Monday, October 27, 2008

Two of a Kind: Shades of Maya in Obama's Rise

Two of a Kind : Shades of Maya in Obama's Rise
By M J Akbar

Barack Hussein Obama could not have been older than he is. He is 47. Four years after he was born, America enacted the first set of electoral and positive discrimination reforms that lifted blacks from the deep depression into which they had been cast after their escape from slavery. President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who understood the virulence of half of America, led the momentum of radical change. Martin Luther King's assassination was the last great crime of white racists. It proved the tipping point. A new generation of blacks answered with arson and terrorism.

That rage was calmed by care. Obama is a child of that remarkable achievement of democracy, a child wafted towards his destiny on the silent engine of a peaceful revolution. The genuis of any minority is wasted without the chemistry of circumstance. We will never know how many Obamas existed before Obama, for their talent was poisoned prematurely by prejudice - just as we in India will never know how many Mayawatis existed before Mayawati. She too is a combination of individual genius and six decades of social engineering through reservations on electoral and academic maps that has empowered a people enslaved for thousands of years by the inequities of the caste system.

Obama and Mayawati, despite their vastly different temperaments and trajectories, have understood two critical aspects of the transition from the margins to centrestage. First, you cannot achieve this by unidimensional community mobilisation. You have to consolidate your base, of course, but that is only the first layer of a pyramid that needs the support of many communities.

Obama reached out to white liberals, of course, but that was the easy part. He had the courage and wisdom to have faith also in middle class America in the middle west, and it has responded in sufficient numbers to take him so close to victory that now only a major self-goal can stop Obama. Mayawati could not have become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh without substantive support from Brahmins and Muslims. Her future progress in national politics will depend on how sustainable her alliance with others is. Muslims will be the hinge to her future.

The second realisation is that you cannot defeat the entrenched power of establishment without money. Their methods seem completely different, but they are not as different as you might think. Obama does not convert his donations into real estate in Washington, and I doubt if he likes diamonds. But the principal source of funding for both is grassroots donations - the expanse of the dribble effect.

Mayawati of course has exploited power to add to her stash, but in this she is no more culpable than any other Indian politician. You cannot hold her to different standards just because she is a Dalit. She probably has complete contempt for conventional political morality in any case; that is what kept her community in bondage.

Obama has left Republicans reeling, when they are not seething, with the amount of money he has raised in small donations - $150 million in October alone. Republicans are used to a money advantage. They are now whining in self-pity compounded by disbelief.

Republicans might have reconciled themselves to defeat against a traditional white Democrat. But to be upstaged by an "upstart" has churned their souls and turned them visceral. They have run through a range of slurs. They accused Obama of being an ally of a black racist, white terrorist, red socialist and finally green Islamist. This is yesterday ranting against tomorrow.
Obama also has that unique distinction that Napoleon demanded from his generals: luck. Victory belongs to he who can spice his talent with good fortune. Hillary Clinton should have stopped him in the primaries; instead she mismanaged her way to defeat. The fact that he had to fight every inch enabled a nationwide network that is paying dividends today. But his biggest stroke of luck was John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. Bill Clinton called her "hot", a view endorsed by his soulmate Asif Zardari. But America wants a cool hand at the top at this moment of grave economic peril. The Wall Street meltdown could not have been better timed for a Democrat triumph. Moreover, Palin is, to put it correctly, ignorant and politically foolish. As if she had not done enough harm, she bought $150,000 worth of clothes for the campaign from expensive stores. This is the kind of morsel that feeds a million conversations.

Obama is the dream that Martin Luther King had for his nation. The dream has come true within a single generation, against huge odds.

Mayawati is the dream that Babasaheb Ambedkar had for his India. It is still a work in progress, but the odds against Mayawati could not have been greater.

The Muslims of the subcontinent saw the realisation of Jinnah's dream in 1947. In 2008 we can only ask a question: was that a dream or a nightmare?

Appeared in Times of India - October 26, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Great Depression

Byline by M J Akbar: The Great Depression

The big debate about when the next general elections should be held, whether in February next year or April is a lot of wasted waffle. You have to be a bit out of touch to believe that the voter really cares whether it comes thirty days before or after. The moment of decision has long past.
I suspect that much of the hot air spent on the argument is either simulated or an expression of anxiety. The anxiety is not limited to those in power, although they have monopoly rights over the decision. Those who want to get into power are possibly even more tense. But seasoned politicians on both sides know in their gut that, minor variations aside, the voter has already made up his, or, more important, her mind.

The Congress missed its moment twelve months ago. Mrs Sonia Gandhi -- for she makes this decision, not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, though it is his government which will be held accountable -- should have gone to the people just after the monsoons of 2007, along with the Gujarat Assembly polls. There was still some marginal fizz around the Indo-US nuclear deal, largely because it was still within the zone of hazy promise. Since then facts have tumbled out slowly, as documents exchanged between George Bush and the US Congress could not be suppressed from public discourse. The deal is now flat, and vote-neutral. Compared to inflation and the fear of terrorism, the deal is very small potatoes.

Last year, this time, inflation was just a growing blip on the economic radar, not an established truth. Terrorism was a dull pain, not the searing psychological wound it has become. Very few governments can manage an adequate response to hunger and fear, particularly if they have been responsible for stoking both.

Nor had the Congress made the serious tactical mistakes that are going to cost it big, as in the mishandling of the Amarnath agitation. It takes a unique ability to end up on the wrong side of both Hindu and Muslim community sentiment, but the Manmohan Singh government has achieved that. If Amarnath was the tipping point for the former, the encounter in which the Delhi police killed two young men near the Jamia Millia became the turning point for the latter. It needs to be noted that Home Minister Shivraj Patil took personal credit for supervising that encounter.

Different sections of the electorate have separate reasons for discontent. Inflation erodes support among the band between the poor and the middle class. Deflation of stocks values hits those with surplus incomes. Shrinking credit and capital flows depress industrialists, and put pressure on prices and jobs, which hurts consumers and the salaried. Bad news always tends to have a multiplier effect.

The real bad news for the Congress may lie not just in the quality of its own fate, but in the electoral fortunes of its allies. In 2004 the Congress had assets on every side, while the BJP was weighed down with incumbency and the Gujarat riots. The Left was a huge plus. The Marxists do not exist merely in Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. There is a Left sentiment that reinforces any appeal to the poor and the minorities, particularly Muslims. It may not be a decisive influence, but it matters. This time the Left will accuse the Congress of running the most right-wing government, pro-rich and pro-American, since Independence. Allies with a more specific regional constituency are in bad shape. Lalu Yadav cannot repeat his success in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar has reinforced his support with good governance. The DMK will drag down the DMK-Congress alliance in Tamil Nadu, where losses will be heavy. The pro-Telangana movement bolstered the Congress in Andhra Pradesh; this time it will take revenge for the fact that Congress reneged on its implicit promise of a separate Telangana. In addition, the new phenomenon of Chiranjeevi will eat away Congress votes. In Maharashtra Sharad Pawar will be struggling so hard to preserve what little he has that he cannot be of much help to his partners.

Elsewhere, the Congress has lost a great opportunity by alienating Mayawati. She might have extracted a heavy price in Uttar Pradesh, but she would have been a boon in a dozen northern and mid-nation states. She could hurt the Congress in about a hundred Lok Sabha seats. The Congress preference for Mulayam Singh Yadav is curious. He is not going to be any more generous in Uttar Pradesh than Mayawati would have been, and offers nothing anywhere else. But when all your political calculations are compromised by the need to satisfy the Prime Minister's single-point obsession with one deal, then a mess is probably inevitable.

The only difference that an April instead of a February election can probably make is that the Congress would lose half a dozen more seats. A trend only intensifies with time.

The Assembly elections of November and December are a bit of a trap. If the Congress cannot exploit the anti-incumbency sentiment in the BJP-ruled states, which it should, then its supporters will be further depressed after losing a string of states over the past year. The Congress will need dramatic victories in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to create any buoyancy in its ranks.

The results of a general election are the sum total of federal results. The state of the states will determine who will form the next coalition in Delhi. If you want to find out who will rule Delhi, go south. And the south in the next general elections begins in Rajasthan.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Identity wars trump class wars for India's poor

Identity wars trump class wars for India's poor
By M J Akbar

It doesn't quite work out for the workers of the world as Karl Marx had envisaged. They do seem to have something to lose other than their chains. Poverty is not the only definition of India's poor. The struggle against economic injustice isoverlaid by wars of identity, principally caste, creed and faith. This is the biggest barrier between Indian Marxists and the Indian poor.
The former will not compromise with theory. The latter will not compromise with practice.

If class had been the principal motivator of political allegiance, Prakash Karat would have been in power in Uttar Pradesh, not Mayawati. Muslims, mired in growing despair, are reluctant to join the Naxalites in Jharkhand since they cannot comprehend atheism. India should have buzzed with the whirr of revolution, for it combines stark poverty with obscene disparity. But identity continues to be more inflammable than hunger. Hunger will always remain a crucial determinant in any election season, but it is not the only game-changer.

The rising tide of identity-insecurity across the country can be measured by the eagerness with which any community seizes the chance to project itself as a victim. These grievances are neither fiction nor an alibi. They are based on immediate experience. The last few months have brought submerged passions to a boil in a manner witnessed only during periods of deep social crisis.

The Church, using its international reach, has converted the attacks on prayer halls in the South and tribals in Orissa into a global story, persuading Rome, Washington and Paris to berate India publicly. There can be no justification for suchassaults on places of worship, for that undermines the humane values of Indian society and the basic tenets of our Constitution. But the narrative does not end there.

Hindus have also reasons to be upset. They hear India's Prime Minister intone that he is embarrassed by the rebukes he heard in Washington and Paris. That much is acceptable. But they do not hear India's Prime Minister tell Washington and Paris that some fundamentalist Christian missionaries , buoyed by fabulous donations, have said blasphemous things aboutthe most venerated Hindu gods. The Prime Minister cannot speak for only one side of the equation. I doubt if the same largely American missionaries would have attacked the Holy Prophet of Islam with equal impunity. Implicit in their vituperation is the assumption that Hindus are a "soft" target.

Hindu sentiment is equally perplexed at the ferocity with which the idea of a resting place for Amarnath pilgrims was opposed by many Kashmiris. This resentment is not addressed towards non-Kashmiri Indian Muslims because they had nothing to do with the Kashmiri outburst. But when they see Kashmiris travel and trade freely across the subcontinent, Hindus wonder if they have become second-class citizens in their own country. The denial of courtesy towards pilgrims hurts at the deepest point in the psyche.

The rage of Muslims has crystallized into outrage. The two current focal points have become the cynical hypocrisy of the Maharashtra government in the handling of riots in Dhule and Malegaon, and the killing of terror "suspects" at Jamia Millia and its myriad consequences, not the least of which has been the conduct of the Delhi police. Trapped in the contradictions of its own deceit, and blessed by the protection (given through public statements) of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and home minister Shivraj Patil (who claimed credit for the operation), the police seems to have embarked upon a policy of offering scapegoats for mass consumption. Muslims cite the manner in which the police once flaunted Tauqeer as the "mastermind" and India's "Osama bin Laden" but today dismiss him as a "media creation". And so when plainclothes policemen come in a black Hyundai without number plates enters the Jamia area on the night of 16 October to pick up yet another suspect, it meets with instantaneous public resistance.

The credibility of the police, and the government, has disappeared. The Congress has lost the plot, and presided over a meltdown in inter-community relations. Traditional tactics - create fear, and then offer to become guardian in exchange for the Muslim vote - no longer work.

If governments only managed to hurt themselves, there would be nothing to fret about. One of the great blessings of democracy is that it gives opportunity for every government to commit suicide through a thousand self-inflicted cuts. The worry begins when the nation starts to bleed as well.

Indian Muslims are bitter, but it would be very foolish of them to permit this bitterness to ferment into bile. Any government is a passing phenomenon; the nation is a permanent asset. Governments can fracture; a nation must hold. When those in power fail, it becomes vital that we, the people, Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and Christian, reach out to preserve the common good. Common sense is often the best recipe for the common good; alas, that is the first thing that a victim abandons.

Appeared in Times of India - October 19, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In black, white and grey

In black, white and grey
By M.J. Akbar

Now that the hurly burly's done, now that the battle's lost and almost won, it all boils down to this. Can white Americans who are more white than American, defeat a black-and-white candidate with an "Arab" name for what is still the most powerful job in the world?

Barack Hussein Obama is not black: his mother was white, and he was brought up by his doting white grandparents. He is a child of modern America, increasingly mixed genetically, aspirational without being domineering, convinced that George W. Bush is the last of the 20th century Mohicans, that wars are not a solution, and that the world can only function as shared space between nations that may not be equal but have an equal right to a voice at the table. I write this from America; and this is the most heartened I have felt about America in many years of travel and discussion. It is wonderful to witness the curative powers of democracy, and the resuscitation of liberal values that made America a positive force for so long –– before it was consumed by the predatory greed of special interests that devastated both their own nation and the world. The pain of Iraq and Wall Street has opened American eyes, enabling it to see within for the inspiration to see ahead.

Washington is rustling with the sound of Democrat CVs being rescued from office dossiers, but the Republicans are not giving up without a vicious last stand. Senator John McCain's language has been deliberately downsized for a bar-room shootout between "white" and "black" as he stokes racism even as he affects an injured innocence when accused of the tactics of the "nigger-hating South". Before his last debate, he promised to "whip" Obama's "you know what". They understand "you know what" in the middle space of the American electorate. Sarah Palin's face flushes in excitement as some in her rallies rouse their passions by demanding Obama's death despite the presence of media. McCain clarifies later that he is proud of every single person who comes to his and Palin's rallies. Facts are not permitted to get in the way of the message. He chose to distil his economic plan through the symbolic mention of "Joe the plumber", who was earning $250,000, wanted to buy the business and live the American dream without paying any extra tax. The "socialist" [arguably a word even dirtier than "black"] Obama was destroying Joe's dream by spreading Joe's wealth in a class war. A day's research proved that Joe was no plumber [he did not have a licence]; that he earned only $40,000 a year; and that he owed the government taxes. As campaign strategy this was shambolic. Has this fazed the Republicans? Not in the least. The desperate can never be embarrassed.

Will this work?

No one is sure. Who can gauge the depth of subliminal fears? Opinion polls, at best, can only go by what people say; they cannot really measure what the voter believes. The voter may not even be aware of his true beliefs until the moment he enters the polling booth, with only fear to keep him company.

McCain has not accepted defeat and Obama is far from declaring victory. There is one revealing difference though. Over the last few weeks, McCain has turned grumpy, angry and shrill; and Obama has grown calmer, assured and even learnt to laugh. His smile was always attractive but he simply did not know how to laugh. He is learning.

He has been blessed with extraordinary, even unbelievable luck. Hillary Clinton should have stopped him long ago; the Democratic machine never expected Obama to last beyond the first few primaries. She mismanaged her way to defeat. McCain had the clear advantage for reasons expressed [experience, war heroism] and unexpressed [racism]. He was up in the polls by six points after the Republican convention. And then came Hurricane Wall Street.

If the terrorist in the last American election was an Arab with a long beard and wide turban nestling in the mountains of Pakistan-Afghanistan, this election's terrorist is an American in suit and tie with an expensive briefcase, a horrendously huge salary, an expansive apartment in Manhattan and permission to party just after he has been gifted $85 billion: the Wall Street executive. This chap frightens and angers the American voter at this moment.

Since Republicans need to redirect anxiety towards the stereotype they have discovered a "terrorist" friend of Obama called Bill Ayres who belonged to a violent sect called the Weathermen in the Vietnam years but has refashioned himself as a respectable professor in Chicago. The trouble is that he looks what he is now, a friendly, mild-mannered, well-meaning academic, which rather defeats the purpose. He is not even black, let alone an Arab. However, McCain and Palin can barely hold their breath as they gasp that Obama consorted with an America-hater.

It would be comforting to report that the future of the world was dependent on more serious considerations.

But you realise that the ground has shifted when Donald Trump, maverick construction and gambling magnate, and hardly an ex-Weatherman closet Communist, wants to impeach George Bush because, as he told a news channel, "He got us into this horrible [Iraq] war with lies… It wasn't Saddam Hussein that took down the World Trade Center … in fact Saddam killed terrorists because he did not want them in his country… Now Iraq is a breeding ground for terrorists… What have we created [in Iraq]? A mess. The day we leave, forget it!" This may not work as an essay for The Brookings Institution, but on the nodal points of policy Trump could not be more correct.

Curiously, it is Bush who seems to have recognised the huge folly of warmongering, having prevented, in his last months, Israel from an unilateral attack on Iran, come to an accommodation with Hezbollah through Qatar, opened negotiations with Taliban through Saudi Arabia and recognised that the only exit from Iraq is a gradual creep-out, vacating space for largely pro-Iran elements to stabilise the country.

But as Bush comes to his senses, McCain takes leave of his. The American Republic should never be left to the Republicans.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Zardari said what America wanted to hear

Why Zardari said what America wanted to hear
By M J Akbar

No passport has yet been devised that can take one easily across the borderline of fear. Pakistan used to fear annihilation by India; now it fears the hegemony. India used to fear invasion across the Line of Control in Kashmir; now it fears the export of terror.

One nation's freedom-fighter can, of course, be a neighbour's terrorist. Pakistan may sincerely want peace with India, but it still has not reconciled itself to peace in Kashmir. Politicians, bureaucrats and generals sitting across a walnut table are not the only ones who determine the management of visceral fear. The street also has a say, the Pakistani street being a less than melodious orchestra of mohalla, madrassa and media.

Might I offer a suggestion for the new kid on the block, Asif Zardari, once "Mr Ten Percent" and now the honourable President of Pakistan. The next time he feels inclined towards discussing Kashmir in an interview, he should outsource the interview to his spokesman. It will save him the bother of claiming he has been misquoted or misunderstood.

Is there any rational explanation for what Zardari definitely told the Wall Street Journal - that those who had picked up the gun and bomb in Kashmir were terrorists, and that India has never been a threat to Pakistan?

Part of the reason lies in the fact that he was speaking to a conservative American paper. Zardari obviously shares one trait with India's Prime Minister, who in September offered the true love of every Indian to George Bush, the most hated president since polls began to measure such sentiments. Zardari was telling a Republican paper what he thought the White House wanted to hear. But this is useful only if it meshes into a larger framework.

Washington is reorienting its policy towards the entire region between Kabul and Delhi, and the basic foundations are being repositioned for a new architecture. At the centre of this shift is recognition that the failing war against Afghanistan was deeply flawed by an error of judgement.

It should have been against al-Qaida, fountainhead of terrorism, and not against Taliban, government of the Afghan nation. The determined Taliban have not only turned the flow of battle, but have emerged as champions of Afghan nationalism and good governance, compared to the utter corruption and incompetence of the Hamid Karzai regime. The British commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, admitted in the first week of October that absolute military victory was impossible and that if the Taliban were prepared to sit across the table this "insurgency" could be concluded.

He was only making public a process that had already begun. Between September 24 and 27, King Abdullah hosted a dialogue between 11 Taliban delegates, two Afghan officials, a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmetyar and three others. The talks had the official backing of the British government, and the unofficial support of the United States. America and Britain are talking to those they went to war against after 9/11 in the belief that they were "terrorists". Their rhetoric still describes the Taliban thus.

It is clear that US and UK are trying to declare victory before they get out of a war they cannot win. But since America cannot be defeated by "terrorists", the Taliban will have to be redefined.
The Taliban are delighted to play ball. Mullah Mohammad Omar has conveyed, through his representatives at the Saudi talks, that Taliban was no longer allied with al-Qaida.

Pakistan has repeatedly been told by Washington to disassociate itself from terrorists, a tactic that has become second nature to the ISI. If Taliban can walk away from Osama bin Laden, then Pakistan should be prepared to abandon Kashmiri terrorists.

In an ideal Anglo-American scenario, the security gap left behind by departing Nato forces would be filled by an informal, if difficult, alliance between India and Pakistan. This cannot happen as long as Kashmir remains a source of conflict. Hence, a new arrangement for the region needs a resolution of Kashmir. This process cannot begin unless Islamabad decides that Kashmiri militants are not freedom-fighters. Once this happens, the status of Kashmir can be negotiated as long as the governments in Delhi and Islamabad are amenable to American "advice".

In an interesting twist of fate, Pakistan has now more to fear from terrorists on its west than from India. Pessimists have even begun to talk, albeit in hushed tones, of the possibility of a second partition of Pakistan, with the Frontier becoming a virtually independent region, under the control of Taliban-inspired Pushtun theocrats. It is only such a context that makes some sense of Zardari's assertion that the real threat to Pakistan is not from India. He is right, of course: India has never had any desire for any Pakistan territory, preferring to let Pakistan stew in the contradictions of its own politico-ideological concoction.

For Zardari, this would mean burial of the strategic legacy of another man he should hate with passion, General Zia-ul Haq, who led the coup against his father-in-law, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and later hanged him. Zia convinced his country that what had been impossible through conventional war could be achieved through unconventional means. It was an attractive proposition in the 1980s: Punjab seemed utterly vulnerable and it was obvious that India could not hold on to Kashmir if it lost Punjab. Zia, a packed package of craft, laid siege to India through terrorists, even as he wooed its opinion-maker elite with time, double-talk, carpets and silver teapots in the hope they would find rational arguments for abandoning the defence of Indian unity. Two decades later, elitist knees continue to wobble far too quickly in Delhi.

Zardari's first serious attempt to test the elasticity of Pakistan's thinking has rebounded: the elastic has snapped back sharply enough to loosen a molar or two. He could not recognize the power of the Pakistani street because he has never worked on it. He has usurped the authority of the prime minister and turned the office of the president, which he reached through an indirect election, into the centre of power. It was a constitutional coup, aided by a sycophantic political party and a fragile polity. But bribes and bullying will not alter the Pakistani's most durable article of faith, that Kashmir belongs to Pakistan.

One presumes Zardari has learnt a primary lesson: sometimes it is easier to get into office than to sit in it.

The American argument can be beguiling to Islamabad, that when a final prospect of peace is offered, the Indian elite will accept the compromises in geography necessary to make a Kashmir deal palatable to Pakistan. A trial run has already been established in the nuclear pact, where vital commitments have been sacrificed by Delhi and ignored by most of the Indian elite, whether in Parliament or press. Mediocre leaders have an almost incurable urge to "enter history" through a single triumph, even if this means tweaking the national interest here or there. Zardari seems to have bought into the American dream for South Asia.

But nations are not chess pieces which can be arbitrarily rearranged through clever moves. Rulers might dream of turning a pawn into a queen; in real life, kings end up as pawns much more easily.

Appeared in Times of India - October 11, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Who wants to be the pinprick inside a bubble?

Byline by M J Akbar: Who wants to be the pinprick inside a bubble?

It often needs a startling image to convey the dimensions of a crisis. Bloggers have time to discover such startling analogies. Someone on the net has had the time and patience to conjure up this image about $700 billion, the most dramatic figure among the many mountains of cash that Governments have doled out to capitalism's poster boys in order to save capitalism.
If you stacked up $700bn in 100-dollar bills [100, not 10 or 1], it would climb 54 miles into the sky. If you counted one billion at the rate of one digit a second, you would need 30 years. 700 billion? Don't begin.

Would you want to add the British crisis-management fund to this? On 7 October Britain announced an $87 billion rescue package for its banks, and offered a guarantee of $200 billion more. How high would you have to go if you added Japan and other nations to the list? And this is only the start of a story whose end is outside the comprehension of all the pontiffs who, with the support of obedient priests in politics and media, have turned unrestrained economic reform into the sole morality of our times. This is the bailout for a few companies. A western nation, Iceland, is trembling on the brink of a meltdown and no one knows quite what to do. Iceland itself does not know whether it needs $5 billion or a multiple of that. A desperate Gordon Brown is trying to protect British investments by threatening Iceland with sanctions, as if it was a renegade Iran.

What do the great capitalists plan to do with this waterfall of cash? Some of them think that the party can continue as before. Executives of the world's largest insurance company, AIG, which has already picked up $85bn and is thirsting for more, celebrated in the only way they know. They gathered at a top California beach resort for an eight-day jamboree and ran up a tab for $440,000, including pedicures, massage, golf and cocktails. [Former American ambassador to India Frank Wisner is vice president for foreign relations at AIG, but he was not part of such shenanigans.]

It has yet to strike anyone serious — at least to my knowledge — that throwing away money is not the best way to protect a system that has been shattered at fundamental points by a basic tenet of the capitalist faith, greed. The last decade has seen the escalation of greed into a primary virtue. The rise of executive salaries and bonuses is only one aspect. In our country, Governments have watched benevolently as some crooks masquerading as wizards have raped funds given to them in trust by shareholders. The Government, impelled by World Bankers, would have tied the Indian economy fiscally into the West much more deeply. Prakash Karat is right when he claims that the Left prevented the UPA Government from becoming a handmaiden of the American economy. With organisations like Morgan Stanley now an integral part of capital markets, India cannot escape the consequences of haemorrhage in New York, but it can yet avoid free fall.

Capitalism is in trouble because reality became a version of caricature. Growth became a cloak for venality. Everyone placed on the watch went to sleep. American commentators now admit that warning flags went up 18 months ago, and action should have been taken a year ago at the very latest. But who wants to be the pinprick inside a bubble?

No free ride goes on forever. George Bush thought his would continue for the duration of his term; better men than him might never have seen the tsunami, but he has been blind to anything but his whims for many years now. In a democracy, if systems and institutions do not hold you accountable, the people eventually do.

There was something a little funny about the apoplectic Republican at a John McCain town hall meeting railing at the prospect of a "Socialist" being elected President. You did not need exceptional insight to read his mind: in that closed and narrow mental chamber, every Black was a Socialist and that was only the least of his sins. A survey conducted by Stanford University, The Associated Press and Yahoo completed in September showed that some 10% of white America was irredeemably racist, and that another 6% was unconsciously prejudiced in the sense that he or she would make a racial decision without believing that this was the decisive factor. It is obvious that the Republicans have concluded that the only factor that can save them now is colour. John McCain's slur, when he called Barack Obama "That one!", was crafted to arouse subliminal and overt hatreds. The Republican effort is to arouse demons in the 6% that is not aware it has demons. In other words, Barack Obama has to lead by about 12% in order to win by perhaps 2%. It is safe to assume that if Hillary Clinton had been candidate she would have been ahead by 15% already.

History cannot be made without luck. Obama needed much luck to become candidate. He is of mixed descent rather than pure African-American; his mother was white, and he is devoted to his white grandparents who gave him love and a home. A high percentage of young voters are no longer of pure ethnic descent; the nation has become a genetic melting point as well. But that could carry him to the nomination, not to the White House. Obama needed divine intervention to become President. He prays effectively. He got it. If this crisis had broken a few weeks later, it would have been too late for him. The seismic shift came at the precise moment when it was needed, when he was lagging in the polls and the election was drifting away from him despite eight years of Bush. As long as the colour of failure was only black or Latino-brown, the White House was effectively safe for Republican America. But the crisis has sent a shudder of dread into the heart of white middle-class America.

Hands will be trembling when they reach the ballot, but they will no longer tremble only at the thought of putting a dark man with a strange name into the White House. They will also tremble in anger at the prospect of a lifetime's savings destroyed and confidence in the immediate future. It is that tremble that could shift their finger away from the Bush-McCain button on 4 November.

Will a President Obama change anything when he inherits a situation teetering on chaos in the last week of January 2009? No. That would mean stretching his luck a bit too far, and he will have exhausted much of his quota of luck reaching the White House. There is a more important reason why he will not do anything radical. No one yet knows what there is to do.

The radical answer for the Right is to discover capitalism without capitalists, and no one has any ideas about how to weave a route towards such idealism.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Deep Inside India, Secularism is a Way of Life

Deep Inside India, Secularism is a Way of Life
By M J Akbar

On October 2, Gandhi’s birthday and Eid launched the annual Bengali festive season that will last into the third week of the month. Eid in India is determined by the visibility of the moon; the Saudis, who check the sky with technology, celebrated the end of Ramadan a day earlier. Since one of the many definitions of Indian secularism is proprietary rights over holidays, some Calcutta companies shut down on October 1. The origin of holiday is ‘holy day’. Bengal has always been holier than thou.

Sour-brains who rearrange life by the calculus of productivity miss the point. Bengal understands GDP (Gross Domestic Product) but values GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness). Economists will never understand the power of the embrace, common to both Durga Puja and Eid. Every human being is an equal in an embrace.

That is the first gesture after the Eid prayer. I spend Eid at Telinipara, some 30 miles north of Calcutta along the jute-mill dotted banks of the Hooghly, where I was born.

The men of our family walk together to the Chhoti Masjid (Small Mosque) with heads bowed. This is not due to any excessive humility. We have to avoid stepping on pats of still-wet cow dung. Early risers have first use of public facilities. The municipality has sprinkled white disinfectant powder along the drains on either side, a practice started during the British Raj and followed twice a year, during Eid and Bakr-Eid. The cows were oblivious of municipal concerns even during British rule.

The official name of the mosque is the rather grandiloquent Masjid-e-Ibrahim (Mosque of Abraham); its popular name is more appropriate, although it has become a bit larger since last Eid. This need has been felt for more than a decade, with the increasing population of Telinipara, but it became possible only when the owner of the huts adjoining the mosque sold his property to the mosque.

Like any public institution, the mosque was strapped for cash. The owner gave it for less than the market value, despite higher offers. He was a Hindu. He was happy to take less because, in his words, the mosque too was “ Bhagwan ka ghar (God’s house)”. Five hundred bags of cement came as a gift from a renowned Calcutta Marwari business family. Neither made the contribution because they expected their names to appear in India’s largest English newspaper.

The maulvi leading the prayer was an angry young man. He offered an answer to a major dilemma of dialectical spiritualism. If Islam was the chosen faith, and Muslims Allah’s select people, why were they mired in poverty when non-believers in the West were flooded with riches and comfort? True wealth is not what you see in this life, but what you will be rewarded with in heaven. He went on a bit about the pleasures of heaven, not forgetting the heavenly wine that will not leave you with a headache. And his route to heaven was a trifle severe, demanding abstinence even from music. But his argument was a placebo, a calmative for a community bewildered by questions.

Later, around ten, enthusiastic young men of my mohalla took me to their single-room club, fed me sandesh bought from Bijoy Modak’s excellent shop, and asked me for “nasihat”. I had no advice to offer, just the essence of some experience along the road from Telinipara to Delhi. The peddlers of violence have nothing to offer but self-destruction, I said, and there were nods of agreement. The rungs of an upward ladder are a modern education; and education is the equal right of both boys and girls. The horizon will be outside reach, and the community remain fractured as long as there is gender bias. The young must leave the mistakes of their parents behind. We Indians laugh and cry in Urdu and Hindi and Bengali, but we rule in English. The language of economic and administrative power is English, so learn English.

The young men were ahead of such advice. They were determined to add a room to the club, which will serve as a library and a tuition centre for those who show promise but do not have the means to fulfil their promise.

Later, a father brought two teenage daughters and reminded them that they wanted to tell me something. Their eyes just a trifle hesitant, but growing with confidence, they said they would be giving their Madhyamik examinations next year, and were determined to go to college. The father beamed with pride. Elsewhere a mother was spending what for her was serious money to get her child into kindergarten in St Joseph’s Convent in Chandannagar, which was my first school. I chatted with a student of Aligarh University; she is in her second year, studying statistics. Her English diction was perfect. In another conversation men marvelled at the fact there was now a fortnightly market in our mohalla where goods worth lakhs were bought. Women were the big spenders. Only 10% of the milling shoppers were men, and they had come as bodyguards, someone said with a very hearty laugh.

This is not yet a gender revolution, far from it. But this is the first hint of a gender insurrection.
When I was in my second year, a student of Presidency College, this small street of Telinipara had descended into desolation through communal violence. On one black night, nearly every mud hut was set ablaze as Hindus and Muslims chased each other with spears, swords, country revolvers, kerosene and matchsticks. They are back together now, the past lost in conscious amnesia.

More than three decades ago, the Chhoti Masjid had become a refuge for Muslims seeking shelter from Hindus. It has become a Bari Masjid today, with help from Hindus who believe that this too is a house of God.

India may lose itself in Delhi and Mumbai and Bangalore and Ahmedabad, but finds itself again and again in millions of Teliniparas.

Appeared in Times of India - October 05, 2008

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Parallel Streams of Anger

Byline by M J Akbar: The Parallel Streams of Anger

Dr Manmohan Singh said, on his return from France, that incidents in Orissa had shamed India before the world. That is important, but far less important than the fact that the violence in Orissa has shamed Indians in India. I measure what Indians do not by the standards of France, but by the values of modern India, which strengthened the spirit of our freedom movement against western colonialism and were enshrined in that noble document called the Constitution of India. The Bajrang Dal has shamed India before Indians.

Nicolas Sarkozy lives by French values, which is perfectly reasonable, for he is a Frenchman. But I am a little underwhelmed by the selective secularism of France, which permits schoolchildren to wear a small cross but will not allow a Sikh child to wear a turban or a Muslim to wear a hijab. One can't complain: if those are the values of the French, they are entitled to them. If Mr Sarkozy wants to hand out medals to Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen [now given safe custody in India by Dr Manmohan Singh] that is his privilege. No one has accused Ms Nasreen of being a claimant to the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Mr Sarkozy is entitled to the nuances of his critical faculties. Dr Singh should perhaps be a bit wary of discussing domestic problems on foreign soil. I presume he would not mind, now, if the Saudis raised the killing of Jamia Millia students in Batla House by the Delhi police, or indeed communal riots in which Muslims are victims. Or does he have a separate standard for Saudis and the Organisation of Islamic States — the French can complain, but not them? The French could not care less about the plight of Indian Muslims, but Saudis or the OIC might care. France does not even pretend to hide its bias against Muslims: it objects to Turkey's inclusion within the European Union because Turkey is a Muslim nation. [It must be noted that British policy is quite the opposite; it supports Turkey's membership.] I imagine that Dr Singh forgot to raise the small matter of French involvement in African genocide. Rwanda has just published the findings of an enquiry which claims that France armed, trained and helped Hutu militias that killed 800,000 Tutsis, and those Hutus who gave shelter to Tutsis, in just 100 days in 1994.

The Bajrang Dal's violence in Orissa shames me because it represents the destruction of the idea of India as shared space for all faiths, with each Indian guaranteed equal rights. This too is a form of terrorism. It has been pointed out that some of the conversion literature distributed by missionaries — for instance, a booklet titled 'Satya Darshini', where remarks have been made about Urvashi, Vashistha and Lord Krishna — is offensive. If that is so, there is a democratic way of addressing such issues. Who gave any fundamentalist the right to rape and kill? Governments that have tolerated this will suffer not only the shame of present censure but also the whiplash of public anger in the next elections.

There is a sullen mood across India, a sense of lowering clouds before a furious storm breaks. Every dimension of anger seems to be clamouring for expression. Secessionists in Kashmir taunt Indians by flaunting the Pakistani flag while the UPA government watches, impotent. There is a growing anger among many Hindus against such secessionist provocation, as well as against terrorists like those of the Indian Mujahideen who claim to act in the name of Islam: this effortlessly morphs into hostility against all Muslims. There is the rage of the Bajrang Dals who convert a perceived threat from conversions into irresponsible violence and worse. There is deep frustration among Indian Muslims who feel that they have been victimised for six decades and are being targeted on all sides now. They have faced the hostility of Hindutva; now they are dealing with betrayal by the Congress. The killing of Jamia students has crystallised this betrayal.

Political parties were meant to be guardians of public morality. That is too much to expect now. Their only purpose is to sip up votes from the parallel streams of anger, choosing whichever stream is compatible to their taste. To calm the nation's anger would be injurious to their electoral interest.

Evasion and lies come easily to political leaders. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has always advertised his probity, has absolutely no qualms about using deception. It would be boring to repeat the many kinds of deception that have characterised the progress of the nuclear deal with George W. Bush but the latest instance is useful evidence. Dr Singh always, and publicly, claimed that he wanted to be able to complete the negotiating process, and would return to Parliament before placing the final signature on any agreement.

On 30 June Dr Singh told the media, "I have said it before, I will repeat it again, that you allow us to complete the process. Once the process is over, I will bring it before Parliament and abide by the House." On 22 July he told Parliament, "All I had asked our Left colleagues was: please allow us to go through the negotiating process and I will come to Parliament before operationalising the nuclear agreement. This simple courtesy which is essential for orderly functioning of any Government worth the name, particularly with regard to the conduct of foreign policy, they were not willing to grant me."

The Prime Minister has walked away from this commitment without a hint of remorse. If Parliament protests, the government will simply adjourn the House. The credibility of politicians is not the real issue. The credibility of institutions cannot long stand the strain of irresponsibility.
This is a moment when the nation needs courage and leadership. Indians have, instead, to live with cynicism and misleaders. The disease stretches across the political spectrum. The country is getting infected.