television channel. The field is open; any country with a reasonable budget and a desire to be seen as an international player now has a state channel airing its version of events.

Predictably, the British thought of this wheeze first: very few know that 50% of the BBC's expenses are still paid by the British Foreign Office. In the heyday of Empire this was considered a legitimate part of national duty; and during wartime, the investment provided extraordinary returns. The logic had to be twirled around in the post-imperial phase, and the BBC repositioned itself as the international guardian of truth, democracy, liberty, freedom and whatever the British Foreign Office considered worthy and useful. To its credit, the BBC was never as obedient as the government would have liked, which is why it discovered an international audience. There was a time when BBC radio was perhaps the most important source of news for much of the world. The BBC could even dare the government in wartime. It famously refused to describe British troops during Mrs Margaret Thatcher's Falklands War as "our" troops and called them "British" troops. At this distance this may seem a minor or perhaps even a trivial distinction, but for those in media who have to deal with nervous governments during wartime, there is nothing trivial about standing up for identity. Still the umbilical cord exists, and no one quite knows when mummy is tugging at the cord.

The American experiment in quasi-government media independence has been, shall we say, less successful. The Voice of America is only accurate in one respect: it is the Voice of America, with a modification – it is the Voice of the American Government. The VOA's spectacular spread is matched only by the spectacular failure of its inability to reach anyone. Credibility cannot be purchased by dollars. Or by Euros, for that matter. But what is good about European news channels broadcasting in English is that they offer you a different dimension of warzones like Iraq or Palestine. The American coverage, including that of non-government media, tends to follow some invisible consensus in which, for example, Israel can do little wrong and the Palestinians little right. The consensus does not extend to all aspects of coverage, but it certainly conditions reporting of war.

Even when you do not understand the language of television reporting, as for instance on Turkish channels, it is always instructive to see the images that are being broadcast. They are significantly different from the "consensus" images of Anglo-Saxon media. The great effort to take independent coverage to an international audience was made, of course, by Al Jazeera when it followed up its hugely successful Arab channels with an English version. The effort is brave; but the jury is still out on the quality of its impact. There is a sense of discomfort in English Al Jazeera, or perhaps the more accurate term would be uncertainty. It is never sure which note to hit. This grey confusion does not exist in Arabic, because it was always certain what it wanted to do. It was the first channel to report the Arab street, even when this caused great discomfiture to Arab governments. Although Al Jazeera is owned by Oman's rulers, they have wisely kept a distance between their channel and their foreign policy. Al Jazeera is hated by more Arab regimes that it would care to count. That is its strength. Perhaps its problem in English is that it wants to pander to its claimed audience, even when it claims the high ground of neutrality, instead of letting the news speak for itself. All audiences have biases, and it would be a foolish media person who ignored these biases completely; but media's true worth is tested only when it rises above the clamour of the audience on the few occasions when this is essential.

Perhaps the most interesting channel I have come across is the Chinese English channel. The last time I watched it, in a Singapore hotel, it was going on and on about the "indomitable" will of the Chinese people. It is a phrase that makes me nostalgic, almost taking me back to college and the good old days when anyone in Calcutta with any sense of adventure had Chairman Mao's Little Red Book in his pocket. (The Chinese were very kind; they sent it free.) They did go on a bit about the indomitable will of the Chinese people, and how it would inspire revolutions everywhere. India was reserved by Chairman Mao for a prairie fire that would light up in different spots and then slowly join up to set this uppity, half-baked nation ablaze with red flames. The prairie fire at my college, Presidency, was quite fierce for a while; but the one in Delhi's elitist St Stephen's College, I gather, went up in smoke. I shall not describe what kind of smoke it was.

Hearing about the indestructible indomitable will of the Chinese, in the solitude of my Singapore hotel, set me thinking about the kind of will we humble Indians have. Is our will, in comparison, highly domitable? What does domitable mean? Is it the opposite of indomitable? Is there a word called domitable? There should be, logically, but anyone who knows English also knows that logic has nothing to do with its grammar and phraseology. Ever tried to find what the opposite of "unbend" is? It certainly isn't "bend".

I suppose only a very domitable people accept the conditions we do. The news is that our deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a protégé of the Prime Minister, finally discovered the state of Delhi airport and has called a meeting to find why this experiment in state-private sector partnership has become one unholy mess. It has taken Mr Ahluwalia time, not because he does not travel abroad, but because all high officials are taken through a gilded route when they traverse through airports. High Cabinet Ministers of course have their own airport. They just don't tell anyone about this. But we must give credit to Montek: he could have behaved like others, ignored the punishment that is inflicted on ordinary passengers and gone back to his desk. He could have scratched the back of the civil aviations ministry and lived happily ever after. He took some action. We shall see if anything comes out of it.

Carry on, Montek. Maybe one day you shall make us Indians indomitable as well.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Alibi Game

Byline by M J Akbar : The Alibi Game

In public life — and both the market and politicians are in public life — you need not only a thick skin but also a strong chin. You have to take the blow on the chin and keep standing. A totter is not a pleasant sight in public life.

Logic and politics are not necessarily incompatible. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. If you live by market forces you die by market forces. Inflation is the most logical face of market forces. It is the market that sets the agenda. It is the market that raises prices based on its assessment of supply, demand and profitability. The market has no loyalty, least of all to government. The market has no social conscience: no food-trader ever died of hunger in the famine, or emerged out of the crisis with his bank balance depleted. The market is loyal to one concept, profit. The politician wants to win; the market wants to profit.

Their paths converge most of the time, but not all the time. When their interests converge they are the best of pals: see the width of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's smile when, in normal times, the Sensex booms across the skyscrapers of Mumbai. But that boom follows its own laws, and not those of the government. If profits can be sustained then the Sensex will boom even during a period of high inflation, at least temporarily, when there is still purchasing power in the market.

When the interests of politicians and the market diverge, they can be obstinate in the protection of their own needs. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi would dearly love to wake up one morning and discover that prices had levelled off or were even showing a downward trend. If they could order businessmen to do so, they would have done it, for a general election cannot now be too far away. But the businessmen who cozy up to politicians in the privacy of drawing rooms, doling out large bundles of cash, will not take such orders even at the cost of hurting their political friends.

It is, to use an apt phrase, a trade-off. The market should not cry when the politician lets it down. The politician must not weep when the market betrays it. In public life — and both the market and politicians are in public life — you need not only a thick skin but also a strong chin. You have to take the blow on the chin and keep standing. A totter is not a pleasant sight in public life.

Inevitably, if not wisely, politicians rush towards the false comfort of alibis when under threat. The Indian consumer does not want lectures on whether food prices are rising across the world; he wants to know what the government has done about it. In any case, this phenomenon was evident at the beginning of last winter, and that is already six months ago. What did Finance Minister Chidambaram, or his economics-professor boss, Prime Minister Singh, do about it last November and December? If they had taken the measures that suddenly seem wise to them now, things would have been under some control today. Instead, they were cooling their heals and heating the market. Now the market is cooling its heels and lighting fires under the government.

Alibis can be cruel. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has already blamed the changing consumption pattern of the Indian poor for rising prices. Sharad Pawar has never blamed the bloated stomachs of the rich for rising prices — ever wondered why? He believes food to be the natural right of the rich, and an unnatural right for the poor. He does not quite put it like that, because that would be too direct, but that is the foundation of his thought process.

Mr Pawar has now some help from the Lord Protector of the World, American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She too blames the rise of food prices on the Indian poor. Has she ever paused a minute to think about the consumption pattern of pets in American households? They consume food worth over fifteen billion dollars each year, enough to stave off hunger among Africa's poverty-stricken children. I know this is an unfair world, and I don't believe that pets should suddenly be cut off their feed. But at least we should be spared pomposity from the privileged.

Prime Minister Singh seems to have a strange, hands-off look these days, as if he is not really responsible for the mess that has collected beneath him. Indifference may be the last alibi left, but it is not an answer. When the mask of indifference is punctured by incidents like the exposure of help given by the Prime Minister's Office to a less-than-honest minister like the DMK's T.R. Baalu, the search for alibis reaches panic-station because the image of a clean Prime Minister must be preserved at all costs. The explanations trot out, one after another. The PMO letters were "routine". There is nothing routine about a Prime Minister's Office recommending that gas supplies be made available to the industries of a Cabinet Minister's son. There is nothing routine in the fact that a reminder was sent within five days, the first of seven. In government snail-mail the first letter would probably not have reached its destination in five days. A second in such a hurry is not routine. Oil and Gas Minister Murli Deora suggested that there was nothing in helping a colleague. Really? Even at the cost of rules and regulations? And if there is nothing wrong, why was nothing done? The answer is simple: the bureaucrats in the ministry did not want to break the rules. That is why eight letters were needed. Clever Mr Deora wants to have his cake and eat it too. Difficult.

The Indian in the bazaar has a right to ask how many letters the Prime Minister sent his Finance Minister on inflation.

The Prime Minister is a calm man who hides his stress under a self-imposed blanket of resignation. He was the surprise choice four years ago, and his personality aroused hopes at street and village level. All that remains of that once-promising reputation is the belief that he is personally incorruptible. But what use is his personal integrity when all around him there is rampant corruption and mismanagement. Is there a friend of his who can tell him that there are many kinds of dishonesty in public life? Permitting Cabinet Ministers to feed from the corruption trough so that you may preserve your job also amounts to disservice to the people.