Sunday, February 24, 2008

Queue and Collect

Byline by M J Akbar: Queue and Collect

A Common Man’s Budget has some remarkable characteristics. To begin with, it is not very common. The Common Man should consider himself extremely lucky if he gets a budget allotted to him once in the natural life of an elected government. He should thank his fortune, rather than crib, even if this budget turns up only in an election year, the only time that the Common Man gets any attention from a government.

A Common Man’s Budget is the only budget over which there is no secrecy. Everyone knows everything about it much in advance. The budget will be presented in Parliament at the end of February, but news agencies are already filing stories about lower taxes and correspondents are dropping heavy hints about concessions to farmers. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has told a public meeting at Rae Bareli that this year the nation will get a Common Man’s Budget, but she is hardly the only politician who is knowledgeable. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the slightly garrulous Rajasekhar Reddy, has speculated that he would like every farmer to get a handsome loan: perhaps he got it the other way around. Leaders across the UPA spectrum have begun to demand that farmers should get waivers on their loans, and the Congress has trundled truckloads of farmers from neighbouring states to call on Mrs Sonia Gandhi in Delhi.

With so much political preparation, finance minister P. Chidambaram would be very foolish not to announce such a gift when he stands up to present an account of his accounts in Parliament on the last day of February. One of the reasons that brought this government to power was rural anger over farmers’ suicides. For four budgets, the finance minister has done a whole deal of nothing about farmers. Now that elections are back on the horizon, naturally he must remember they exist. Par for the political course. It only needs to be pointed out that when you claim that a particular budget is going to be for the much-valued Common Man, it is implicit admission that previous budgets were not quite for him.

The World Bankers who infest the government believe that the best economic policies are those that lead to indirect benefits for the Common Man; they are Trickledowners who are convinced that economic policy must be oriented to the objective of overall growth, from whence benefits will eventually trickle down to the famous Common Man. Alas, this Common Man expects a far faster rate of delivery than Trickledowners can offer. In a dictatorship this would not have been much of a problem, but a democracy has this inconvenient problem called elections. Voting takes place on the Day of the Common Man. Some governments have convinced themselves that the voter can be persuaded by last-minute lollipops.

For a journalist, the best thing about a Common Man’s Budget is that you can review it before it has been revealed, largely because there will be no great revelations. This is probably going to be a "Queue and Collect" budget.

The government will but naturally seek to cover all bases as it steps into election mode. The timetable has been disclosed from what might be described as supplementary sources. The American senators, including John Kerry, Jo Biden and Chuck Hagel, who dropped in on Dr Manmohan Singh on their way back home from Pakistan, offered a major clue. They extended the deadline for the completion of the Indo-US nuclear deal to July. The threat of death has been variable. Last year, American and Indian government voices suggested that if the whole process were not complete before January, all would be over. January came and the deadline was stretched to March. The Senators would apparently be too busy electing a new President of the United States to find time for a bilateral deal. Three Democrat Senators, Kerry, Biden and Hagel, have now extended the time limit to July. The elasticity is one measure of bipartisan American keenness.

If you think about it, there is no reason why the deal cannot go through even with a new President in office, because all three potential Presidents, John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are members of the present Senate. In other words, they are all committed to the deal and have signed on it with their vote. All are agreed in principle. A new President in Washington might want to alter a detail, but so might a new Prime Minister in Delhi.

However, it is perfectly understandable that Dr Manmohan Singh would want to do the deal on his watch, for personal as well as political reasons. He has pushed the agreement with a passion uncharacteristic of his personality. The Congress wants to sell this deal to the voter as the panacea that will bring electricity to every village, and would have already done so if those awful, China-loving Communists had not sabotaged it.

The Senate needs three months to pass legislation, so, working backwards, Dr Singh might need to sign the deal sometime in April. The Left objects, and Dr Singh can offer a thin smile, which he is good at, and happily recommend a general election in October. This would merge with Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, states in which the BJP is in power. The Congress can, therefore, expect to gain from an anti-incumbency depression, hoping that the carryover effect of regional anger will translate into more seats for the party at the national level.

There is an additional, and more crucial, reason for an early election. Food prices have risen sharply across the world, and India cannot be isolated from this pattern. The markets and bazaars are already telling us this much. The inflation rate, like a good statistic, hides far more than it reveals. The price of basic food items has risen far more than the average of all prices might suggest. If this year’s crop is less than bountiful, the pressure on prices will be unmanageable. Nothing hurts a voter more than a kick in the stomach. An aching stomach takes its revenge through the ballot box. The longer the government waits for an election, the worse it will probably be for the principal ruling party, the Congress.

The Common Man is getting a budget; does the Common Man have a face? Actually, yes. That brilliant Times of India cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, has given us the emblematic face of the Common Man. I chanced upon a Laxman original of Mahatma Gandhi in a friend’s office, and it struck me that Laxman’s Common Man, who has appeared for decades on the front page of the Times, is a variation of Gandhi. Gandhi redefined India and Indian nationalism, took it away from the grasp of elites and handed it over to the Common Man for safekeeping. Six decades after his death, the Common Man is getting one budget out of five. I suppose the Common Man should be grateful for small mercies.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Free for All

Byline By M J Akbar: Free for All

Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal should immediately stop all supplies of Punjab wheat to Raj Thackeray and all members of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, who believe they can milk votes for a dead cause by victimising Biharis in Mumbai. The point is not too difficult to appreciate. India is not a one-way street. India survives as a single nation of free people or it does not survive at all.

Freedom is non-negotiable: of faith, equality, democracy, travel, speech, employment and opportunity. Freedom has its attendant responsibilities. Speech cannot degenerate into libel. Democracy cannot be rigged, or exploited by extremist passions. The right to practise faith does not mean the right to denigrate someone else’s. But there is no question that unity must have an economic content for the poor. India is not a single nation only for those who command capital, and can invest it where they will; it has to be equally free for labour to find jobs where they can.

The world is moving towards shared values, not just because they are good in themselves, but because they are good for the common weal. Independence is not the antithesis of interdependence. The two feed off, and strengthen, each other. If President George W. Bush were to place a visa ban on Maharashtrians, New Delhi would protest such discrimination, and rightly so. If discrimination is poor policy in international relations, then it is taboo in national affairs.

Raj Thackeray is not protecting Maharashtrians with street hysteria. He is only trying to protect his political future, and doing a miserable job of it. He thought that he could inherit his uncle Balasaheb Thackeray’s mantle by aping the latter’s look and style. That rather transparent ploy flopped. He is now trying to put life into his politics with some medicine from the Sixties, when Balasaheb created political space by demanding the expulsion of Malayalis from Mumbai. It is pertinent to note that four decades later both Balasaheb and Malayalis remain in Mumbai. If this did not work in the 20th century, it is highly unlikely to work in the 21st.

There are objective reasons for such an assessment. Conditions were far more fertile for sectarianism in the Sixties. The national economy was trapped in a cycle of low growth. The internal dynamic of India was still subject to seismic regional pressures. Maharashtra itself was born in 1960 because Maharashtrians wanted an identity different from Gujarat. The birth of Maharashtra encouraged high aspirations, which could hardly be met in an era of low growth. The Malayalis had jobs in both the private and the public sector, and became easy targets. The outsider can so quickly be recast as an alien, and the alien reinvented as the enemy.

Time is a good judge of depth. The movement against Malayalis petered out because it was too thin to challenge a parallel rise in the emerging Indian consciousness: the growing power of nationalism.

The Sixties were the worst decade in modern Indian history. Language became as divisive a sentiment as jobs before it was subsumed and integrated into the idea of a free, federal democratic India. Pakistan broke because of dictatorial inflexibility towards language. India grew stronger when it let Tamil Nadu live by its mother tongue. Job insecurity was accompanied by border insecurity, perhaps inevitably, for perceptions of weakness encourage a neighbour into becoming an enemy. China tested India in 1962, and we were humiliated. The symbol of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in 1964. Pakistan launched its war for Kashmir in 1965; it was a close call. By 1966, the Indian National Congress, anchor of the nation, had begun to wither and was defeated in most of the states in 1967. That was the year when the prairie fire set off by Naxalites, a movement fuelled by hopelessness among the young, threatened to leave the country in ashes.

But India rediscovered herself in the darkness of such turmoil. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Indians realised that unity was the ultimate, and perhaps the only, weapon against instability and the collapse of an unprecedented exercise in nation-building. The exciting military victory of 1971 was the first manifestation of a new mood and a new strength. A nation that seemed to have lost its confidence proved that it could control the treacherous tides of war. It also proved that it could negotiate the even more difficult tides of peace. Only a supremely confident nation could have walked away from Bangladesh within just three months of victory, and left the infant nation to its own devices.

A common purpose had saved the skin, but a bigger question had to be answered: could it feed the stomach? The Indian farmer and peasant answered with the Green Revolution. The Sixties were the last decade in which we saw famine, in Bihar. A nation troubled by famine cannot find the energy for growth. The Green Revolution was the base, the foundation, on which the future could be built. When the Indian businessman was given his chance in the 1990s, he proved that he had the soaring imagination of the meteor.

Raj Thackeray’s naive politics is contrary to the spirit of economic growth, irrelevant to the culture which can breed national prosperity. He would not merit even the negative attention he has received if the Maharashtra government had acted to preserve the law. But the Congress-led alliance, with familiar hypocrisy, has been unable to resist the temptation of hunting with the hound while pretending to run with the hare. The arrest of Raj Thackeray was flaccid tokenism; and he was right to laugh it off. This was compounded by illogical equivalence. Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi Party may not be a paragon of democratic or social virtues, but he was not the source of the current tension in Mumbai. He was arrested along with Raj Thackeray in order to appease "Maharashtrian sentiment". Such thinking is particularly dangerous because it implicitly accepts that Raj Thackeray represents the prevailing local sentiment when such is not the case. The majority of Maharashtrians accept that Mumbai’s strength lies in its multicultural cosmopolitanism.

Speaking in Italy recently I argued that the European Union, a concept launched in the mid-Fifties, was analogous to the model established by the Indian Union through its inspiring Constitution, accepted as the bedrock of the Republic in 1950. I suggested that this would be the model for regions and groups of nations across the world, for these principles had not only held India together but had brought it to the verge of potential prosperity: democracy, federalism, equality of individual and faith, unrestricted internal travel, the right to labour migration, free flow of capital and goods, the unqualified assimilation of multiple languages. America, Europe and India today share these principles, and they will be the leaders of the world as long as they do not deviate from these principles. The principal deviations are military adventurism abroad and erosion of human rights at home.

The one thing that Raj Thackeray has proved is that we have to continually rescue our India from some of our politicians.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Dhaka Diary

Byline by M.J. Akbar:A Dhaka Diary

Allah, worried about the fate of the faithful, called a conference of leaders of Muslim nations. The President of Iraq had only one question to ask: "When will I see peace and prosperity in my country?" Allah looked at him compassionately and said that would happen in about a hundred years. The Iraqi President began to weep, saying, "Alas, it will not happen while I am alive!" The President of Pakistan had the same question, but the answer was different. Pakistan, said Allah, would become peaceful and prosperous in about a hundred and fifty years. The President began to wail, "I will not be alive to see my country prosper". The President of Bangladesh was next. Troubled, despondent, beset by bandhs and the impossible deadlock to which no one had either a key or a clue, he asked when Bangladesh would become the dreamland of its founding fathers. This time, Allah began to cry.

The ability of the suave Dhakaiya to laugh at himself is only one of his endearing traits. No one needs to enumerate the political crisis caused by the inability of its two principal leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda to cooperate. They hate each other with a passion that verges on the homicidal. If it were a personal matter, no one would bother. But their politics has shut the country down and led to a quasi-military regime. But nothing can defeat the spirit of the urban Bengali. Dhaka is not the capital of a rich country, but it is a capital with a rich heart.

The big debate in the city is: Has there been a sharp increase in the number of women wearing the hijab or the burqa? While there was always some incidence of both, Bangladeshi women have generally ignored the veil. On the face of it, to use a too-obvious phrase, the answer is no. Young women are as fashionably dressed as their circumstances will permit, and models pout sexily from hoardings. But friends insist that there has been a rise in the public appearance of the burqa, if not in upper strata Gulshan then certainly in other parts of the city. The familiar explanations are trotted out, from America to identity-assertion. But a thoughtful friend asks a lateral question. Could this also be because some conservative women, who never went out before, are beginning to do so now, and will only do so in a burqa? The implication is that this is a step forward, and the daughters of these women will eschew the veil altogether. We shall see. The rural areas are easier to understand. The veil in the village is a sign of affluence. Poor women have to work, and cannot afford the luxury of seclusion. The moment there is upward mobility, a woman flaunts her new status by covering up. But there is one reason over which there was no dispute: the impact of Saudi Arabia. By now, millions of Bangladeshis have worked in Saudi. Among the first gifts sent home by those employed there seem to be burqas for their wives, mothers and mothers-in-law.

How utterly enthralling to meet an unrepentant Stalinist. Badruddin Umar was an academic, and is now a political activist and author of the Communist persuasion. His father, a colleague of Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, was a prominent leader of the Muslim League and later the Awami League. He has written learned books on the historic language movement of Bengal for the Oxford University Press, which is the reason for my visit and the proposed subject of our conversation. Beside a portrait of his father in the drawing room is a line drawing of Stalin. I point out that Stalin is not quite a politically correct figure these days. "I admire him," he responds without ambiguity. "They say he killed a few million people. If I had been in his place I might have had to kill a few more," he adds with a chuckle. Nothing personal; just historical necessity.

There has apparently been some interference in the historical inevitability of a revolution in Bangladesh, and one man credited with the interference is the Nobel Prize winner Dr Mohammad Yunus, managing director of Grameen Bank whose micro-credit schemes have brought him world fame. Badruddin Umar would prefer to describe it as infamy. He thinks micro-credit is worse than the usury of the old mahajans, a fraud on the poor heavily disguised with capitalist hype. He quotes Yunus as admitting he charges 20% interest. In September 1991, Yunus apparently said, "Of course we charge 20% interest. If anyone considers it high, well it is high. I don’t feel much embarrassed by that. After all, we don’t force anyone to borrow from us". As Umar archly added, the old village usurers did not force anyone to borrow from them either. Grameen Bank also collects over 80 million taka as a fee from its members. "What is the ultimate destination of this money and the interest derived on it?" Good question.

It remains to be noted that every single word of abuse from the classic Marxist dictionary — imperialism, reactionary, bourgeois et al — is included in the monograph published by Badruddin Umar.

Is a permanent traffic jam a sign of prosperity or despair? Both: there is a new prosperous class able to buy cars, and a government that is unable to provide the infrastructure. You cannot have traffic chaos without an urban middle class ready to spend good money on vehicles, although the city’s rickshaws can do a fairly competent job of snarling up all activity given half a chance. It has reached a point where the sensible stay in their part of the city. No one disputes traffic as an excuse for delay, which provides a lot of leeway to those who simply got up late. You can recognise the city only on the weekly holidays. The only solution that one could think of was to increase the weekly holidays to three, and give them on alternate days, with an additional twist. Half the city would get a holiday on one day, and the other half on the next. Only half the working population would work on any working day. Its productivity would probably double.

This has to be the most useless secret of all time. The British high commissioner to Bangladesh sent out an invitation for dinner for a select, elite group. Nothing unusual, for high commissioners dine often and well in the service of their nation. There was a curious lacuna though: the name of the guest in whose honour the dinner was being given was missing. Why? Security reasons. The guest of honour was the visiting British foreign secretary David Miliband. How did everyone know? Because the British foreign secretary’s face was in the morning’s papers, that’s how. There is something ludicrous about the current security paranoia. Did the securitywallahs at the British high commission seriously believe that one of their guests for dinner was an undercover terrorist who would leak delicate details of the prospective meal to a gang of unnamed terrorists in masks? I don’t know if anyone turned pale with fear after receiving the invitation, but I do know that a lot of people could not stop laughing.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Wealth of Questions

Byline by M J Akbar: A Wealth of Questions

I just may have discovered the solution to communal conflict. Greed. For a long while — make that a couple of decades of reporting violence — I was under the illusion that peace was a logical human need. Conflict never made any sense, good, special or common. But when has good sense been the decisive criterion of human behaviour? The instinct of hatred needs a far more powerful antidote. It could have found its answer in greed.

One of the more remarkable facts of the last fifteen years is that there have been only two major communal riots in this period, the violence that followed the destruction of the Babri mosque; and the carnage in Gujarat after the Godhra incident. There have been minor incidents, but nothing horrific. The Eighties were an endless litany of sorrow: Moradabad, Meerut, Bhagalpur, Delhi, to cite but a few cities from the top end of memory. Ahmedabad and Hyderabad were centres of endemic violence, not just one conflagration of slash-and-burn, but a daily drip of dagger and poison that ate into flesh and nerve.

The transformation could not have come because Indians on some magical day suddenly grew angelic wings under their armpits. The answer could lie in the new culture spawned by economic reforms that were put into play by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh a decade and a half ago. Dr Singh might be a doctor in economics, but Rao was a master in politics: he persuaded a "socialist-protectionist" Indian elite to appreciate the virtues of entrepreneurship and self-help wealth.

An industrialist friend was remembering the Mumbai of the Sixties and the Seventies. No one discussed bank accounts. That was considered crass and vulgar. Status had other attributes. These days, it seems the principal job of every public relations agency is to advertise the personal value of its client. If you are not among the billions, leave the high table. Mumbai always had a stock exchange, but it was never quite the shock exchange that it has become today. Companies made profits, and money offered a reasonable return in the old dharma. The stock exchange has now become a rocket on steroids; it must continue to defy the law of gravity and never come down. It is a lottery with no losers as long as you have managed to get a ticket.

The moral of the story, or maybe the amoral of the story: Mumbai can either have communal riots or it can have a steroid stock exchange. It can’t have both. Violence means a huge net loss. The movers and shakers of the city cannot afford violence anymore, which is extremely good news. Peace is not the absence of old hatreds; it is the presence of new desires. Long live money. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Is Gujarat an exception to this rule? Not really. Narendra Modi realises that he cannot get investment if Gujarat lives constantly on the edge, threatening to descend into bloodshed every month. Communal riots were not born in Gujarat six years ago. For a decade in the Eighties, when the Congress was the only star in the political firmament, Ahmedabad suffered chronic, daily spells of rioting. It was a disease whose tentacles were wider than the breadth of the city. Violence is not a partner of profit.

It is a question worth investigating: has economic reform created a new mindset that can eliminate the noxious effects of India’s worst curse?

There comes a moment in any investigation when one must argue against oneself. Every part of India is not booming in the manner of Mumbai and Gujarat. Why have communal riots come down elsewhere?

First, the exception: Bengal. The CPI(M) did not need economic reforms to learn the virtues of communal peace. Its ideology was secular. Bengal, a partition state with a history of communal conflict far worse than Punjab’s, has been peaceful ever since the Marxists came to power. There are those who still remember how the present head of the state CPI(M), Biman Bose, personally stood at Calcutta’s street corners, along with his cadres, during the vicious pogroms of 1964, to prevent Congress thugs from setting Muslim localities to torch. The performance of the Left Front in Bengal is evidence that if a government wants to, it can always prevent communal tension from boiling over into a riot.

The mother of all paradoxes, of course, is that economic reform brought a hint of communal tension to Bengal in 2007, rather than reverse it. Being conscientious the Marxists have begun to implement a radical educational-cum-economic programme for minorities, crafted by Prakash Karat and the Bengal party. This virtual manifesto could be the most important benefit that Bengal’s Muslims have got since independence. In political terms: last year the Marxists in Bengal could not have escaped defeat. Elections this year will be a different story.

What of the great Hindi heartland, battlefield of a thousand complexes and indeed complexions?

The easy answer is that the Yadav-Muslim alliance created by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav ensured the peace that had disappeared during the previous decades of Congress rule. This is only partially true. What is certain is that these Yadav leaders honoured the compact with Muslims by ensuring their security. The Congress in UP and Bihar took Muslim support for granted and then, without the least tremor of conscience, betrayed the community. But the Muslim vote has shifted partially, to Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and the old plague has not returned.

Mayawati and Nitish Kumar are not in the Congress, so they maintain the tradition of amity set by their predecessors. But the real answer may be in the behaviour of people rather in the predilections of politicians.

The agenda of the Indian voter has changed. He, and more importantly she, is no longer easily swayed by emotional appeals to crude forms of identity, whether it is religion or caste. Caste and religion peaked with Mandal and Masjid between 1990 and 1992; fifteen years later, there are signs that both volcanoes are finally still. Narendra Modi did not promise a temple at Ayodhya to win in Gujarat, and his attacks on Muslims were comparatively muted. He swept ahead on good governance. The Mandal maestros, Lalu and Mulayam Yadav, have been defeated. If Mulayam Singh Yadav is reviving in Uttar Pradesh it is because Mayawati is slipping on governance. If Lalu Yadav is still in the dumps, it is because Nitish Kumar is delivering on governance.

Obviously this is not a uniform reality. India is too complicated a polity for one formulation to cover all electoral nuances. But good governance is the expanding motivator. The traditional talisman is dead. The voter now keeps a balance sheet in front of him. When he hears that the Indian economy has grown by nine per cent he wants to know if an extra nine rupees has gone into his pocket for every hundred that existed.

Tough question. But you can’t have the right answer without the right question.

The poor may not want an insurrection against the daily millionaires of the stock exchange, but they are not going to be minused from wealth creation, or remain content with that infamous trickle that the World Bank has allotted to them, and which India’s World Bank clients in the present government think is sufficient for the poor.

Wealth is like knowledge. If you do not share it, it disappears.