Sunday, December 28, 2008

How a mouse in Pakistan became its Man of the Year

How a mouse in Pakistan became its Man of the Year
By M J Akbar

In the absence of any serious contender from India, the Man of the Year is surely Muntathar al-Zaidi of Iraq. He made George Bush, already honoured with an enviable place in the history of laughter, immortal with a pair of Turkish shoes. Al-Zaidi wins the nomination because he is the first great Gandhian of the 21st century.

He may not be a Gandhian by Indian ideals, but he is certainly one by Iraqi standards. Intersecting cultural traditions through the arc of anger, we find that a well-aimed shoe just about makes it into the non-violent category. In a recent film with a forgettable name, Akshay Kumar threw a Punjabi jutti at a competitor for the heroine's hand without missing a beat in his song. The well-flung shoe therefore has its place in India's history as a weapon of class-destruction.

If it's Gandhian, it must have a moral. There is one. A single alphabet separates 'shoe' and 'shot'. If al-Zaidi had aimed a bullet, he would have been vilified and his country could have been burdened with another decade of war and misery. A thousand cartoons celebrated the miracle of a shoe ripping up Bush's reputation with a thoroughness no arsenal could have achieved. A hundred American stand-up comics could not have asked for a better Christmas gift.

Sixty years after Gandhi's martyrdom, perhaps without anyone noticing it, non-violence has become the politically acceptable instrument of protest. Irrational, inhuman violence, alas, still has its advocates and clients, as the trauma of Mumbai proves. Curiously, America, which placed terrorism beyond the pale, is in the process of tacitly endorsing terrorism in an attempt to exonerate its ally in the Afghan war, the Pakistan Army.

Pakistan has developed a narrative of denial and justification to explain Mumbai. It runs, broadly, on these lines: we do not know who these ten men are, but if we did then their mayhem had a "root cause", Kashmir.

The Pentagon, shuffling uneasily from the defeated convictions of a fading Bush towards an as yet unrefined alternative, perhaps influenced by an inexperienced incomer's enthusiasm for solutions, seems to have bought into the "root causes" argument. Adm Mike Mullen, chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Generals Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of the ISI, three days before Christmas. Reaffirming Pakistan's role as an indispensable partner in the war against terror, he offered, in exchange, a virtual free pass to Pak involvement in Mumbai. He offered a simplistic "root-cause" formula: Kashmir, the principal source of regional instability, has to be resolved to establish Indo-Pak-US cooperation in Afghanistan. Expect a special US envoy high on good intentions flitting between Delhi and Islamabad soon.

The question that no one seems keen to answer in Delhi is: Whatever happened to the strategic relationship with the US, the cornerstone of the government's foreign policy? Did Delhi forget to include Kashmir in India's strategic map? State-to-state relations have always survived war. India-Pakistan relations have survived nuclear brinkmanship and military catastrophe. But can they survive terrorism? India is in the grip of a frozen anger against Pakistan. Injudicious provocation could convert the thaw into lava.

It is always useful to apply the Agatha Christie principle in any mystery: who gains from murder? Who gained from terrorism in Mumbai? There is only one winner: the Pakistan Army. The disgrace into which it had been dragged by Pervez Musharraf has been erased; it is wrapped once again in the blanket of confrontation with India. Zardari's amateur attempts at a peace deal with India are dead, a prelude perhaps to his own decline. He will no longer attempt to encroach into ISI space. Pakistan's generals are proving to be excellent tacticians. They have manoeuvered impressively through the terror-crisis to emerge with the local Taliban on one arm, and the Pentagon on the other.

Pervez Musharraf used to talk too much. General Ashfaq Kayani has been accused of talking too little. For philosophy he clearly turns to Clausewitz rather than Gandhi. But Pakistan's Mouse of the Year in January 2008 has emerged as its Man of the Year by December.

Appeared in Times of India - December 28, 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Real Con Called Conspiracy Theory

Byline by M J Akbar: A Real Con Called Conspiracy Theory

If you forgot the source of a quotation in our parents' generation, you could safely attribute it to Winston Churchill. Churchill smoked Cuban cigars, drank champagne for breakfast, painted for pleasure and won wars for a living. He was the authentic hero of the age of imperialism in the English-speaking people. If you cannot recall a source now, the safest thing to do is to attribute it to Warren Buffett, who eats hamburgers, plays bridge, thinks up witticisms for a hobby and makes money for a living. He is the authentic hero of the age of capitalism in the dollar-speaking world.

It was Buffett, I think, who said that it is only when the tide runs out that you discover who has been swimming naked.

Well, with the next general elections only weeks away, the tide is running out on politicians who have dominated the last five years. To our increasing amusement, we are beginning to discover that there might be a whole nudist colony swimming in the political waters. Once upon a time, only the emperor had no clothes. But democracy is a more egalitarian business.

The position of chief nudist fluctuates, but at the moment there would be no questions asked if the award was handed to Abdul Rahman Antulay. Let me point out right away that Mr Antulay is far smarter than the emperor, who seems to have lost his wits after a child pointed out that he had lost his clothes. Mr Antulay has taken pre-emptive action to fool the child. If you throw dust in the eyes of the beholder, there is a good chance that your nudity will not be recognised. Mr Antulay has spent six of his eight decades in politics. You learn a great deal in the process.

One simple question will expose how nude Mr Antulay was under the enveloping tide: Can he name one single thing, anything at all, that he has done for minorities as the Union Minister for Minorities?

He could possibly reel off the number of occasions on which he has broken down and sobbed publicly, either in sympathy at their plight or in exasperation at his inability to persuade the system to deliver. The tears might even have been genuine. But they do not add up to re-election.

If the performance is poor in Delhi, it is pathetic in Maharashtra. An exceptionally good story in Mumbai Mirror revealed that the Congress-NCP Government had not spent a single rupee out of the Rs 167 crores allotted to the Minorities Development Department till 15 December. Not one rupee. It is sadder still that the more hysterical elements of the Urdu press, who spend yards of newsprint on conspiracy theories, simply ignore such a story. In fact, if you want a quick portrait of the Congress Government in Maharashtra then all you have to do is check out one statistic: only 34% of the State's annual budget of Rs 29,000 crores has been spent till the middle of December. And so Mr Antulay picked up conspiracy fluff floating down the media mainstream, which had found some anchorage on urban shores, in order to reinvent himself as a martyr for a "Muslim cause" — that Hemant Karkare had been "martyred" [some Urdu papers refer to him only as "Shaheed" Karkare] because he was on the point of discovering the truth about a "Hindu" hand behind the Malegaon bombings. Even as a theory it was extraordinary: it implied that some quick-thinking fellow police officer had misled Karkare into going to the exact spot where he would get killed, certain that the Pakistani terrorists would not be able to get anyone who went to Taj, Oberoi or Nariman House, but would certainly kill the officers who went towards the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station.

All the clichés were trotted out: that Antulay feared no one but God [loud applause], that he did not care for office ["Take my resignation!"] et al. But the record shows that while it takes very little to persuade Antulay to offer to resign, it takes a great deal to force Antulay out of office. When the Babri mosque was demolished, and Mumbai suffered two months of riots, Antulay did not even offer to resign from Parliament. There were two reasons: one, three and a half years were left before the next general elections, not just three and a half months. Two, P.V. Narasimha Rao would have accepted the resignation immediately. Actually, even three and a half months are too long. When the Congress Government humiliated him through a statement in Parliament debunking the conspiracy line, all he did was to sheepishly agree and accept that there was no longer any need for an enquiry. Of course, the man who fears no one but God was permitted to keep his job, however marginal it might be.

Siddhartha Varadarajan, writing in the Hindu, had the finest conspiracy theory of the whole lot: that Antulay was a BJP plant in the Congress. It is certainly more logical than the suggestion that Mumbai police officers conspired with Pakistani terrorists to kill a top officer of their force. At a time of serious tension, all Antulay did was break the unity fashioned in Parliament. Just when it seemed that India was speaking in one voice, he split the Cabinet and handed Pakistan a public relations coup. His bid for pseudo-heroism has given Pakistan effective ammunition in the psychological skirmishing that has become a substitute for open warfare. Before asking India to unite, the Prime Minister might have asked his Cabinet to unite. His abject retreat will not change the Pakistani narrative. Islamabad will accuse Delhi of using pressure to ensure silence.

It is only appropriate, if one has begun with a quote, to end with a misquote. Churchill is, by my guess, the second most fecund source for anecdotes and bon mots in English; the most fertile is of course Shakespeare, who was also familiar with tides in the affairs of men. Shakespeare also understood the politics of power better than most, as his history plays indicate. But since he wrote of heroes, he did not investigate the clothing of politicians at ebb tide. Hence, a variation: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at the ebb, leads on to misfortune".

Monday, December 22, 2008

Antulay is the Simi Garewal of Indian Politics

Antulay is the Simi Garewal of Indian Politics
By M J Akbar

There is, or should be, a well-defined line in media between the liberty of impression and the freedom of expression. Both are privileges of democracy. Liberty of impression is the exhilarating-frightening roller coaster on which public discourse rides. Freedom of expression is cooled by the sprinkle of judgment, a mind that sieves speculation, allegation and accusation from the end-product that appears in print or on air.

There is outrage against the television coverage of Mumbai terrorism because television celebrities surrendered their judgment before the rising demand for hysteria. There is no supply without demand. The very audiences that sucked out hysteria from cable are now howling against its perpetrators. It is a human instinct to develop instant amnesia about one’s mistakes and sharpen knives with the vigour of humbugs the moment a scapegoat has been identified. The viewer is now seeking absolution through anger.

But the information market has been flooded with toxic weed. Hysteria is not the exclusive preserve of audio-visual junketeers. From the moment the terrorist violence hit Mumbai, much before the course of events evolved into a pattern, some sections of the Urdu press began pumping up circulation figures with fantasy fodder, in the shape of conspiracy theories, to a readership in search of denial. The conspiracy-in-chief was that this mayhem was nothing more than a plot to sabotage the investigation that ATS chief Karkare was conducting into the Malegaon blasts. The death of the police officer was declared instant martyrdom.

News media operates within a triangle of customer, producer and politician. A clever politician is a master chef in cooking up a broth of impression and expression. Since the customer is also a voter, the politician panders to street opinion by lifting it into the loftier realm of Parliament or television studio. The very act of transference gives implicit legitimacy to fantasy fodder.
Abdur Rahman Antulay is not in search of truth. He is in search of votes. He has become the Simi Garewal of Indian politics. Garewal saw a Pakistani flag fluttering on every Muslim housetop in Mumbai. Antulay sees a vote beyond every Muslim doorstep. Garewal was blinded by a low IQ. Antulay has turned myopic because one eye is stupid and the other cynical. But that is his secondary medical problem. His primary disease is cancer of the vote-bank.

If you want to understand Antulay’s and, by extension, the Congress’ compulsions, then take a look at an SMS I received on December 1: “Congress has been wiped out in Dhule corporation election. It could get only 3 seats out of 67.” Dhule is barely fifty kilometres from Malegaon. More than 30% of its electorate is Muslim.

As the minorities minister with the unique distinction of having done absolutely nothing for minorities, Antulay and his party face a meltdown in Maharashtra. If they cannot get even Muslim votes, they can forget about power and pelf in Delhi. He has therefore chosen to feed the Muslim with the comfort food of conspiracy theories, in the hope that this will drug him to the point where he loses his bearings until the April-May elections.

Will this succeed? Perhaps. It has succeeded before. But take a look at another SMS I received, announcing a meeting of the Maharashtra United Democratic Convention at Birla Matushri on December 17. An experiment for the consolidation of the Muslim vote was begun in Assam under a similar banner and did well in the last assembly elections. It has 11 MLAs and came second in some two dozen constituencies. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Qasmi promised at the Mumbai convention that an MUDF would set up candidates in every constituency in the next assembly elections. Its aim would be to defeat both the Congress and the BJP. He warned the Congress, which had got the Muslim vote in the state for six decades, that the days of bondage were over, and the Muslim vote had grown up: it was not going to be satisfied with toffee anymore.

It is a long journey from desire to destination. There will be pressure and deviation; some attempts to purchase some leaders will possibly succeed. But such language has never been heard from a Muslim platform in Maharashtra.

Simi Garewal sees a Pakistan where there isn’t one. Antulay will not see a Pakistan where there is one. But Simi is a fringe factor; Antulay sits on centrestage. Antulay is a Cabinet minister, who has provided sustenance to those Pakistanis who are trying to fool us into believing that the terrorism in Mumbai was an instance of Indian security failure rather than an invasion sponsored by Pakistani elements.

I am amazed at the sheer gall of both the spinners in Pakistan and the Antulays in India. They seem to forget that there is a Pakistani canary sitting in an Indian jail, singing out the plans, preparations and objectives. Nine dead men and their masters are being exposed by the tenth man, the man who did not die.

If this is the state of deception and self-deception when one terrorist has been caught, what would have been the level of denial if all ten had died?

Cynicism is a staple of vote-driven politics. We all know that. I was naïve to believe that our nation’s security would remain outside the reach of cynicism.

Appeared in Times of India - December 22, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Biting the BBC bullet

Byline by M J Akbar: Biting the BBC bullet

The butler who calmed his feudal lord by noting that the uproar was a mere revolt and not a revolution, had a point. A revolution needs the brains of a Gandhi or a Lenin, not to mention a replacement for the object of destruction. I would be loath to replace the BBC. I would not even dignify my little protest with the label of 'revolt'. Moreover, it was Gandhian, which makes it even less glamorous. Perhaps the only relevant part of my response was non-cooperation.

During the sixty hours of unabated terrorism in Mumbai, the one group that was almost as much in demand as security forces was journalists. With media desperate to fill space or time, a journalist could pass off any amount of gibberish as on-the-spot wisdom. Many international radio and television stations did not even demand, or perhaps expect, correct grammar: mangled phrases and minced diction can sound quaintly ethnic.

It was after the last terrorist had been shot in the Taj that something snapped during a telephone conversation with an extremely polite news anchor from the BBC in London. I refused. I said that I would not cooperate with the BBC as long as it described the murderers of Mumbai as "gunmen" rather than calling them what they were: terrorists.

The BBC is full of friends, with whom one has a happy and fulfilling professional relationship since the 1970s. I am privileged to consider the father of the BBC in India, Mark Tully, as a friend. Rita Payne, who headed the South Asia service for television till recently, is another. It was suggested that I might consider writing to Richard Porter, head of BBC World News Content. Perhaps my language was angry, but it only reflected the rage one felt: "I am appalled, astonished, livid at your inability to describe the events in Mumbai as the work of terrorists. You have called them 'gunmen', as if they were hired security guards on a night out. When Britain finds a group of men plotting in a home laboratory your government has no hesitation in creating an international storm, and the BBC has no hesitation in calling them terrorists. When nearly two hundred Indian lives are lost, you cannot find a word in your dictionary more persuasive than 'gunmen'. You are not only pathetic, but you have become utterly biased in your reporting…Shame on you and your kind."

Mr Porter's reply was worded in far more courteous language. "The BBC's policies on the use of the word 'terrorist' have long been a subject of public discussion. The guidelines we issue to staff are very clear — we do not ban the use of the word terrorist, but our preference is to use an alternative form of words. There is a judgment inherent in the use of the word, which is not there when we are more precise with our language. 'Gunman', or 'killer', or 'bomber', is an accurate description which does not come with any form of judgment."

Mr Porter said that BBC policy, of "accuracy and fairness" helped "audiences to understand the world we live in. I believe those audiences can make their own mind up about the people who carried out the attacks in Mumbai and don't need us to give them any label to reach that judgment". This seemed a curious claim. Isn't there judgment in the use of the word 'killer'? It can hardly be considered a term of endearment. If the BBC called you a 'killer' or a gunman or a bomber you would tend to sue, would you not?

But there is a subtler point here, which, at least in my view, acts as implicit protection for terrorism.

There is a clear distinction between gunmen and terrorists. Criminals use guns, and can be called gunmen; they do it for a purpose, to steal or kidnap or loot. Terrorists use guns and bombs in the random killing of innocents in pursuit of a political or personal agenda. The killers at Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus, Taj, Oberoi and a home where Jewish people lived, did not come to steal art, or money, or railway property. I put this point as forcefully as I could to Mr Porter: "It is a shame that the BBC cannot see the difference between a criminal and a terrorist, and chooses in fact to protect the terrorist by giving him the camouflage of a criminal. This is not a matter of semantics. Terrorists are always happy to fudge the definition."

In response Mr Porter, once again with the maximum courtesy, urged me to read the Editorial Policy guidelines of the BBC, disputed the use of "camouflage" and argued that "our reporting from Mumbai was extremely effective in putting across the full horror of what happened even within the constraints of our policy. And to repeat what I said before, we do not ban the use of the word, and it has been used many times on our output in relation to Mumbai".

Yes, used by Indians, and by British commentators I am sure, but not by the BBC.

It is possible that Mr Porter's eyebrow shot up in hurt surprise when he discovered that a story on this protest had appeared on an Indian website. He wrote, "I must therefore assume that everything I say to you will be published, although I did not know that was your original intention." Actually it was not. I merely did not think that an individual's reaction would be considered important enough to become a story. But that did not mean that this exchange was in private space. I had no knowledge of Mr Porter's existence before this correspondence, and am equally certain he had none of mine. Why would I endeavour to enter into a private correspondence with the BBC? The BBC's policy is a public fact, not a private one, and affects the public discourse, not a private chat. One would also assume that there is nothing that Mr Porter would say privately on his corporation's policy that he would not be prepared to air publicly.

Institutions do not change their convictions on the basis of a single protest. But media giants need to remember that while the common viewer may not have the sophistication of their committees, or the acumen of their lawyers, or the weight of their power, he does have common sense. Common sense defines the difference between the criminal and the terrorist.

It would be interesting to find out if the BBC called the destruction of the twin towers of New York the work of "gunmen" or "killers" or "airplane bombers", or whether it called them terrorists. Did the BBC consider the men who killed innocents on London's trains and buses "bombers" in search of a little private excitement? I am not sure about the nature of the coverage.

What I am sure about is that to describe the terrorists of Mumbai as mere "gunmen" is mealy-mouthed, weak-kneed and just plain offensive.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fettered by fear, Muslims fritter away their vote

Fettered by fear, Muslims fritter away their vote
By M J Akbar

Indian Muslims will get development the day they vote for development. For sixty years they have voted out of fear, so that is what they have got from those they elected: the politics of fear. Fear is the menu, recipe and diet: and the Muslim voter laps it up with the appetite of the traumatized.

Fact and fiction are employed seamlessly in the advertising of fear. A history of riot, and the threat from organizations like the Bajrang Dal are sewn into wild conspiracy theories by ‘leaders’ of the community to shape minds on the eve of an election. I could not believe some of what I heard after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. One was utterly aghast to hear, during a public gathering of some very worthy persons, the suggestion that we could not be sure that the terrorists had come from Pakistan. It was an appalling exercise in denial by mindsets that had either been unhinged or had turned utterly manipulative.

For secular politicians, the Muslim vote comes at an easy exchange rate. Other communities demand rice and roads. The Muslim needs nothing more than the old ploy used to help children go to sleep: stories of ghosts and monsters at the door.

When the community wakes up after sleepwalking to the polling booth, and demands legitimate needs like jobs for the young and health clinics for women, the politicians offer a large shoulder on which they can weep. No other segment of the Indian electorate can be appeased by a sob story.

Politicians will always maximize the spread of assets at their disposal in the search for an extra vote; why should they waste economic benefits on a voter who will sway to the whine of emotions rather than take a cold count of schools and sanitation? There is now a disconnect between Muslims and the benefits of democracy, a break engineered by community opinion-makers who get rewarded for such services with little dollops that wind up into their personal assets.

Fear used to be a factor with some other communities as well, particularly Dalits and tribals. Humiliation and exploitation were a constant of their experience. But they have moved on, either by asserting themselves through their own political formations or by maximizing the price of their support where parties like the BSP or Jharkhand Mukti Morcha do not exist. The sharpest player of this intelligent game is Mayawati. The results are evident. There is a good study waiting to be done comparing the employment levels, educational services and municipal services in Dalit residential areas and Muslim areas between 1947 and 2007.

Even without empirical data I can assert that there is a sharp improvement in the former and stagnation if not decline in the latter. The Dalit has punished neglect. The tribal has learnt to vote on the sensible planks of development and security: he knows that he cannot eat rice, at whatever price it is offered, unless he is alive. The Muslim has crawled repeatedly back into the sterile womb of fear. That womb will deliver nothing. The midwives of this vote fatten on fees collected by periodic declarations of false pregnancy.

Only one state is an exception: Kerala. Untroubled by the guilt of Partition, the Malayali Muslim can rally around the banner of an All-India Muslim League, which is a bit of a misnomer. It is not an all-Indian organization; it is a local Muslim party. The Kerala Muslim, with sufficient self-assurance to meet political and economic challenges, has always behaved like an equal, which is why he is treated like one. He has prised out the benefits of progress through the pressure points of a democratic polity.

There could have been a similar story in Bengal, because the Marxists are committed to both secularism and progress for the underprivileged. They were the first to empower Bengali Muslims, through land reforms inspired by three authentic Marxist heroes, Promode Dasgupta, Harekrishna Konar and Jyoti Basu. That won them the loyalty of the rural vote. But two fallow decades are forcing a shift in Muslim sentiment; it is not ready to be taken for granted any longer.

The Bengal CPM is in a bit of a bind, perhaps because it is not cynical enough to exploit the politics of fear with the dexterity displayed by other parties anxious for the Muslim vote. One senses the first stir of change in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar has begun to include Muslims within his development-based governance. The pace may not overly perturb a snail, but at least a process has started. But if the voter does not honour this start with support, then it will be back to fulmination and hot air.

Fear locks and freezes the mind. A closed mind can never liberate a community from poverty.

Appeared in Times of India - December 14, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What's general about a general Election?

Byline by M J Akbar: What's general about a general Election?

There is nothing general about a general election. It is the sum of a set of particular elections in separate but contiguous and occasionally overlapping geographical and demographic spaces.

The Indian electorate lives in concentric circles. The federal state is one definition of such a circle, but not a comprehensive one. Identities can overlap into national space, as well as shrink into regions within a state. The case of Jharkhand yesterday and Telangana today might be obvious, but even newly-formed Chhattisgarh, which offers only 11 MPs to Parliament, has voters with different priorities, as we witnessed in the recent Assembly elections. Raipur, the old haunt of veteran V.C. Shukla, went largely to the party he has rejoined, Congress. But the tribals of Bastar gave the decisive tilt to the final tally, putting the BJP way ahead with an enthusiastic endorsement of the Salwa Judum programme, in which the state Government armed tribals against Naxalites.

This was greeted with palpable despair by urban liberals. But if they want to add to their despair they should note an almost imperceptible reversal of voter-preferences. Till the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi the Congress vote was secure among tribals, Dalits and the poor; the middle classes and the rich would abandon the Congress when they wanted to. After fifteen years of Narasimha Rao, Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the BJP has made serious inroads into the affections of the underprivileged in central India. This is a serious pointer to the growing perception that the Congress has become the party of the rich.

I can think of only two elections which were fought on a single issue: the one in 1977, after the Emergency; and the one in 1984, after Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassination. Generally, there are a handful of concerns that determine the voter's decision. But there is always a primary issue, and many secondary ones. Every one of the recent Assembly elections, from Delhi to Mizoram, was a referendum on the Chief Minister rather on the party of the CM. Mrs Sheila Dikshit won re-election in Delhi, not the Congress. The BJP was ahead of the Congress, but Mrs Dikshit was far, far ahead of the man who sought to replace her, Vijay Malhotra.

The Indian voter is more mature than the Indian politician. He was not distracted by emotion, even one as powerful as terrorism inspired by forces hostile to India. He concentrated on what mattered most in an Assembly election, good governance, and he knew that this is provided by an individual, a leader. Equally, the leader is responsible for mismanagement and corruption, where that prevails. He placed terrorism also within the matrix of good governance, for it is the duty of the state to provide security to the citizen. But his judgment was remarkably honest. He would not blame Mrs Dikshit for the collapse of authority in Mumbai. Those who failed in Mumbai, whether at the state or Central level, will be held culpable when their time comes.

Narendra Modi made an interesting point when campaigning for tougher anti-terrorism laws. He told Gujaratis during last year's Assembly elections that he could assure them a better life, but what was the point of the assurance if they were left with no life to enjoy? He could make this an effective claim only because he had delivered on development. In Delhi, Mrs Dikhshit had the record, and the attacks on her looked like gamesmanship because they were not backed by either a fresh face or fresh ideas. Everywhere, people are tired of politics at the expense of development. And they do not care if development comes wrapped in a tricolour or saffron. The voter is now colour-neutral.

Of course victory and defeat in a state do impact the fortunes of a party. And so the advantage in the next general elections will lie with whichever coalition offers the better collection of Chief Ministers. Or, to put in another way, which team has fewer disasters in its ranks. The Congress is in serious trouble in the two large states where it is in power. It has been forced to replace its Chief Minister in Maharashtra; unwisely, it shifted merely from a callous face to a lacklustre one.

In Andhra, the extraordinary rise of Chiranjeevi is a warning to both the Congress and the Telugu Desam. He is soaking up the gap between anger and what might be called lukewarmth. Its principal ally, the DMK, has become synonymous with corruption, hobbling in the process Prime Minister Singh, who has tolerated putrid partners in order to remain in office. The Congress should feel happier about its prospects in Punjab, to tick off one of its potential assets in the general election balance sheet. A political party might be a broad church, an alliance a broader faith, but every church needs a pastor.

The team must be led by someone who can display authority, and a programme that encompasses a nationwide horizon. Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani will be their respective team-leaders, of course; but the Third Front will be hampered if it cannot offer a candidate for Prime Minister.

The Delhi result might just be the best thing to happen to the BJP. If it had won, its leaders might have forgotten precisely why they were re-elected in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Media's fixation on its urban base can be mesmerising, driving out facts from analysis. The BJP presumably has realised that the voter will not pick up anything thrown in its way. Both the slogan and the leader have to be credible. All politicians are prone to get stuck in the treacle of smugness at the first hint of success. The split decision should have sobered all parties. There was a welcome sobriety in the commentary from spokesmen of both the Congress and the BJP following the results. It should have also reaffirmed to both parties that the general election is going to be won by whichever has the better allies. Neither is strong enough to march too far ahead of its partners. This will also have an ameliorating effect on the formation of the next Government in Delhi.

December 2008 was a wake-up call. This should ensure that all political parties go into the general election with their eyes open, and common sense intact.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Two-nation theory has bred practice of hatred

Two-nation theory has bred practice of hatred
By M J Akbar

Why has Pakistan become synonymous with terrorism? The vast majority of Pakistanis surely find terrorism, which is the purest form of hatred, as repellent as Indians do. Why then does Pakistan breed an endless flow of suicide missionaries?

Practice has been shaped by theory. A theory of separation created Pakistan in 1947; over time, this has been converted into a culture of hatred by some self-appointed ideologues.

Pakistan emerged out of the notion that Hindus and Muslims could not live together. The threat perception was raised into the claim that Islam itself would be obliterated in a Hindu-majority India, during the seminal general elections of 1936-37. The Muslim League's slogan was: "Islam in Danger!"

Neither history nor theology could have sustained such a slogan, but Muslim elites in British India, particularly landlords and capitalists, manipulated the incipient ideology of the Muslim League, and fuelled it with incendiary sentiment in order to create a state where they could protect their vested interests. They were not really afraid of "Hindu Raj"; they were terrified of land reform and socialism - however pale a version it might be - that the Congress would enforce. It is no accident that till today there has been no serious land reform in Pakistan. Gandhi's honest faith in Hinduism was maliciously exploited to spread the perfidy that India would never offer an equal place to Muslims.

The idea of Islam being in danger was particularly attractive to a section of the ulema - but not to all of them; the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind (now led by Maulana Mahmood Madni), unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami, was very clear-headed about the potential pitfalls and opposed the creation of Pakistan. The pro-partition ulema, however, discovered a unique opportunity for power. If Islam was going be the raison d'etre of the new nation, then who else could be its true guardians? The elites took control of the economy and politics; the upper middle classes dominated the administration; and the two shared authority in the armed forces. The clergy gradually took control of educational and legal space.

The one thing that united these elements, who had separate agendas and could be culturally antagonistic, was Kashmir. The first important decision taken after Pakistan's birth was to convert the two-nation theory into a cornerstone of Pakistan's foreign policy.

It is often forgotten that Pakistan created the Kashmir problem when it decided to seize the Valley by armed force in the last week of October 1947. If this incursion had not taken place, there would have been a peaceful resolution to both Kashmir and Hyderabad, perhaps by the spring of 1948, with Britain as referee through the person of Lord Mountbatten. Perhaps this was one reason, apart from his sense of self-importance, why Mountbatten wanted to be named Governor General of both India and Pakistan, but Jinnah told him to stick to Delhi.

India, Pakistan and Britain were in full agreement that no princely state should be permitted independence. The two holdouts, Kashmir and Hyderabad, could never have survived in their frozen condition. Mountbatten has left on record a note from Nehru in which he suggested that the resolution of Kashmir could be left to spring 1948, when the snows had melted.

Instead, Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan and Pakistan's freshly emboldened leaders were convinced they could pray at the main mosque in Srinagar on the Friday following the invasion. They failed. The failure sponsored a lie, that the invasion was a "popular uprising". Shuja Nawaz has exposed this falsehood effectively in his history of the Pakistan army, Crossed Swords [Oxford University Press]. The October 1947 invasion was armed and supported by the Pakistani administration.

Six decades of Fridays later, the rulers of Islamabad are still waiting. If they want to enter Srinagar on tanks they are welcome to wait another six decades and hand over the effort to their great grandchildren. If they want to come to Srinagar in peace, they can come and pray tomorrow. But it will be difficult for them to come in peace to Srinagar as long as they believe that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together. The two-nation theory might have been abandoned in 1971, when Pakistan itself was partitioned. But it remains the official doctrine of the Pakistan state, sold to generations in millions of school textbooks.

Pakistan's support for Sikh secessionism in the 1980s was clear evidence that it did not need only a "Muslim" cause to become pro-active. If it could destroy India's integrity through another religious module, it was equally happy to do so. If General Zia ul Haq had spent as much energy on the construction of Pakistan as he did on the destruction of India, Pakistan might have had a rising economic story to tell by now.

Kashmir became the implicit sanction for the emergence, under Zia's beneficial watch, of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Army of the Pure. Zia's successors, starting with Benazir Bhutto, did little to contain these terrorists. When India protested, Pakistani diplomats were polite across the table, and probably had a good laugh behind Delhi's back. Since Zia's time Pakistan has been asking for "evidence" or proof, and encouraging skepticism or conspiracy theories (dutifully lapped up by sections of the Indian media). Well, this time there is a canary singing in custody, and a satellite phone abandoned by terrorists with five logged calls to members of the Lashkar. Just in case you did not know, it is the declared intention of the Pure Army to fly the Pakistani flag on top of the Red Fort. Its plans are not secret. They are on its website. Its leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, certainly gets a wink if not a nod from the Pak establishment. Pervez Musharraf was the only Pakistani leader to ban the Lashkar, under international pressure after Vajpayee mobilized along the border in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament. Passions cooled, and it simply reappeared under another name, back in business. Hafiz Saeed does not live in hiding. He gives interviews to Indian publications.

Asif Zardari's latest alibi is: these are non-state actors. They certainly preen around on the Pakistani stage. If the Pakistani state cannot stop this bloodthirsty drama, the world will have to.

Appeared in Times of India - December 07, 2008

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Gagsters and Gangsters

Byline by M J Akbar: Gagsters and Gangsters

We have enough evidence: there is a cabal of cyber terrorists employed by mobile phone companies to destabilise the honourable Government of Dr Manmohan Singh with evil jokes. Who else could be manufacturing those SMSes that begin to circulate whenever opportunity arises? This is a professional hit job. This is not the work of amateurs. If stand-up comedians like Jay Leno can hire professional gag-writers, so can mobile phone companies, since each SMS-joke that is circulated means revenue for hungry coffers. The Government seems to be as impotent against gagsters within the country as it is against gangsters from across the border.

We had hardly blinked upon hearing that our smug finance minister had become even smugger after being transferred to home affairs when a solemn SMS landed on my machine:
"Let us pray that Chidambaram succeeds in bringing down terrorism the way he has brought down share prices."

If this is not sedition at a moment of national crisis, then please let me know the meaning of sedition. The gagster, moreover, has the temerity to be subtle. This is not one of those ha-ha husband-wife jokes. This is serious stuff.

This was followed by a committee effort, for I cannot believe that only one gagster dreamt this whole bit up:

"Chidambaram's report card after 6 months.
1: Police to people ratio increased from 14 per lakh to 14.0012 per lakh. How? One million commit suicide due to inflation. One lakh die in explosions, 25 lakhs in crime and accidents, three million migrate out of India due to fear.
2: Holding and folding dhoti time reduced by 5%. Big productivity gains.
3: Duties of all DGPs outsourced to FPOs, Homeguards, Excise department and his ex-Harvard associates.
4: Police to be paid in oil bonds only.
5: RDX imports attract higher penalties.
6: Duties slashed for substandard bulletproof jackets.
7: Service tax to be imposed on Bangladeshi infiltrators at border crossings.
8: Visa entry tax imposed only on Nepalis.
9: 25% entry tax on all AK Series rifles and all types of grenades.
10: If you still survive…then see you in 2009! But be ready for tax on your happiness and survival!"

I have been wondering about that phrase "If you still survive…" Is that a double entendre? At one level of course the gagster was referring to you and me, and the bleak possibilities of our survival against gangsters. But could he be also, obliquely, referring to bleaker possibility of Chidambaram's survival as home minister? Note that the report card was limited to six months. Why? I sense something sinister here. Has he already drawn the conclusion that this arrangement will end before six months? What are the facts? No matter how long Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi drag out the life of this dying Government with virility injections that turn out to be too watery, they have to hold general elections by April. That is it. In 15 weeks at the outside, and probably within 13 weeks, the great electoral contraption will begin to whirr. This means that the Election Commission will declare the season open around mid-March, after which Government really becomes a holding operation. Expect results in the first week of May.

Is the gagster saying that this lot in Delhi will not return to power? A fellow gagster certainly thinks so. I quote: "We have taken care of the men who came by boats…Time now to sort out the idiots who came by votes." Mumbai predictably evoked anger. This gag was not quite a gag, but rose from the heart: "Forgiving a terrorist is left to God. But fixing their appointment with God is our responsibility." Laughter may be the best medicine for anger, but there are times when you do not want the relief of such medicine.

Have some of the gagster gone too far? The SMS about the Kerala chief minister cannot be printed in a family newspaper. But it did very well on SMS, for whom laws of libel have not yet been invented.

I wonder if politicians understand one law of public affairs. Everyone can survive criticism. And no one can survive ridicule. The gagster flourishes only when ridicule is the only weapon left in a democracy, until the day of voting arrives.

There is a point at which the gagster can run out of gags. After a week of dithering, when Maharashtra was effectively without a Government despite being in the throes of its most serious crisis, the Congress finally installed a new chief minister, Ashok Chavan, and its ally, Sharad Pawar, made Chhagan Bhujbal the deputy chief minister.

The SMS that followed was not a gag:

"Chhagan Bhujbal, a man who was single-handedly responsible for the complete decay and corruption in the police force and was removed for his involvement in the Telgi scam has been rewarded to head the home department (sic) again by the NCP. So much for the show of force by Mumbaikars. We should not take this lying down. Forward this message to as many as possible."

Dear Mumbaikars, I am doing my bit.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Policy, Profile, Politics:Match gives you Game

Byline by M J Akbar: POLICY, PROFILE, POLITICS: Match Gives you Game

What wins elections? Policy or profile?
You can lose elections through failed policy but win them through a positive profile. If the profile of a leader has been projected with sufficient dexterity, an incumbent can even overcome the liability of inadequate delivery during the years of governance. In four States where elections are currently underway, the profile of the leader — in all cases the Chief Minister — is running ahead of policy backlash: Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. We cannot be certain of the extent of the positive gap; only the results will confirm whether the Chief Minister, in a sense, has been able to overcome disability by personality. But Sheila Dikshit, Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh have this much in common. They all are more popular than the Governments they have led for the past few years.

The easiest call to make is in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, where both the outgoing Chief Minister and the departing Government are in the electoral dustbin. Ghulam Nabi Azad has made no impact on the voter’s consciousness, and his Government is perceived as inextricable from a medley of disasters, the most significant being the utter mishandling of the Amarnath agitation. That failure is only the tip of a bitter, arsenic cake. It is appalling to hear Azad say, on the campaign trail, that he was prevented from creating jobs in the State by his allies. I imagine he could not blame the Opposition, which is why he turned on his erstwhile allies. But if this is true, why was he in bed with them for so long? And if it is not true, why does he think he can fool the Kashmiri people so easily? They are not that gullible.

The National Conference has entered this election with a cogent response. Omar Abdullah has offered a sensible policy framework for a Conference administration, while his father Farooq is the profile. After six years of hopeless misgovernance the Abdullahs should win. They would have been more comfortable if the BJP had not made serious inroads into the Jammu vote. It is unlikely that the valley parties will do well in Jammu. The divide has never been as sharp.

Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh has chased away anti-incumbency with a deft combination of policy and profile. Cheap rice is the centrepiece of his claim to good governance; it would be foolish to discount its appeal in an impoverished State. But his campaign rests on more than just a dole. He has created a comfort zone around his persona without the drama that tends to overwhelm a personality cult. His approach has been forward movement by small, incremental steps rather than any giant leap into the air. He represents consistency. But the challenge from Ajit Jogi should not be underestimated, for among all the Congress challengers [Sheila Dikshit is establishment, not the challenge] he has the best profile. It was a surprise that the Congress seemed to give up the fight in the first phase of voting, reviving only in the second round. The difference could be narrow, either way. The cruel law of first-past-the-post democracy, however, throws garlands at the side with the longer nose. Those who come second get ash for their feed.

Perhaps the most remarkable turnaround has been the story of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. Beset by massive internal sabotage and useless maladministration in the first three years of power, the party was not even in the race till a year ago. The Congress could have swept the State if it displayed the courage to hold a midterm poll for Parliament last summer, when a midterm could genuinely be called a midterm. Its seats in MP would have been solid foundation of a winning presence in the next Lok Sabha. But imperceptibly, almost by stealth, the calm character of Chouhan began to reverse the momentum and revive the BJP.

The Congress has been badly damaged in MP by an overload of profile, and an underload of policy, so that no one is certain who will be what, or do what, in case the party wins. If the party had stuck by the old guard, personified by Digvijay Singh, the Congress would have fared better. Instead it has at least four men claiming sole proprietorship in the State. One of them doesn’t know what to say. A second doesn’t know what not to say. The third issues commandments. The fourth prefers to talk in Delhi rather than Bhopal. I leave it to readers to decipher who is who. It should make an interesting exercise for at least a few minutes during those idle hours between polling and results.

In Rajasthan the Congress was even better placed than in MP, even some months ago. Even today, its chances are better in the smaller State. But once again the BJP Chief Minister has shifted the tide, although it is necessary to add that one cannot be sure of the extent of this shift. Curiously, Vasundhara Raje is both the problem and the potential solution. After all, it is the policy meltdown of her administration that is offering the Congress a chance of victory. But she has used her profile aggressively to compensate for policy shortcomings. She has a particular appeal among women and the young, two of the most determined constituencies in electoral demographics. She is helped enormously by the fact that the Congress contender for her job, Ashok Gehlot, has a jaded faded profile.

The precise opposite is the case in Delhi, where the BJP is carrying the burden of a jaded-faded claimant for Sheila Dikshit’s job. Mrs Dikshit is fighting almost impossible odds. The anti-incumbency current in Delhi is so strong that it could deliver victory even to flotsam and jetsam. But the BJP’s Vijay Malhotra is Mrs Dikshit’s greatest asset. He looks depressed. You can hardly blame Delhi’s voters if they seem reluctant to hand over their city to someone who does not seem to have smiled in a decade. Moreover, the ethnic composition of Delhi has changed. It is no longer a Punjab-centric city. An Arun Jaitley as the projected CM would have won handily, not because of any Punjabi connection but because he represents the modern face of Indian politics. Delhi is above all a modern and cosmopolitan city.

Policy and profile are the current and undercurrent of elections. When they are in harmony, victory will come easily. When they are in conflict, one or the other will prevail. Which one? Check out on 8 December.