Sunday, November 30, 2008

Toothless leaders turn tough nation into soft state

Toothless leaders turn tough nation into soft state
By M J Akbar

Does it need grief to unite us? Where was Raj Thackeray when anonymous heroes from across the nation saved Mumbai from rabid vultures? Why did he not issue a diktat that he did not want any Bihari or Haryanvi or Malayali commando to save Mumbai?

India belongs to Mumbai since Mumbai belongs to India; the two need each other. The Maharashtra government looked hopelessly helpless before an invasion propelled by Pakistanis and navigated by a local, subversive fifth column.

Perhaps the low moment came around 8.30 on Thursday morning. While flames, gunfire, chaos mingled with shock a spokesman for the state government told CNN that the “situation is under control”. Yes, if you live in Somalia.

Hidden under grime and neglect, perhaps there is a little Somalia within Mumbai, waiting to burst out and infect the body politic. This sinewy, seamless nether world is nourished by the “black economy”, and has contempt for authority since it feeds, twice a day, the grubby hand of a policeman. Organized crime requires both sophisticated management and corrupt law enforcement agencies.

The underworld does not live in isolation; smuggling is a multinational enterprise. Once it was gold; today it is drugs. Only the naïve are aghast at the thought that ships from Karachi are landing in Mumbai. Each day ships are being loaded in Sindh with street-ready drugs from Afghanistan for the lucrative markets of rising India. Do the stars of Bollywood, the money-shifters of Dalal Street, the dolled up celebrities of Mumbai’s many hills — indeed, from the wealth bracket of many of the guests at Taj on Wednesday night — never ask how their hallucinatory puff has reached them?

The Mumbai mafia, with support from the police-politician partnership, has brought this puff to your party — via Pakistan.

There is a strong Muslim element in the Mumbai mafia. Bereft of either loyalty or morality, it can be easily lured into fantasies of revenge by its contacts in Karachi. Aggression is a psychological necessity of this trade, so the offer of havoc has the lure of a lethal snake. It lives in a unique mental and economic zone, different from the rest of India as well as India’s largely impoverished Muslims.

The initial reaction of some Indian Muslims to Mumbai was denial, a manifestation of their fear of retribution by both the state and the people. Some theories coasting on the net were particularly stupid. The paradox of fear is evident in contradictory manifestations: at one level, an urgent desire to find evidence of conspiracy by either the Mossad or Hindutva elements; at another level, to retreat into the comfort zone of familiar folly, like hope for security from the party that has betrayed them most often. The community will not be able to recognize necessary truths, both within and without, unless it can rub fear out of its eyes.

The most significant part of the outrage should not be obscured by the drama of events.

Hypnotized by attack, we should not become oblivious of defence. We have been defeated by incompetent governance, both in Mumbai and Delhi. Facts will take more time to emerge. But perhaps up to 60 men hit nine targets in coordinated waves. This could not have happened without months of planning. Resources — weapons, rations, money — were mobilized; a small army trained across two countries; targets studied, routes finalized, transport organized, sleeper cells put in place. We learn that terrorists may have been living at the Taj for days, ferrying arms into what was surely turned into a war-room. Men arrived by sea, linked up with compatriots on land and launched multiple attacks. This must have involved hundreds at the planning stage, and the massive infrastructure of government discovered nothing. Where was the police? Where was the Anti-Terrorist Squad? Its chief, Hemant Karkare (undoubtedly a very brave officer, who lost his life in the battles that raged through the night) apparently received a death threat from Pune a few days before the mayhem but his own unit did not bother: they were all busy playing games on behalf of political masters. Complacence and politics gave the terrorists more protection than silence or deception could.

Terrorists may have a religion but death has none. In the first roll-call of death issued by the JJ Hospital, the name next to Karkare was that of Mastan Qureshi. There were six Hindus, four Muslims and two foreigners, presumably Christians, on that list.

Indians are tough. We have fought off Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, Sikh terrorists in Pun jab, Christian terrorists in Nagaland, and Hindu terrorists in Assam and across the country (the Naxalites). But ineffectual leadership turning a tough nation into a soft state. We should have been world leaders in the war against terrorists, for no nation has more experience Instead we are wallowing in the complacent de spair of a continual victim.

Some three years ago, Dr Manmohan Singh told George Bush that there were no terrorists among Indian Muslims. Perhaps he was unaware of the 1993 Mumbai bombings. Perhaps he wanted to please two constituencies: Bush, who needed a certificate for his view that democracy was the cure for all evil; and local Muslims, who were not being given jobs but could always be offered the consolation prize of a pat on the back.

Dr Singh certainly did not fool any terrorists. The Lashkar-e-Taiba might even have interpreted such self-congratulation as a challenge.

I am proud of being an Indian Muslim. Like any Indian, I am angry, frustrated and depressed I am angry at the rabid dogs of war. I am frustrated by the tone-deaf impotence of government. I am depressed at the damage being done to my India.

Appeared in Times of India - November 30, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The 26th of November

Byline by M J Akbar: The 26th of November

The power of fear is immense and intense. It is axiomatic that evil of the magnitude perpetrated in Mumbai, through a collusion between Pakistan-based hate-filled terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Indian fifth columnists will have a direct impact on the political mood of the nation. It is inevitable that the mood will reflect on polling in an election season. But we need to understand the nuances of this impact carefully. The hyperinflation of knee-jerk analysis can be toxic to the truth.

Fear, bred by insecurity, can have two political consequences, one of which can be very beneficial to any government. George Bush remained President of the United States for eight years, quite against the odds, because he managed to exploit the American voter's fear of Al Qaeda terrorists. However, he could not have won re-election on rhetoric alone. He had been able to keep a basic commitment. He might have angered the rest of the world, and irritated half of his own country, but he had kept America safe after 9/11.

Fear and insecurity will always instigate anger. It is a question of whom the anger is directed against. Americans concentrated their anger on Al Qaeda because they did not feel betrayed by their own government. They forgave George Bush a hundred vices because he displayed a single virtue.

Indian anger is bursting over in two directions. There is a passionate revulsion against terrorists of course. This was evident in Mumbai when citizens came out of their homes to cheer the heroic commandos who had delivered them from evil. But their second anger was also evident in their chants and slogans. Their impromptu slogans in praise of the motherland were punctuated with slogans demanding an end to Congress rule. The Indian voter is livid at the Congress-led governments in Maharashtra and Delhi because it feels betrayed by those it has elected to power. The voter no longer has much by way of expectation from any government. But if a government cannot deliver, ever, on security, then it is time to pull it down. If the Mumbai outrage had been a first incident, the voter would have given the government a second chance and more. But this government in Delhi has exhausted all its chances.

All fear/anger is not the same. The Indian Muslim voter is both afraid and angry as well, but his sentiments are trapped in confusion. He is angry with the terrorist for using Islam and his problems as an excuse for shocking violence and thereby making him vulnerable. He is afraid of his vulnerability to government retribution: a shamefaced Andhra Pradesh government is handing out Rs 35,000 to each innocent it picked up and tortured. And he is afraid of retribution at the popular level, motivated by leaders of radical Hindu outfits. His vote, therefore, could reflect this confusion. A part of the Muslim vote, possibly a large part, could rush back to the comfort zone of the Congress not because the Congress has done anyone any good but because it is considered less worse than the BJP. A strong section of the Muslim vote will go to third parties, like Mayawati's BSP. And there may be other Muslim voters who will stay at home or vote for Muslim candidates who have no chance of winning. Wasting a vote is a means of showing no confidence in any of the parties on the slate.

The credibility of politicians has taken a hammering in the past week. Television anchors found, some to their shock and others to their happy surprise, that viewers did not want to see the faces of politicians during the long, continuous coverage of the siege at Taj, Oberoi-Trident and Nariman House. Politicians in government got the message quickly enough, and stayed home after a few statements that proved to be either premature, wrong or utterly stupid. Opposition politicians do not have to do anything except keep quiet. Those who could not keep quiet felt the whiplash of public reaction. But in any situation of this sort, it is the government that suffers the loss, since the voter cannot blame the Opposition for negligent, ineffectual and clueless governance. In these days of circulating SMS mobilisation, one crude SMS reflected the shifting mood. It described Manmohan Singh as "Noman" Singh.

If the Congress loses the popular vote in the Assembly elections, then it has no one to blame but itself. Dr Manmohan Singh regularly advertises his close friendship with Bush. All the pictures display a fawning admiring look on Dr Singh's face whenever he is in the company of Bush. Couldn't he have learnt from Bush how to win an election by manipulating fear?

The Delhi Congress is clearly worried that it will lose because of Mumbai. On the morning of the vote, it took out expensive full-page ads trying to suggest that attacks such as these had happened during the BJP's time in power as well, as indeed they had. What the advertisement naturally could not mention was the frequency; or the absence of accountability either in the apprehension of the guilty, or among those at the highest levels of power who should take responsibility. In any case, the voter punished the BJP with five years of exile because of its sins of omission and commission. It won't punish the BJP twice. Only those in office can commit a crime that deserves punishment.

A second SMS I received points out a baffling coincidence. I have not had time to check all the dates of disasters in recent memory, but find no reason to consider them untrue. "The Gujarat earthquake occurred on 26 January, the tsunami on 26 December, Godhra on 26 February, the Gujarat floods on 26 June, the Mumbai train havoc on 26 July and the terrorists struck last week in Mumbai on 26 November."

I suppose that rules out any future election on the 26th of any month.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai Attacks

Mumbai Attacks
By M.J.Akbar

pic copyright: Getty Images
There was a piquant, or perhaps unbelievable, moment around 8.30 on thursday morning: flames were destroying the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal hotel, shots were being heard, chaos mingled with shock on the streets outside and a spokesman for the government in Mumbai told CNN that the "situation is under control". Yes, this might be considered under control if you are Somalia.

In most cities of South Asia, hidden under the grime and neglect of poverty, there is a little Somalia waiting to burst out and infect the body politic. This nether world, patrolled and nourished by criminals who operate what is known as the "black economy", has bred, in Mumbai, a community that has contempt for the state since it knows that its survival depends on corruption. Organised crime requires both sophisticated management capability and the culpability of law enforcement agencies. It does not live in isolation; it has international links through smuggling routes. Once the principal commodity of this trade was gold; today it is drugs. Since it has neither patriotism nor morality, it is easily lured into partnership with terrorists, particularly when it has reason to feel aggrieved. A good section of Mumbai's underworld consists of Muslims who entered because this space because they were denied a place in the "white economy". During the last five decades they have developed strong vested interests. They live in a different zone from the rest of India's Muslims, who are largely impoverished.

Details about the Mumbai outrage are still unfolding. But we do know that at least 30 men armed with AK47s and grenades held India's premier city hostage, targeting both Indians and foreigners, particularly Americans and the British. When facts are uncertain, theories become ascendant. Since at least some of the terrorists entered the city by sea - in a trawler registered in Vietnam - it is possible that this operation was propelled from Karachi in Pakistan through the Lashkar e Tauba, a terrorist organisation sustained by hatred towards secular India and funded by shadowy Pakistani agencies and street support. At the moment of writing, one terrorist has been caught alive and interrogation will, hopefully, reveal details we can trust.

The drama of events, however, could make us miss a significant element of the story. This operation must have taken months of planning: weapons were deployed, a small army was mobilised, targets studied, routes finalised, transport organised, weak points identified; a multiple plan of attack involving hundreds at the very least was put in motion, and the massive infrastructure of government discovered nothing. The chief of the Anti Terrorist Squad, Hemant Karkare (who lost his life in the battles that raged through the night) recieved a death threat from the nearby city of Pune and his own unit did not bother since it was busy playing games on behalf of its political masters. Terrorists may have a religion but death has none. In the first list of dead issued by the JJ Hospital, the name next to Karkare was that of Mastan Qureshi. There were six Hindus, four Muslims and two foreigners, presumably Christians, on that list.

Complacence and politics gave the terrorists more protection than silence or camoflauge could.

This represents a collapse of governance; these are the wages of the sins of administrative incompetence and political malfeasance.India is a tough nation. No one should have illusions about that. It has fought off Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, Sikh terrorists in Punjab, Christian terrorists in Nagaland, and Hindu terrorists in Assam and across the country (there is a Maoist insurrection in a broad swathe of states in the centre of India). India has learnt that you cannot blame the whole community for the sins of a few. But under ineffectual governance, particularly in the last three years, a tough country is in danger of degenerating into a soft state. Instead of being the international leader in the worldwide war against terrorism, India is sinking into the despair of a continual victim.

Some three years ago India's Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh rather smugly told President George Bush in Delhi that Indian Muslims were not involved in any act of terrorism. The implication was that they constituted a success story, healed by the virtues of democracy, a conclusion that Bush happily repeated. Dr Singh certainly did not fool any terrorists, some of whom may have read his self-congratulation as a challenge.

I am an Indian Muslim and proud to be both. Like any Indian, today I am angry, frustrated and depressed. I am angry at the manic, rabid dogs of war who have invaded the commercial capital and fountainhead of business energy. I am frustrated by the impotence of my governments in Mumbai and Delhi, its ministers tone-deaf to the anguish of my fellow citizens. And I am depressed at the damage being done to the idea of my India.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Would anyone dare issue a fatwa against Iqbal?

Would anyone dare issue a fatwa against Iqbal?
By M J Akbar

Spare a prayer for God's professionals; they are not very fashionable among the elite, and who is more elitist than media? I have great respect for the thousands of priests, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, who perform community service on pitiable pay. There is neither reward nor award for the nameless, selfless maulvis and monks devoted to a Calcutta Muslim Orphanage or a Ramakrishna Mission. We pen-pushers swan around mouthing homilies and delivering self-satisfied sermons; they deliver.

But so much of their good work on the ground is destroyed by the pomposity of clerics floating at the top. Education is no insurance against their stupidity.

The Lucknow maulana - whose name is irrelevant and would in any case take up too much space - who passed a fatwa against Harivansh Rai Bachchan's Madhushala because it "eulogized alcohol and drunkenness in society" has been blessed by neither wit nor a sense of poetry. Who can explain the power of a metaphor to someone who does not know the nuance of verse? How do we convey the tremor of a poet's subversion to one who has not learnt to smile? A closed mind is by inclination self-righteous. When no one else believes you are right, you have to console yourself.

By the Lucknow maulana's standards of literary criticism, a substantial body of Urdu poetry would be banned. Urdu verse has brought indescribable delight to those who know the language, most of whom are Muslims. It is a poetry that can be enjoyed either in the company of thousands, at a mushaira, where the poet recites his or her composition, or in the silence of a room over a book. The cleric would have to pass a fatwa against every Urdu poet, from Ghalib, Daagh and Zauq down to the humblest versifier, for each one has used the symbol of a cup of wine and the saqi, who pours it in the tavern. I presume the learned cleric of Lucknow has not read this couplet, for it is a needle designed to puncture smugness:

Zauq! Jo medresse ke bigre hue hain mulla
Un ko maikhaane mein le aao sanwar jaayenge.
(Zauq! Bring the mulla misled by a medressa
To the tavern, it will correct his ways.)

The tension between the tavern and the mulla is a constant, and even overworked theme of Urdu poetry. Hazrat Daagh Dehlivi was no less scathing (incidentally, my apologies for the poor quality of translation):

Lutf-e-mai tujh se kya kahoon, zahid
Hai kambakht tu ne pee hi nahin.
(How do I describe, o priest, wine's joy to you?
A drop has never passed your misbegotten lips.)

I suppose it would be considered too predictable to quote Ghalib, since he has been turned into a bit of a caricature of the hard-drinking, irresponsible lover-poet; but his verse is so utterly beautiful that it would be a shame to pass up an opportunity to offer more than one gem.

Har chand ho mushahda-e-haq ki guftagu
Banti nahin hai badah-o-saaghan kahe baghair.
(Let us discourse, each moment, of truth divine
How do we talk without the strength of wine?)


Kahan maikhana ka darwaza Ghalib aur kahan waaez
Par itna jaante hain, kal wo jaata tha ke ham nikle.
(Where is the tavern door, Ghalib, and where the priest!
But this I know: yesterday he entered as I was leaving.)

The conflict is not between religion and the believer, but between religiosity and the poet. The poet taunts those who seek to dominate men in the name of God, without understanding either God or man. There has been no one with a finer understanding of Islam among the greats of the language than Allama Iqbal. Iqbal's personal commitment to his faith shaped his world-view, and underpinned his philosophical essays. If Iqbal was not a Muslim then a Muslim has not been born on the Indian subcontinent. Iqbal uses the image of wine and saqi, freely.

Sharaab-e-kuhan phir pila saaqiya
Yahi jaam gardish mein laa saaqiya.
(Pour me that familiar wine again, saqi!
Fill the world with the same wine, saqi!)

Iqbal is even more scathing of the priest than Daagh:

Ummeed-e hoor ne sab kuch sikha rakha hai waaez ko
Yeh hazrat dekhne main seedhe hain, saade hain, bhole bhaale hain.

(The hope of houris has taught him all he wants to know
The priest merely looks simple, humble, plain, innocent.)

Would the Lucknow maulana like to pass a fatwa against Iqbal's poetry? Now that would be much bigger news than a judgement against Madhushala. Of course Iqbal was never as provocative as Daagh could be:

Zahid sharaab peene de masjid mein baith kar
Ya wo jagah bata de jahan par Khuda na ho.
(Priest, let me sit and drink inside the mosque
Or tell me that place where God can't be found.)

Indian Muslims have savoured such verse since it entered public space; no one has taken it as a literal injunction to start drinking inside a mosque. The poetic truth is not the literal truth, which of course is the point of poetry.

Perhaps the last word - or last sheyer - should be left to the Anonymous poet:

Pahunchi yahan bhi Shaikh wa Brahman ki guftagu
Ab maikada bhi sair ke qaabil nahin raha.
(The quarrel of Shaikh, Brahmin has reached here
Even the tavern is no longer worth a visit!)

Appeared in Times of India - November 23, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is there a Plan B, Mrs Alva?

Byline by M J Akbar: Is there a Plan B, Mrs Alva?

Does Margaret Alva have a Plan B? The battles of Delhi are never fought about the past; they are relevant only because they concentrate on the future. Why did Margaret Alva, once considered so close to Mrs Sonia Gandhi that her compatriots shuddered before crossing her path, choose this moment to accuse her party of corruption and nepotism?

Mrs Alva is not a novice. She knew the price of rebellion. Her reason was valid. Her son was denied a ticket for the Karnataka elections on the rather thin excuse that dynasty was not going to be encouraged in the Congress, an odd rationale for a party which has reserved its most powerful job for a dynasty. But she knew that she could not reinvent an election and restore the seat by exposing the double standards that are rife in her party. Since there was no personal gain possible, what political purpose did Mrs Alva have in mind?

Mrs Alva may have, after the High Command's retribution, resigned from high office, but she has not resigned herself to retirement. She feels she has many years of active politics left in her career. Others have suffered in the party; she is not alone. The general policy is to wait out a fallow period in the hope that better days will come. Why did she choose to opt out? She did not do this to join the BJP. That will not be her preferred option, although the BJP of course would welcome a credible Christian in its ranks.

There is something brewing within the second tier of Congress leadership. There are grievances in every large party. The BJP is teeming with them, as is evident in the current elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. If Mayawati cuts into Congress votes in MP, then Uma Bharti and Govindacharya return the favour by slicing off BJP votes. In Rajasthan, the energetic Vasundhara Raje does not have to look outside her party for dissidence. She is, or should be, more worried by how insiders might maul her prospects than what the Congress will do. But while dissidents are often willing to sabotage, they are rarely eager to revolt. Parties condone dissidence, since it is axiomatic that there will be some negative reaction to any decision taken. What they cannot afford is a revolt.

Is there a revolt within the Congress waiting for an opportunity to declare itself? Some leaders, like Narayan Rane in Maharashtra, have stopped caring about what the state leaders or the national leaders think. He attacks his own Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh with impunity. The Chief Minister, in the meanwhile, blithely ignores his Prime Minister and promotes the parochial line set down by Raj Thackeray. Delhi responds with silence and changes the topic. Control is beyond its current capability.

A political leadership is only as strong as its ability to deliver victory. Since Mrs Sonia Gandhi has lost elections in the states where Congress was in power, and now seems unable to convert anti-incumbency against the BJP into victories for the Congress, the second tier of the Congress is beginning to fidget. According to present indications, the BJP could return to power in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and is very much in contention in Rajasthan and Delhi. Of course every sensible person knows that no one can be sure of a result until the votes have been counted, which is why the political class is waiting for December 8. That is the day when murmurs will either grow or subside.

What leaders like Mrs Alva are searching for is a perch in the middle space between Congress and BJP. They believe that between them the Congress and the BJP will not win over 270 seats, which means that an alliance of the rest of the House could form a theoretical majority. This would of course need a collapse of the NDA and the UPA, which is not as simple as might seem since NDA partners share power in the states. The Akalis and Nitish Kumar would have to risk losing power in Punjab and Bihar, which would undermine their very existence in the volatile politics that we will see over the next few years. Moreover there are strong animosities within the regional parties as well: Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, or Nitish and Lalu Yadav cannot coexist in the same alliance. Would Chiranjeevi and Chandra Babu Naidu join the same government after having fought bitterly for power in Hyderabad? Of course they might, given the persuasive abilities of whoever wanted to be Prime Minister of such a coalition. I suppose if there was a system in which there could be six Prime Ministers, this might work, but regrettably we do not have such a polity.

So improbable, but not impossible. But the very fact that such options are being contemplated means that a number of senior politicians no longer believe that the UPA will be re-elected.
What is certainly not in doubt is that the next government in Delhi will be formed after the results, in the sense that neither pre-election alliance will be able to reach a majority on its own.

This, after all, was how the UPA came into existence. The advantage will lie with whoever is closer to the magic number of 272, but that will not be the only factor. The allies will lay down conditions for governance that the principal party will have to accept.

The danger is clear enough: throw a political meltdown into an economic meltdown and the crisis that is already upon us will become unmanageable. Happy — or not so happy — 2009 to readers!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Insecurity of Petty Ideas

The Insecurity of Petty Ideas
by M J Akbar

The times have changed. Patriotism used to be the last refuge of the scoundrel. The scoundrel is now the last refuge of patriotism. This is not because the cad and the poseur have filled up, but because we are busy chopping democracy up into little pocket-sized units of petty patriotism. Culture, economics and the history of the last hundred years unite us. The greed for votes is beginning to divide us. It is one thing for municipal-level politicians to try and survive by wooing the lowest common denominator. But when politicians of some stature, a Cabinet Minister hoping to rise to Prime Minister, or a Chief Minister begins to parrot the pidgin politics of parochialism, then it is time to address the infection with a scalpel. Regional separatism is the sore that can deteriorate into secessionist cancer if not addressed in time.

The idealism of India was always vulnerable to a challenge from smaller ideas. It is more comforting, particularly at moments of stress, to snuggle into a nest. That is the first option of the insecure. When the insecure become aggressive, they find pseudo-strength in hysteria. India is a democracy with a fundamental commitment to free speech. The intelligent hysteric has learnt to dress a lie in the robes of morality. Morality makes it fashionable to a self-congratulatory elite.

A familiar charge, voiced recently by a Kashmiri secessionist ensconced in Delhi’s academia, is that India is a fascist state. This is precisely the sort of thing that sounds suitably liberal in seminar rooms and doubtless envelops the audience in the warm glow of self-satisfaction. There: how brave of us! We have given shelter to the oppressed!

The obvious irony, of course, is that in a genuinely fascist state, the great orator would be locked up — and the key thrown away — before he could have uttered the first letter of “fascist”. A dissident has a right to the liberalism of Indian democracy, academia and mainstream media. But the fact that even secessionists, sometimes thinly disguised in parallel demands, enjoy the benefits of a generous culture is proof of India’s liberal polity. After all, the most egregious instance of provocation in recent years has been the manner in which some demonstrators flaunted the Pakistan flag in pursuit of their political demands. I wonder if anyone in Pakistan would have been allowed to carry the Indian flag during a demonstration.

Freedom and independence are neither the same thing, nor interchangeable. The great age of European colonialism is over; every nation can claim to be independent. That does not necessarily mean that it is free. Freedom is not merely release from some magic cage Europe constructed to fetter distant lands. Freedom is a principle that the state shares with every citizen. India is both independent and free.

A nation can be colonised by its own elites, perhaps more easily than by foreign ones. A purist political scientist might debate this definition of such “colonisation”; after all a dictatorship can be as nationalist in its objectives as a democratic one. But the spirit of oppression that pervades through a dictatorship or an oppressive oligarchy is not all that distant from the ethos of colonial rule. The British Raj was not a continuous exercise in brutality. In many instances it was liberal and reformist. Many unbiased critics would certainly compare it favourably to the feudalism that prevailed in much of India during British rule. Not every feudal was a despot, but many were; many more were simply irresponsible and self-indulgent. It was only when they had to defend the right of the British to rule an alien land did the splendidly adorned Viceroys and plum-voiced Oxbridge civil servants descended to ruthlessness. If the lathi did not silence India’s voice, the bayonet would. If that did not suffice, the guns appeared.

Paradoxically, it can be easier to defend a fascist state than a democracy. The former does not offer habeas corpus [“Show us the body”] through which courts can limit the power of the executive. In a country not too far away, thousands have been picked up and thrown into jail before they are cherry picked for transportation to a foreign prison where they can be punished for real or imagined terrorism. Intelligence agencies run an alternative power structure in the name of security, designed to intimidate their own countrymen, backed up by their own foreign policy.

But because a democracy like India has a soft, even pulpy interior, it would be a fallacy to believe that it will necessarily be weak in the defence of its national integrity. India may have more political parties than it has voters, and the struggle for office may be laced with passions that ignite personal vendettas, but when it comes to security of the state differences melt and all parties close ranks.

The state is not sectarian. Some Kashmiris might be advertising a long list of complaints but they should check with Khalistanis in Punjab or Nagas in the Northeast. Their list might be longer. The great healing power of democracy lies in a simple fact: the door is never closed. Yesterday’s secessionists are today’s Chief Ministers in the Northeast. The Akalis passed the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in the 1980s; who remembers the resolution now?

Anger is not the prerogative of the secessionist alone. There is a perceptible rage brewing among Indians who believe in India, and cannot understand why those Kashmiris who agitate for separation in the valley should have no qualms about taking full advantage of academic institutions and business opportunities in the rest of India. There is a growing view that the achievements of India, political, academic and economic, should be reserved for those who believe in India, and not extended to those who wanted to subvert it.

There is logic in this view. And yet it hurts the spirit of the very Constitution we seek to protect. It is useful to add a warning. Compromise with principles is the first step on that slippery road towards abandonment. An hour of crisis, such as we face today, demands that we rise above our anger to preserve the values of our founding generation, who gave us our Constitution. The worst of times calls out for the best in us.

(In Covert: Subscribe Covert)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The economic partition that still grounds us

The economic partition that still grounds us
By M J Akbar

Imagine, if you will, a nation unborn; the map of the Indian subconscious had the Indian subcontinent not been subdivided in 1947 and 1971.

Pakistan and Bangladesh are facts. It is idiocy to sneer at them as failed states. You have to look at facts without the sticky impediment of sentiment. After much consideration, with cold evidence in front of me, I am pleased to announce a personal somersault. After years of examining the validity, or otherwise, of the seeds that nurtured the idea of Pakistan, I am now relieved that it came into existence. Who would ever have believed what Pakistan has grown up into, if it had never been born at all?

Who could have convinced two generations of post-1947 Indian Muslims that Pakistan was not the heaven that had dominated its advertising before Partition? Six decades later, every Muslim of the subcontinent knows that suicide bombs and Kalashnikovs can extract a daily diet of death even in a country where there is no Hindu to call an enemy. Facts are the coolest needles to puncture fevered fantasy.

Pakistan was only ever a very partial answer to what the British called the “Muslim question”. By 1971, with the emergence of Bangladesh, the partial became twice partitioned. 1971 also proved that the slogan that created Pakistan, “Islam in danger!”, was a concoction designed to serve politicians, and not save the faith. As Maulana Azad repeatedly emphasized, even when the winds were against him, Islam is a brotherhood, not a ‘nationhood’. If Islam were sufficient to create a modern nation state, the Arabs would not be divided into 22 countries. They even have a language in common.

Indian Muslims now know that Pakistan has bounced in and out of army rule, to land, today, in a quagmire that might have neither the freedom of democracy nor the frigid certainty of dictatorship. Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece, does have a grudge against uncle Asif Zardari; she believes her father Murtaza, was shot dead in a family power struggle. But the opening sentence of her recent piece in the New Statesman (October 30) is startling enough to demand attention.

Pakistan’s newly elected government, she writes, is “the first in the world headed by two former convicts (between them the President and the Prime Minister have served time on charges of corruption, narcotics, extortion and murder, no less...”

A state may not fail, but a profligate government can teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. Pakistan’s desperation for a bailout loan is not news. What deserves a headline is that its closest allies, including China and Saudi Arabia, have had enough of the loan-bowl. Zardari cobbled together something called “Friends of Pakistan” only to discover that friendship doesn’t fetch dollars. The top priority of its ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani, is to plead for $10 billion as reward for participation in America’s “war on terror”.

Individuals have always been mercenaries; this could be a case of a whole army being parlayed for cash. The Pentagon audits the money Pakistan gets for military operations. If the Pakistan army is fighting on the Afghan border in defence of its national interest, why would it send a bill to Washington?

The leadership of a nation forged out of millions of dreams seems to have lost its sense of nationalism. Paradoxically, the sense of a great national destiny would have flourished if the nation had been denied an existence.

But the discomforts of Pakistan are of little comfort to Indian Muslims. They are convinced now that 1947 was a mirage; but there is too much fog between them and the next horizon. The principles of the Indian Constitution, sustained by democracy and secularism, are the ideal commitments for any group that considers itself disadvantaged. But neither democracy nor secularism is an industry offering jobs. Economics has flattened the world into a racetrack, and not every community is in the race.

1947 was a geographical and political partition, a screaming laceration through the heart. Since then we have had a silent partition: the economic partition of India. The educated middle classes and the rich are rising with rising India; the rest are stagnant.

This was not conceived on communal lines and yet, as the dice has rolled, it involves communities, whether tribals or Dalits or Muslims. The Sachar Commission report is a snapshot portrait of the utter neglect that Muslims have suffered under largely Congress governments. Check with the community and the grievance is unequivocal: others get reservations, we get enquiry commissions. The Congress mantra for Muslims, its favourite vote bank, has been a single emotion, fear: after us, the deluge. If you don’t keep us in power, saffron will strangle you. It works, but only up to a point.

As the clichés on dozens of book covers suggest: the Indian elephant has lumbered towards take-off, the tiger has launched its spring. The India of yesterday’s imagination is turning slowly, untidily into a reality, hiccups notwithstanding. But does every Indian deserve the privilege of imagination, or it is reserved only for those who emerged from the womb of luck?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In the semi-final analysis…

Byline by M J Akbar: In the semi-final analysis…

The current Assembly elections are not quite the semi-finals that they are being billed to be, for the nationwide electorate will determine the fate of the UPA Government, and not just voters in six States. But it is beyond debate that these results will set the mood for the general elections, now expected at the very last legal minute, which means April-May. These are arguably the most important of the mini-general elections that have dotted the political calendar over the last two years.

So where is the Prime Minister of India during this virtual referendum on his rule? During the first part of the campaign season he was doing bilateral visits in the Gulf. On the day that Chhattisgarh went to the polls he was on his plane to Washington. It could be argued that the G20 Summit on the international financial crisis summoned by President George W. Bush was a must-visit. But that is not the real point. The fact is that the Congress could not really care anymore whether Dr Manmohan Singh is in Qatar or Chhattisgarh. He does not add to the vote.

The Indo-US nuclear deal, on which he staked his Government, over which he broke the alliance with the Left and brought in new allies who purchased MPs on his behalf, which was hyped up endlessly by favoured television channels as the glorious answer to India's prayers, has simply disappeared from public consciousness. The Congress had put two curious-looking lights at its Delhi headquarters to symbolise the success of the nuclear deal. The message was that it would bring electricity. The lights have been quietly taken down. Even Delhi's voters, who, as urbanites, might have been expected to care a hoot or two, do not care a jot. A misplaced bus corridor in the heart of the city will influence more votes in Delhi than the nuclear deal. As for remoter parts of India, it is quite remarkable that neither the Prime Minister nor Mrs Sonia Gandhi campaigned in the 39 Chhattisgarh constituencies that went to polls on 14 November; although Rahul Gandhi did make a token appearance. Did the Congress give up on Chhattisgarh even before the votes were cast?

There is a perceptible demoralisation in the Congress, for both administrative and political reasons. The Government has failed on inflation and terrorism, the two issues of highest concern to the voter. Partly as a consequence, the coalition is coming apart as the various partners begin to reposition themselves for elections. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Pawar are on opposite sides of the "bhaiyya" war in Mumbai, and ready to say so. Praful Patel, Sharad Pawar's alter ego when Pawar needs to fire from a second shoulder, has backed Raj Thackeray's parochialism, while Yadav walks a tightrope between defending fellow-Biharis and sitting in the same Cabinet room as Pawar. From his perch in Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, his party in desperate straits, threatens to withdraw his ministers if Delhi does not intervene to protect the Tamil Tigers, who are under extreme pressure from the Sri Lanka Army. The Prime Minister can do little in effect except ignore these contradictions and carry on as if nothing is happening. A new ally, Amar Singh, accuses a DMK minister of astonishing corruption in what has become familiar as the "spectrum scandal". Once again, the Prime Minister has to pretend ignorance or indifference as unprecedented loot takes place under his watch. There is absolutely no sense of accountability, or a suggestion that good governance has some demands.

The only remaining strategy for the Congress is to hang on to office, whatever the daily rate of attrition, and hope for some miracle that might revive its fortunes. Reversals of public mood do take place. We have seen one occur over the last year. The Congress peaked in the summer and monsoon of 2007, until inflation and fear began to take their toll on India's nerves. This decline went into fast gear after the Amarnath agitation this year. But reversals need substantive reasons, and there is nothing visible on the horizon that can suddenly turn this tottering cabal in office into a viable instrument of promise. Divine intervention is always possible of course, but we have no evidence to suggest that the Almighty is partisan.

In an election season, confidence does not evaporate into ether. By some mysterious process, it travels by osmosis into the opposite side. There is an almost direct correlation. As one party turns skeletal, you can see the flesh gathering on the other. A year ago, the BJP was in deep depression, and its Governments seemed utterly vulnerable. Suddenly, they seem to have steadied and even become sure-footed. The most remarkable turnaround has been in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The first was nearly lost; the second was utterly lost. In both the party is in play, and could register morale-boosting victories. Vasundhara Raje has shown exceptional skills, not only in calming political turbulence, but in also energising two key vote segments, the young and women. Add to this the panache of economic growth, and you have a recipe that an electorate can savour.

The real semi-final, in my view, is actually the coming general election. The results of 2009 will set the stage for the revival of one national party as the electorate tires of regional parties, particularly in the North. Three critical factors will determine the winner: who controls how much space on the electoral map (the Congress is being suicidal by surrendering large swathes to allies); who is the better magnet for women and the young; and who has shown the ability to deliver on good governance. It sounds simpler than it is.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The paucity of hope: Pleaders can’t be Leaders

The paucity of hope: Pleaders can’t be leaders
By M J Akbar

While the world is entranced by hope, I find myself more impressed by audacity. Barack Hussein Obama could not have found the first without an oversized dose of the second.

Since there is no leader without a listener, Obama could not have reached the White House, built partly by black slaves bought and sold a few blocks away, unless his nation had also changed. In three decades, America has moved from Reagan’s good morning to Clinton’s saucy, sun-lit afternoon, to Bush’s eerie twilight. Appropriately, it took a dream to end a nightmare. Since success is the father of sycophancy, Obama will now be compared to every icon short of divinity. He reminds me of Paul Newman in a different skin: a Cool Hand Luke, thirsting to break out of the prison that is his destiny, scornful of the warden, and confident of eventual victory long before the script is written.

Obama rose above the comfort of victim-status. He had to transcend the traps shackling his own community before he could inspire others to rise with him, on the wings of American democracy.

To the question, then, that has been hovering around the table but cannot find the respectability to join the dinner conversation: when will a ‘Hussein’ become prime minister of the world’s largest democracy? Indian democracy has the space; Mayawati has proved this. Why can’t Indian Muslims produce their own Obama?

The demographics are similar, roughly 15%. But the narratives are different. No black was invited to the White House before Theodore Roosevelt broke the taboo in 1901; India is dotted with the palaces of Muslims. Blacks were never empowered, and they did not partition the country to create their own enclave. The trust quotient, so necessary for social cohesion and political mobility, disappeared in India in 1947.

But Muslims are not the only Indian minority to have faced distrust. In 1984 there was carnage against Sikhs across the country. In 2004, a Sikh became Prime Minister. How long will Muslims have to wait?

The unvarnished truth is that neither India nor the Indian Muslim is ready. 1947 was not a solution; it became the source of a running sore that has not healed. Terrorism, and communalism, threaten to turn that sore septic. But if the Obama phenomenon proves anything, it is that alchemy needs an inspirational scientist. The state and the electorate are passive laboratories until that magic moment when a minority leader produces the touchstone that shifts the dynamic of emotion and judgment to create history.

Obama also understood a fundamental fact: change begins at home. You cannot expect the majority to reach out while pandering to insularity among the minority. The seminal turn in his campaign came when he told his fellow black Americans that the age of alibis was over; they could not blame the white man for all their ills. Black parents would have to switch off television sets and switch on education; that was the only way to integrate into America’s success story.

Equally, he did not appease the white man by turning into an Uncle Tom. His nuanced defence of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at his church who had used volatile language, was perhaps his finest hour; he rejected the language, but could not find it in him to reject the man, or the reasons that had drawn the pastor towards rage. White America heard the anguish, and looked inside; the pivot began to swing.

Indian Muslims do not have leaders; they have pleaders. They plead with their mentors for crumbs; and they plead with their electorate once in five years for survival. Since they do not serve constituents, they need artificial inducements to get votes, either middlemen who can be purchased, or fear, which can be provoked. They cannot challenge the ills within the community because they need to hide their own venality.

They reach their perch through a nudge from the top, rather than a struggle from the bottom. They are kept in their place, which is on the midpoint horizon. Their principal, though not exclusive, vehicle for transport has been the Congress, which has no room at the top in any case. The satraps who rule regional parties are, if anything, even more calculating.

The Congress has compromised its Muslim pleadership into a comfort zone, where corruption is the reward for compromise. A seal has been placed on tongues that dare not be broken, no matter what the provocation. This is not a new phenomenon. You could have heard this silence all over the country on the day P V Narasimha Rao wilfully slept while the Babri mosque was brought down. The reward came in exactly six weeks when Congress Muslims were promoted or inducted through a Cabinet reshuffle.

I recall speaking at a largely Muslim gathering of teachers and professionals in Bangalore. When I suggested that the community should demand facilities like banks that could be sympathetic to Muslim entrepreneurs, the hall burst into involuntary laughter. I was puzzled until someone explained that a prominent neta from the city had done just that, and then embezzled all the funds in the bank. This honourable person is till on the list of high-ranking VIPs.

There is no Obama among Indian Muslims because they have surrendered audacity to pawnbrokers.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Free and Independent

Byline by M J Akbar: Free and Independent

One of the more illogical arguments promoted by secessionist elements on the margins of the country is that India is a fascist nation. This is the sort of thing that sounds suitably liberal in seminar rooms and doubtless envelops the audience in the warm glow of self-satisfaction. There: how brave of us! We have given shelter to the oppressed!

The irony of course is that in a genuinely fascist state you would be locked up before you could utter the first initial of fascist. The key would be thrown away. That Kashmiri secessionists, sometimes very thinly disguised in parallel demands, are given a voice by academia and mainstream media is proof of the liberalism of Indian democracy and its multi-faceted institutions.

The most egregious instance of provocation was the flaunting display of Pakistani flags by some demonstrators in the Kashmir valley. I wonder if anyone in Pakistan would be permitted to display the Indian flag in pursuit of his political agenda.

There is a substantive difference in the concepts of freedom and independence. Every nation today can claim to be independent, but that does not necessarily mean that it is free. Freedom is not merely release from the cage of recent history, an end to foreign rule or occupation. Freedom is a principle that the nation shares with every citizen in a post-colonial polity. India is both independent and free.

A nation can also be colonised by its own elites. A purist political scientist might argue that this is not the technical meaning of a colony, or that an undemocratic regime might be as nationalist in its objectives as a democratic one. But the spirit that pervades life in a dictatorship or an oppressive oligarchy is not all that different from colonial rule.

The British Raj was not a continuous exercise in brutality. In many instances it was liberal and reformist. Many would certainly compare it favourably to the feudalism that prevailed in much of India. Of course not every feudal dynast was a despot, but many were. It was only when it came to defending the right of the British to rule an alien land did the splendidly adorned Viceroys and Oxbridge civil servants descended to ruthlessness. If the lathi did not silence India's cry then the bayonet came out. If that did not serve, the machine guns appeared.

Paradoxically, it can be easier to defend a fascist state than a free and democratic nation. The former will not offer the generosity of habeas corpus ("Where is the body?") through which courts can set limits to the power of the executive. In a land not too far away suspects are picked up in thousands and cherrypicked for transportation to a foreign prison where they can be punished for real or imagined crimes. Intelligence agencies run an alternative government in the name of security, designed to intimidate their own citizens and backed up by its own foreign policy.

But because a democratic nation has a soft, perhaps even pulpy, interior it would be a fallacy to believe that it will be weak in the defence of national integrity. India may have more parties than voters, and the struggle for power might be laced with passions that ignite personal vendettas, but when it comes to the defence of India, differences melt and every party closes ranks.
There is nothing sectarian in the approach of the Indian state. If some Kashmiris have a long list of complaints they should check with Punjab and the Northeast. The list there might be longer.

The great healing power of Indian democracy lies in a simple fact: the door is never closed to anyone. Yesterday's secessionists are Chief Ministers today in the Northeast. Anger is not the sole prerogative of the secessionist or terrorist. There is a perceptible rage brewing among Indians who believe in India, against those Kashmiris who agitate for separation in the valley but have no qualms about taking advantage of academic institutions and business opportunities in the rest of India. There is a mounting view that the liberal rights of the Indian Constitution should be reserved only for those who believe in the Constitution and not extended to those who want to subvert it. There is some logic in this view and yet it hurts the very Constitution we seek to protect. Moreover, compromise with principles can so easily degenerate into abandonment.

The hour of crisis, such as the one we face today, demands that we rise above our anger to preserve the values of our founding generation. The worst of times calls out for the best in us.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

US & us: United they stand, divided we fall

US & us: United they stand, divided we fall
By M J Akbar

The Obama-McCain election should be abandoned immediately for reasons of discrimination. It is inhuman to pit the young and brilliant against the old and insecure.

Barack Hussein Obama soars above pitfalls of race and colour, his vision lifted by oratory. John McCain, stunted by George Bush's death-and-dread legacy, crippled by a running mate he selected in a moment of maverick panic, whines with the self-pity of a dead idea struggling to crawl its way back from a grave. It is a no-contest, even though news channels like CNN, dependent on ratings-revenues, pretend that there is some tension left. (If I have to eat my words on November 4, I will be dining out alone for a long time; but let me take the risk.)

As if individual élan were not enough, look at the help in Obama's corner: the smartest politician in half a century, Bill Clinton, to his left, and the toughest candidate in the contemporary process, Hillary Clinton, to his right. McCain has Sarah Palin, who manages to plumb new depths of idiocy when you thought it was impossible to sink further. Ten days ago, in Pittsburgh, she attacked scientific research on fruit flies adding that some of it had even taken place, hold your breath, "in Paris, France". It was wise of her to add "France"; she wasn't overestimating the IQ levels of her base. No one had told her, or them, that Pittsburgh, a classic example of American reinvention after the collapse of its traditional steel and coal industries, is now the leading centre of medical research through its highly respected Pittsburgh University.

McCain's second running mate is someone he affectionately calls "Joe the plumber", a wondrous hick dredged up from anonymity in Ohio to symbolize the evil that Obama would unleash through "socialism", the most slanderous term in American politics. Why is Obama a "socialist"? Because he has the courage to attack the pernicious "trickle down theory" inflicted by neo-cons and thrust upon the world through institutions like the World Bank. Obama says, and repeats, "At a moment like this the last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down." (Memo to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and finance minister Chidamabaram: if the theory isn't trickling down too well in America, I doubt if it will seduce the farmer in Andhra or Maharashtra.)

Joe hates the thought that Obama wants to "redistribute" wealth by taxing the top five per cent; McCain insists that this is utterly un-American. In an ungainly turn of phrase, he calls Obama "redistributionist-in-chief" while he sets himself up as "commander-in-chief". It turns out that Joe is not actually a plumber, that he would not have to pay more taxes under Obama's plan, and that he hasn't paid his taxes anyway but this has not stopped McCain from turning a canard into his most important campaign theme. Joe, in the meantime, has got himself a PR agent and is preparing to become a big-time celebrity. We shall see if Joe can survive a McCain defeat.

America wants change. That is obvious from Bush's ratings, down now to 22%, the worst in history. You can't call them popularity ratings anymore; they must be relabelled unpopularity ratings. The real story lies in the manner that Obama, and America, are creating change. Obama is restoring the idea of America as an inclusive, free and equal society where egalitarianism is the key to prosperity. This is democracy at its finest.

Democracy is not a love-fest. Elections can be corrosive. We in India are also in the midst of continuous turbulence as parties struggle for popular approval, while terrorists, secessionists and virulent sectarians choose this moment to amplify their destructive intent. But while Americans are gathering behind the idea of a better nation, Indian politicians are ever ready to reap the temporary rewards of long-term disunity. Democracy has become a playground for the dissection of the idea of India.

Comparisons are considered odious, particularly by those who can be compared. But think about it. How much difference is there between those who terrorise Bihari workers in Mumbai and those who drove out Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley? Both expellers want to restructure a complex subcontinent, blessed with a liberal Constitution, from shared space to exclusive compartments. The idea of India was the gift of a great generation with an open mind. It is being battered by petty men with closed minds.

The terrorists who set off murderous bombs in Maharashtra or Gujarat or Delhi or Assam must be laughing all the way to the graveyard. India is spinning on wheels that no longer seem to respond to a common engine. It would be distressing to conclude that we have lost the engine. The problem is that the driver at the centre has lost control, but refuses to relinquish charge of the steering wheel. This reinforces a perception of weakness, which is easily exploited by forces inimical to the nation, wherever they may be, whatever might be their methods.

Last Wednesday in Florida, Bill Clinton called the American presidential campaign the "greatest job interview in the world" with the voter getting to "make the hire". The Indian interview is even tougher, actually. This does not diminish the availability of candidates. If they were to be tested only for ambition, they would score high marks on the cynicism scale. The Indian voter, who makes this hire, is, however, getting fed up with quantity. He wants quality and commitment. Is that too much to ask?

Appeared in Times of India - November 2, 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Quiet Shift to New Horizons

Byline by M J Akbar: The Quiet Shift to New Horizons

The sound of a stereotype crumbling travels deep into the individual psyche and the collective consciousness. The two largest democracies, India and America, comparable in size, demographics and ethnic tensions, have both heard such a rumble in the last few days. The trigger in both cases might have been the relentless pressure that elections bear upon social relationships, the amoral quest for power that brings subterranean flows to a boil.

In Malegaon, Maharashtra, a perception that had slowly grown into a public fact has cracked apart. Indian Muslims, perhaps many of them, have been responsible for acts of terrorism, but they are not the only terrorists in India. The kneejerk production of Muslim suspects by the police under all regimes, including Congress governments, an almost thoughtless projection by mass media and, of course, the opportunity provided by anarchist groups like the Indian Mujahideen with their hate-filled message, had convinced most Indians that the only face of terrorism was a Muslim face. The latest arrests in Malegaon are evidence that subversive violence has more than one visage, that sadhvis and their malevolent associates have been exploiting schisms to foment a unidimensional image of terrorism. It had reached a point where the police would routinely put out identity-kit sketches of suspects in beards and flat caps, whether bombs went off in a market, temple or mosque. The plural had disappeared from the phrase "the usual suspects".

Thousands of miles away, in Pennsylvania, a key swing state that could establish the social benchmarks of America in the 21st century, a story broke of a predatory attack on a young, white girl, a supporter of John McCain. She claimed that she had been assaulted by a tall ("six-foot-four"), powerful black man who branded her face with a "B" because she had dared to campaign against Barack Obama. Every racial stereotype was embedded in her tale: the dark, lustful outsider, inflamed by the thirst for revenge, ravishing a helpless young white girl. This was the real monster hidden at the core of the Obama thrust for power, the apocalypse that awaited the nation if McCain lost on 4 November. That "B" on her face was seen by millions on television, a horrifying omen of the nightmare that would descend upon civilisation.

The story fell apart under scrutiny. The "B" had been written incorrectly, indicating either illiteracy or stupidity. There was no assault. It was a lie designed to inflame white passions. Unable to bear her guilt, the woman admitted she had been set up.

Twenty years ago, in 1988, George Bush Senior, the incumbent's father, had become President by using a variation of this theme in his contest against a rather depressing looking Michael Dukakis. A black felon on parole was pumped up into a metaphor to incite majority fears. The 2008 version is far more crude and dangerous. This, if you think about it, is logical. There has been a marked degeneration in the wares of the merchants of fear, precisely because it has become much harder to sell such provocative merchandise. A baby born in the year Bush Sr was elected will cast his first vote in 2008. This will probably be the decisive vote on 4 November. This generation of Americans is, consciously, deliberately, rejecting the traumas that have bedevilled the past. This was obvious to me in the thinnest of possible samples. If the electorate had consisted only of the students I addressed at the University of Connecticut last week, Obama would have got 90% of the vote. (The other 10% would be undecided.)

The shift to new horizons may not be as marked in India, but it is happening. Those political parties who still cling to tired ideas, who do not realise that the culture of fawning sycophancy or communal antipathy is no longer sustainable, will not be able to avoid wreckage over the next decade. Leadership means lifting a nation from the quagmire of its own prejudice and inconsistencies.

Obama has already proved he is a brilliant politician and a sensitive son. Nothing he has done over two impossible years could top his decision to suspend his campaign for two days to visit his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, now on her deathbed in the modest Hawaii apartment where he grew up. He had postponed visiting his mother when she was dying of cancer until it was too late. He did not repeat that mistake. "My grandmother's the last one left. She has really been the rock of the family…" he said. Cynics might suggest that it was the perfect way to remind America that his grandmother was white, but for two days Obama was a child filled once again with his grandmother's dreams, and not the next President of America. This is why he will make a good President if he becomes one. As Colin Powell said, Obama knows what he doesn't know. That is the first qualification for maturity.

He even has the chance to transform himself into a great leader. It will not be easy. We do not know what lurks behind the steel on his face. We dare not underestimate the strength of the forces who will mobilise against him, not the least of them being big business. If you want to gauge the might of the private sector in America, take a look at this statistic. Between them the two candidates have spent about $2.5 billion trying to win the most powerful job in the world. Don't hold your breath. The annual advertising budget for just one corporation, Coca-Cola, in 2006 was $2.6 billion.

2009 is an election year in India as well. Does any Indian politician have the courage to graduate into a leader through the Indian electoral college?