Sunday, December 27, 2009

The 21st century began in 2002

The 21st century began in 2002
By M J Akbar

The 20th century ended in 2002, on the day the Godhra riots began. It was a turbulent age that ravaged society and broke the land as faith became the emotional spur of identity and the principal dialectic of politics. If Jinnah used the rhetoric of Islam to divide, then Gandhi used the metaphor of Ram rajya to unite. Both left an immediate legacy of incomplete dreams; it was up to history to decide which one had a better chance of success. Jinnah's Pakistan has crept towards theocracy, inciting blood-warm civil wars and cold-eyed terrorism. Gandhi's India, despite the able custody of Nehru, has had to struggle with the scourge of communalism, the one great impediment to its tryst with destiny.

The pivotal moments of faith-based passions were the narrative of the 1980s: the Shah Bano episode, and the Ram temple movement. Babri linked up to Ahmedabad through Godhra. But 2002 turned into a swivel point; the last of the lava spewed out, leaving those who had stoked the volcano a spent force. Hindsight confirms that after 2002, enough Indians turned away from fire to the forge of social and economic change. Congress understood this, instinctively rather than ideologically. The absence of ideology permitted tactical mobility between virtual laissez faire, a tilted partnership with America and state-financed handout programmes. Enough constituencies were onside, therefore, on polling day. The BJP flourished only where its regional leaders recognized the primacy of rice over anger. Narendra Modi, uniquely, has mined both seams, but he will find out in the next elections that one seam has run dry. Even the violence of the last eight years, spawned by Naxalites, has been motivated by hunger rather than faith.

The true business of the first decade of the 21st century has been business. It was both appropriate and unfortunate, therefore, that the last date on the legal calendar of this decade was occupied, in the Supreme Court, by the bitter gas case between the iconic businessmen of our time, the brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Their dispute has generated more headlines in six years than any political conflict.

Blood, we have been reliably informed, is thicker than water. Why does money become, all so often, thicker than blood?

There are two medieval models for inheritance. The Mughals opted for a life-and-death decision on the battlefield. The English graduated, possibly to preserve their nobility from self-inflicted wounds, to primogeniture, in which the eldest son got the estate and the younger son a book written by P G Wodehouse. Both models are unacceptable in more egalitarian times, but in our country the elder brother still has the edge. This is why Mukesh Ambani received nearly three-fourths of the Dhirubhai empire, and Anil accepted such an unequal settlement.

But it also becomes a duty on the part of the heirs to preserve this amity, for every empire, political or business, is a public responsibility. Businessmen are often called barons or the new 'Moghuls', but this is not a license to behave like a Mughal, consolidating power by eliminating kin.

There is a remarkable parallel between what might be justifiably called the two most powerful brother-heirs in the Indian private sector. Decorum prevents me from naming one pair of brothers. Both lost their patriarch in harness. The comparative bank balance is not the issue, since billions are beyond mathematics. But if the Ambanis possess the power of wealth; the others have the wealth of power. All four are brilliant, with the rare ability to nurture a seed into a plant and then transform it into a plantation. The Ambanis are an international phenomenon; no less remarkably, the other brothers lifted the dominant newspaper of a single city into a range of media products that made their brand an unparalleled sensation. Brothers inherit genes, not temperament; there were differences in both families. The contrast is that the unnamed heirs, prone as everyone else to human weakness, turned a kingdom into an empire in exemplary harmony, offering a template. Imagine the economic stratosphere in which both Ambanis would flourish without their epic war.

The difference between fortune and misfortune is not money, but the value of a family at peace with itself.

The Supreme Court has the task of Solomon, without the luxury of sentiment: it cannot suggest that the last word be left to the mother, since the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal, the supreme mother of Indian justice. It will be guided by merit, precedence, and the principles its judgment will establish for private and public sector. If India's destiny lies in its economy, if India is to soar above the neighbourhood towards a unique horizon, then the moral code of our faith in business will lie in the voice of the Supreme Court.

Appeared in Times of India - December 27, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Telengana lava melts Teflon

Byline by M J Akbar: Telengana lava melts Teflon

Teflon may be synthetic but it is not a negative: it is in great demand among both cooking utensils and politicians. It might even be called history’s finest non-violent armour, for it protects your reputation from stain. If everything greasy simply rolls off the skin, leaving neither scar nor wound, then you become impervious to criticism. For politicians it becomes a near-magical coat, since they need a double-defence mechanism: safety not only from the Opposition’s barbs but also from their own mistakes. Even when Teflon cracks it does so without a sound. The world gets to know of the breach long after it has occurred, leaving you time for repair.

Ronald Reagan used to delight in being called the Teflon politician. Even the Iran-contra scandal bypassed him, while frying half the White House that reported to him – or maybe he bypassed the scandal. The net result was the same. He kept on smiling till his last day in office, his only regret being that he could not get a better successor. But then, no American President has been overwhelmed by his Vice President, so that is not valid evidence in the evaluation of George Bush the Elder.

Two members of the present Union government have been blessed with Teflon: Dr Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram. Dr Singh was born with it; Chidambaram ordered it at wholesale rates for use in his public persona. As finance minister he concentrated on spreading the good news and left the bad news to lesser mortals like bureaucrats or even a permanent demi-god like Montek Singh Ahluwalia. He made all announcements about recovery and growth. It was brilliant political strategy.

Since the hone minister is the de facto chief policeman of the country, and the police are rarely blessed with good news, Chidambaram refashioned himself as the homeland security minister, raising his challenge to terrorism rather than mere crime. This clearly affected his mindset. He began to see every problem as an existential threat to the nation, treating Naxalites, for instance, as terrorists rather than a violent political movement born out of hunger and the state’s neglect of the poor. Even when he did not express say so, there always seemed to an “or else!” tagged to every statement he made. There was always an undercurrent suggestion in his demeanor that the home minister was not quite at home in his ministry, but Teflon was the great veneer that never let any uncomfortable thought emerge.

Telengana is the first crack in this Teflon, but of course we have not yet heard the sound of any crack since, as noted, the rupture is noiseless. The phrase “flip-flop” has been well imagined. The first flip may be necessary for purposes of either display or convenience, but a second flip is always a flop, leaving you open to ridicule. The home minister was handed his moment when he announced the formation of a separate Telengana state on 9 December. It was the kind of opportunity that Prime Ministers reserve for themselves, for new states are not born each day.

But Dr Manmohan Singh let his junior change the internal map of India. He might have been too busy: after all, he has been rushing from one country to another, with nary a day even for Parliament. Or, more likely, the Prime Minister might have been a better politician than others think he is. Dr Singh can measure the heat of a hot potato from a long distance, and Telengana was the hottest potato in a decade. He left this potato in the mouth of Chidambaram, and its heat melted the Teflon. Close observers of Delhi’s power plays might have noticed a press release that suggested that the statement on the reversal of the Telengana decision would be made jointly by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh. They did not do anything so rash. The hot potato went back to Chidambaram. All he could do, once again, was juggle it on his tongue. Justifications for the second tongue-twister fell flat. Some over-clever types in Delhi tried to make a scapegoat of the new Andhra Chief Minister Rosaiah, even though the latter had warned his high command not to divide the state. All they managed was to weaken yet another branch on which their authority rested.

The union government has sent a message to Andhra Pradesh: pile on the pressure, and Delhi will buckle. Chandrashekhar Rao went on a fast and got his wish in rather quick time; the rest of Andhra picked up the hint and tweaked its own pressure points, inducing a back-breaking somersault. It is Telengana’s turn once again to indulge in rampage-politics.

A question needs to be raised: why is coastal Andhra Pradesh so insistent on keeping a region that is so adamant on divorce? It cannot be a territorial matter since Telengana is not seceding from the Indian union, and there is no law which says that an Andhra businessman cannot own a Telengana company or, for that matter, property in Hyderabad. Language is clearly no longer the most important glue for states, and if people get convinced that there is imbalance in development they will demand a better option – and seek it in their own lifetimes. There is no point offering them gold in 2020 and coal today. It won’t work.

Chandrashekhar Rao surely believes that he is the father of Telengana, but this child would never have been born without the mismanagement of Delhi. This volcano could have smoldered for many more years without exploding, and perhaps this period could have been used to redress the economic imbalance. But Delhi fired the volcano, and it now has lava on its face.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Getting used to a new world order

Getting used to a new world order
By M J Akbar

When end of year coincides with end of decade, the number of theme-questions for a columnist multiplies by 10. Most are as boring as an honest obituary. But one did hear an unusual question: Have you changed your mind about anything in the last 10 years?

I celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent downward slither of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s for two non-sustainable reasons: Principle and self-interest. In retrospect, the second is more comprehensible than the first. As a journalist one had a vested interest in free expression, and the Soviet regime was its boring antithesis. But that is so last century. There is today a vacuum where once lay the brooding, looming Soviet shadow, a force which kept its own citizens under a form of house arrest and yet, inspired enough fear in Anglo-American hawks to restrain their imperial tendencies. Would the Bush-Blair partnership have invaded Iraq in 2003 with such impunity if Uncle Stalin, or even Cousin Brezhnev, had been living in the Kremlin?

My faith in principle was foolish. Principle is an impotent yardstick if it is used to measure Saddam Hussein but not Tony Blair. Few emperors have been as airily indifferent to their own deceptions as Blair has been on Iraq. The politician who sent Britain to war against the will of his own party, told British television some days ago that he would have invented another excuse if he had been caught out on the weapons-of-mass-destruction subterfuge. Blair now admits what we knew all along — that the Iraq war was never about its stated cause.

Coincidentally, President Obama chose to dwell on the complexities of a just war in his Nobel Peace prize speech, delivered around the time Blair was shrugging off any pretence to morality. If the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq was based on a lie, were those who resisted American troops fighting a just or an unjust war? How many more nations would Bush-Blair have sought to conquer had there been no resistance in Iraq?

Obama waded into uncharted territory when he stated a proposition with the confidence of conviction: That a holy war could not be a just war. He was, of course, taking a sideswipe at jihad, understandable in the context of his need to be closer to American opinion than Muslim dogma. In the process, he slashed at Hinduism. Its two great texts, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are war epics, and a Hindu would be aghast to hear that the holy wars of Lord Rama in Lanka and Lord Krishna at Kurukshetra were unjust. The moral code of most eastern faiths is deeply ingrained into popular belief, for we remain believers. Obama will probably be surprised to learn that the iconic holy warrior in the Holy Quran is David, king of the Jewish people.

The balance of power between the principal victors of the Second World War, the alliances led by the US and the Soviet Union, has given way to an imbalance in which the space for a legitimate counterweight has been handed over to shadow armies impelled by private agendas but mobilized in the name of nationalism. Patriotism gives theocratic movements strength that they might never have achieved by a more transparent declaration of intent. This was the story in Iraq; this is the shifting narrative in Afghanistan. In Iraq, most of the insurgents have been co-opted into the system, where they bide their time, waiting for local politicians to self-destruct and American forces to leave. They will shape Iraq to their will when they get the opportunity. In Afghanistan they have history and geography on their side.

A nebulous battle zone is perfect territory for shadow-warriors like the terrorist David Coleman. We must not confuse him with cannon fodder like Kasab; he is much higher in the Lashkar-e-Taiba hierarchy. His expertise in terrorist tradecraft is evident from the confusion: Was he double-crossing the Americans or triple-crossing them? (As for India, Coleman needed only to cross a line, for which we happily provided a visa.) Coleman wore a cover, which could have been stitched from a perfect spy story: He became an informer for the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. He could now trawl, with American blessing, the drug-trade marts between Mumbai and Af-Pak. Maybe, we should call this region Maf-Pak.

In the best of all possible worlds, we would have had a quasi-Brezhnev as head of a muscular Union of Semi-Socialist Soviet Republics in which Pravda was as free as The Times of India. What we have is a single superpower, America, in offensive-defensive siege mode, focussed on its own security even if the collateral damage is visited upon an ally. That seems like a policy worth imitating.

Appeared in Times of India - December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bird’s Eye View

Byline by M J Akbar: Bird’s Eye View

At long last there is a foreign minister on the international scene with ice- cold blood in his veins and an uncomplicated, unemotional comprehension of national interest. His name is Kieren Keke. He carries the flag for Nauru, an eight-square-mile island-nation of 11,000 inhabitants in the South Pacific famous on two counts. It is the smallest republic in the world, and its principal source of revenue was through the export of phosphates formed by bird droppings. That was undoubtedly the most valuable bird waste in history, but the republic killed the local version of the golden egg by selling more phosphate than the birds could drop.

When the money ran out, Nauru’s imagination blossomed. It invested millions of dollars from its national saving in a London musical. The musical flopped, wrecking the country’s bank balance. It then tried to solve Australia’s troublesome problem by providing a base for immigrants en route to the Pacific El Dorado, in return for suitable compensation. Regrettably, the refugees wanted refuge in Australia rather than amidst lost bird droppings.

But Nauru’s imagination remained fertile. In 2002 Nauru took $130 million from China to break relations with Taiwan. In 2006, presumably after this sweetener was exhausted, it reopened links with Taiwan. It is not known whether there was a financial angle to this decision, but the track record tells its own story. This year Nauru recognised Abkhazia [population: 215,000], one of two “nations” that Russia “liberated” from Georgia in 2008. The price: $50 million. Mr Keke has also paid a visit to the second region, South Ossetia, possibly with an accountant as travelling companion. The message has gone to every chancery: if the price is right, Nauru, a full member of the United Nations, will oblige.

There might even be a touch of High Marx about Nauru’s foreign policy: to Nauru according to its need, from China and Russia according to their ability.

Regrettably, international relations are rarely conducted with such Nauruvian clarity. Big powers tend to offer middle-class nations either a promissory note, if they have been good, or a demand notice, if they have strayed off the indicated path; there is never a clean transaction, let alone a gift voucher.

Transparency may indeed be harmful to bilateral relations, because governments may have to script one narrative for their domestic audience and quite another for the international one. This was Barack Obama’s dilemma in Copenhagen. He could not summon his predecessor’s less-than-sublime indifference to Kyoto, which played well with an electorate that has been trained to believe that the world owes it the luxury Americans have become accustomed to. Neither could he open himself up to a cavalry charge by his opposition. Republicans, led by Don Sarah Palin Quixote, might be racing towards every windmill in sight, but the careful politician knows that even an insane spear can draw blood from a weak spot. Clever Obama bought peace at home by a hard-line text, and deflected criticism abroad by creating a sort of B-Grade Security Council on climate change along with four well-behaved nations, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. This is one of those Christmas presents with packaging from Tiffany’s and a gift from the sale at Woolworth’s, but it does have the advantage of sparkling impressively at the Christmas party. It is only when you open the package in the silence of your room that you discover that this is just another off-the-peg necktie.

Pakistan’s gift from Washington is the usual: food coupons wrapped in a set of demands. Rarely has a wartime alliance been as fraught with tension as the US-Pak war against terror. Roosevelt and Stalin were more compatible. This had nothing to do with personality. They had no confusion about the identity or nature of the enemy. When last reports came in, America was sending Drones to kill Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani in their suspected hideouts in North Waziristan. The Pakistan establishment considers them past and future assets, and potential rulers of Afghanistan once American troops begin to depart in 18 months, leaving a crumbling Karzai regime in their wake. A second Drone target was Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has a truce with the Pak army. The short-term Washington interest is now in open confrontation with the long-term Islamabad perspective. America is engaged in one battle from the air, Pakistan in a separate one on the ground.

Such divergence may be sustainable on the surface since it would be foolish to fracture the alliance, but there will be turmoil below surface calm. Pakistan is already placing curbs on the movement of American personnel, including civilians. One wonders if Richard Holbrooke, who has been placed in cloister for a while, will soon be brought back to show his customary heavy hand. Of course the left hand will never know, or seek to know, what Holbrooke’s right hand is doing.

Eighteen months takes us into the middle of 2011. There is, in the meantime, 2010 to get through. I don’t know what you make of the immediate future, but my depressing feeling is that 2010 is going to be The Year of the Bloody Mess.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Andhra split opens up a Pandora's box

Andhra split opens up a Pandora's box
By M J Akbar

The public school of politics has only one subject in its tutorials: Events. The big boys of Delhi have been playing truant, lulled by an imposter's mantra. Two victories in five years convinced them that delay is a solution.

Do not underestimate the siren call of procrastination. Fudge always remains an option when you have to straddle irreconcilables like partition and unity demands. There could still be an effort to delay the process necessary for the creation of Telangana through simulated disputes, like over the status of Hyderabad, which, geographically and historically is the natural capital of Telangana.

If Delhi had been as worried over the climate change in Hyderabad as it was over climate change in Copenhagen, it would have foreseen the tsunami. But Union Home Minister P Chidambaram did not whisper the word 'Telangana' until he was compelled to talk of nothing else. The speed with which the government slipped from stonewall to capitulation was bound to trigger anger in those who felt they had lost out. The government had five years to manage reconciliation; it did nothing. The Congress made a deal with K Chandrashekhar Rao in 2004 in order to defeat Chandrababu Naidu, and forgot the boatman once it had crossed the river. Complacency is a criminal offence in public life. The verdict may be delayed, but will not be denied.

In 2009, two constituencies tipped Congress into the comfort zone where it was seemingly safe from the threat of foes and nagging of friends - Andhra Pradesh and the Muslim vote. Within six months both have sent a powerful message: Deliver or face the consequences.

Drift has boxed the government into a lose-lose situation. If Congress had accepted Telangana a day before Rao began his fast, Rao would have been history, rather than an historic figure. Delhi has also sent a dangerous signal to half a dozen disparate stakeholders in a new map of India: Mere crying won't help; in order to get milk you need to pick up the kitchen knife and threaten murder or suicide. As also, that milk comes in cartons rather than by the glass. The hills of Darjeeling have ears, as do the sugarcane stalks of western Uttar Pradesh.

Behind all the sound, fury, mistakes and exultation, the promise of Telangana marks a significant but largely unnoticed shift in the dynamics of federalism. Language was the basis on which the States Reorganization Commission, consisting of Sayyid Fazl Ali, H N Kunzru and K M Pannikar re-fashioned India's internal geography. The untidy parts were sorted out under public pressure - Maharashtra in 1960, Punjab in 1966 - but once again on the basis of language. Only hill regions and the North East were offered criteria that were at a slight variance.

The shift came, logically enough, when the nation's priorities changed. Once it was evident that no regional language, or culture, was under threat from unitary pressures, language melted as a focal point of identity. The new federal politics is determined by economics. Telangana and the rest of Andhra speak the same language, but have diametrically conflicting economic interests. Telangana, in fact, accuses coastal Andhra of exploiting its resources. This fundamental change was evident in 2000, when Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh were created. Parent and newborn shared the same language. Indeed, the absence of fuss nine years ago is a template in consensus building, in the difference between negotiation and appeasement. Wounds were treated before gangrene could set in.

The seed of every demand lies in the perception of economic neglect, in the belief of a people that they have been left out of the story of rising India. Small then becomes sensible because big has proved to be bogus.

The ferment in the second decisive Congress constituency, Muslims, also has everything to do with economics. The dialectic is faith-based because Muslims have a nationwide presence rather than any specific space. Dr Manmohan Singh has sought to pre-empt a crisis by promising to table the Ranganath Mishra Commission report before the end of the current session of Parliament, but that will be only the beginning of his problems. The Commission has recommended 15% reservation in all government jobs, educational seats and resources for minorities, 10% of which is to be allotted for Muslims. Muslims will treat this as a benchmark and demand to know what action has been taken. None so far; since any action might fuel an equal and opposite reaction. Inaction has served Congress well, for Muslims did not raise the matter in the last elections since they understood the political fallout. But that alibi has been used and cannot be recycled.

The Congress dilemma is familiar to those who win elections: A promise that restores you, can always return to haunt you.

Appeared in Times of India - December 13, 2009

Muscular Instability

Byline by M J Akbar: Muscular Instability

Can a stable government be a weak government? Yes. There is no compulsory correlation. Strength comes from concern, purpose and commitment, while fragility is the first manifestation of complacence — and sometimes the popular mood kicks in, turning the first into the second. Defeat in the China war punctured the strongest government we have had, Jawaharlal Nehru’s.

Mrs Indira Gandhi’s tenure can be divided into three phases: January 1966 to the 1971 general elections; then up to the Emergency and the elections of 1977; and the final, tragic term between January 1980 and October 1984. She inherited a government with the lowest ever majority, and then proceeded to turn it into a minority by splitting the Congress. Bangladesh apart, the most decisive period was when she was in a minority. She reshaped the domestic agenda, breaking almost as many moulds as had been nurtured in the previous two decades. Ironically, it was when she became a near demi-god, after Bangladesh in December 1971, that she lost control of the tides of public opinion. By 1973 India was in ferment; by 1974, in revolt.

Opposition parties have rarely been the principal architects of challenge to government, even if they do end up the principal beneficiaries. In 1972, the Left was defeated and sulking in Bengal; the Socialists were bickering and split [that has not changed] and the Jan Sangh was a flickering lamp in pockets of Hindu-Muslim antagonism without much oil. Mrs Gandhi returned to power in January 1980 with an astonishing majority, but her government never got into second gear and finally stalled over Punjab and Assam. In this phase too, the traditional Opposition parties had little to do with the establishment’s disarray. Rajiv Gandhi led the most powerful majority in Parliament’s history but in three years his government was defensive, and by the fourth year, immobile. Each time, the people mobilized, in one way or the other, while the regular Opposition leaders spent time in self-important confabulations.

Narasimha Rao, in contrast, never had a majority, even after he purchased one. He stumbled from crisis to calamity, propelled largely by cynicism. But despite instability in both Parliament as well as on the street, he managed to navigate economic reforms through turbulence, leaving an important legacy.

An election victory does not necessarily breed complacency in the sinews of authority, but re-election almost certainly does. The high-five of a renewed mandate persuades politicians to believe that they are sitting on a peak from which they cannot be moved for twenty years. I have no idea why they believe they have been given twenty years of eternity; maybe the human imagination, restricted by the limitations of lifespans, cannot be self-delusional beyond that. But the moment you step into that self-satisfied zone, your descent begins.

The Andhra crisis is a self-inflicted wound. When Telangana leader K. Chandrashekhar Rao began his fast unto death, or at least unto partition, he was treated with such supreme indifference that no minister in Delhi even bothered to treat it as a problem. The earth was warming in Hyderabad, but the statements and newspaper headlines were only about climate change in Copenhagen. Rao was dismissed as an irritant without a cause. After all, the Congress had just triumphed for a second time in the state. I suspect that the complete disconnect with Delhi multiplied the anger and brought Osmania University’s students out. Youth provide critical mass to any momentum and, as we have seen in the past, there is enough volatility in the state to induce the ultimate sacrifice of suicide. Rao himself could no more have ended his fast than he could have abandoned his dream of a separate state; it would have been political suicide. Those with a memory know that the Telugu speaking areas of Madras Presidency were merged into the Nizam’s Telugu domain as a result of a fast, by a Gandhian called Potti Sriramulu. Nehru allowed him to die, by 15 December; but even the enormous credibility of Nehru and Congress in 1953 could not stop the realisation of the demand. Sriramulu achieved in death what he could not in life, and forced Nehru to accept the principle of linguistic states. Rao has achieved what he may never have obtained without a Russian roulette gamble. The Congress of 2009 had neither the wisdom to negotiate on the first day of the fast, nor the strength to let the fast continue. The high command succumbed with startling speed, signalling to Gorkhaland, Vidarbha, Harit Pradesh and Bundelkhand that if they keep their eyes open and focused the government will blink.

Is this the point at which the Manmohan Singh government begins to bleed from an Achilles heel? Much depends on how well the Prime Minister and Mrs Sonia Gandhi bandage the breach, but the Andhra story is going to be in play for a while and will expose the contradictions inherent in a unitary national party that was unable to manage an epochal change. If the Andhra Congress bleeds from a local civil war the stain will spread.

Tension is good for governance; taut nerves keep your body on its toes, and the mind alert. After this year’s general election, the tension fizzled out from government, and rushed directly into the Opposition. Tension, by the way, is not good for Opposition, as is pretty obvious, isn’t it? If the government does not recover its balance we could have a very curious dilemma: authority is in disarray, and the Opposition spread-eagled. But the Indian people will be in array.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Date with Theocracy

A Date with Theocracy
M.J. Akbar

Barack Obama is clearly a post-modernist Commander-in-Chief. He announced the date of defeat in the Afghan war on the day he sent more troops in the hope of victory. The day American forces begin to leave Afghanistan in 2011, as promised by President Obama, the Taliban will begin its countdown to Kabul.

It is now clear to the Taliban what has been obvious to many observers. Obama is not interested in an American victory in Afghanistan by 2011. He is interested in an Obama victory in America in 2012. He wants to campaign as the President who brought the boys home without giving the impression that he has been weak in the process. He inherited an Afghan war with some 10,000 American soldiers in combat. That figure has been short-tracked upwards to 100,000, partly because Obama purchased his way into the muscular pro-war segment of the American vote by criticising Iraq and upgrading Afghanistan into the war of necessity. He is paying his dues to that section of American opinion by fighting a cosmetic war. The Taliban have often said that while NATO has a clock, they have time. In 2011, irrespective of ground conditions, the NATO clock will go into reverse sweep.

The enigma of this Afghan war, the fifth against a Western power since 1840, is located exactly where it was in the other four. It lies in the meaning of victory and defeat. For the occupier, victory means subjugation of the ruling authority to its will. For the defenders, it means the departure of foreign troops from Afghan foreign soil. Afghan fighters in the 19th century did not want to shape the way the British Raj should be run, and they resented the idea that they should be told how Afghanistan should be run. In the 20th century, the jihadis did not want to destroy Communism in Moscow [that they played a great role in actually doing so is incidental]. They simply did not want Communist soldiers in Kabul and Kandahar and Mazaar-i-Sharif.

The Afghan war of the 21st century could have been, and should have been, different, because a terrorist group with sanctuary from Taliban provoked America. Eight years later, roles are getting reversed for the Taliban and its allies have, increasingly, in the Afghan mind, begun to occupy nationalist space. Washington made a basic error at the outset, when it confused Al Qaeda with the whole of Afghanistan, gradually shifting the focal point of the war. This was understandable in the heat of 2001, but less so with the passage of time. Privately, Pervez Musharraf would surely have suggested this but subtleties were lost on the Bush White House.

Obama may be erring in the other direction. He has announced the three pillars of his Afghan policy: a strategic partnership with Pakistan empowered by finance and weapons; the creation of a “military condition” within 18 months that will enable “transition”; and “a civilian surge that reinforces positive action”. The third is the kind of gobbledygook that bemuses friends and consoles office-bearers of the speechwriters’ union. Does Obama expect Hamid Karzai to surge towards Kandahar in 2011, wafting on doves of peace?

The biggest problem may lie in the first proposition. Pakistan does not have the good fortune of being 8,000 miles from Afghanistan. Islamabad’s ruling elite, including the armed forces, will display full commitment in the war against Al Qaeda, where and when it can be found, and against the Pak Taliban, because both are serious threats to the Pakistan state and system. But it will have unexpressed reservations about America’s war against the Afghan Taliban, since the latter have been and will continue to be Pakistan’s ally in the geopolitics of South Asia. Pakistan’s war within its own country has become, willy-nilly, America’s war, but America’s war in Afghanistan has not become Pakistan’s war. Washington, for reasons unknown and incomprehensible, does not get this.

In fact, America’s primary partner in the war against the Afghan Taliban should be India, not Pakistan, since both nations have an ideological commitment against the forces of theocracy, as well as a strategic interest in keeping Taliban out of Kabul. Pakistan has no such motivation. The best period in the troubled history of Pak-Afghan relations was when Taliban was in power, since the Taliban looked at foreign policy through the prism of Islamic brotherhood rather than just the compulsions of national interest.

The real war in Afghanistan is between modernity and theocracy, but the wrong side is winning that battle. In the last eight years, for many Afghans, modernity has become synonymous with corruption, cronyism and non-Pakhtun warlords — the three hallmarks of the Karzai regime — while the Taliban has revived its image as God-fearing, honest, clean and able to offer stability and security in the villages. It is an American tragedy that while it seeks friends across the world who reflect its own values, it makes friends with those who ruin its reputation.


by M J Akbar (In Covert 1-15th)

Going by the dubious precedence set by Justice M.S. Liberhan, a half-truth about the catastrophic events of Mumbai 26/11 should become available to Parliament and the Indian public by 2025. Bad luck if you want the full truth, or you want it within your lifetime; you can never hurry a judge determined to be slow.

A fate worse than death awaits the judge whose conscience cannot be purchased at the going rate of a Government bungalow in Delhi. In Mumbai, Justice Srikrishna delivered his findings on the violent consequences of the Babri demolition, a far more difficult and sensitive assignment, well in time. His report has not been allowed formally into the public domain, since it tells the truth, and truth is injurious to the health of a Government that was complicit in the mismanagement of the riots.

The duty of an enquiry is not to restate the obvious, but to repair any faults in the system through a thorough diagnosis of the malady, to lay out the findings fearlessly, and hold the powerful accountable where there has been a violation of trust or a betrayal of the responsibilities of office. A judicial enquiry is much more than a police investigation into guilt. It invokes the highest sense of justice, which is far more than legality. We have become indifferent to the corruption at the lower levels of the criminal-justice system. Are we now being trained to accept partiality and collusion in a judicial enquiry? If nothing is sacrosanct, we will be subject to the dictatorship of the profane.

We did not need 17 years of casuistry to reveal something that was visibly evident within 17 minutes of the first assault on the dome and structure of the Babri mosque on 6 December 1992 – that the BJP, RSS and Shiv Sena were involved. They had led the emotional movement that climaxed on 6 December. BJP leaders like Vinay Katiyar, the alleged mastermind, wear it as a badge of pride. Justice Liberhan has done us no favours by “concluding” what was reported in every newspaper the next day. But he has done the nation and the people a huge disfavour by twisting and contorting elements of the truth in order to hide the conscious collusion of Prime P.V. Narasimha Rao, his home minister S.B. Chavan and eventually, through a conspiracy of silence, the whole Cabinet. It requires a tremendous backward leap of logic to find Rao innocent and hold those who were working to protect the Babri mosque, like leaders of the Babri Masjid Action Committee, guilty. It is true that a few Muslim leaders were shrill in some speeches, but so what? Emotions were high, and their tenor was nothing compared to the rhetoric of others. Incredible as it might seem, this is one of the findings of the Liberhan report.

WITH THE credibility of enquiry commissions in tatters, it is hardly surprising that the protagonists and victims of the barbarous terrorist invasion of Mumbai a year ago are not waiting for any Government-sponsored investigation to run its course. I presume they do not, for starters, want to wait for 17 years. Officers at the very top of the hierarchy, like former police commissioner Hassan Gafoor, have begun to tell their versions to a hungry media. This is not the whole of it. Leaking by police officers on an off-the-record basis has reached monsoon proportions in Mumbai. This constitutes, in theory, an astonishing collapse of discipline; in practice, the Government is utterly incapable of taking any action because anything it does will also expose its own sins of omission and commission.

Widows of martyred police officers have no faith in the Government’s ability or desire to establish a credible narrative of what actually transpired, and why. They are publishing their impression of events, backed up by their individual research, like Vinita Kamte, wife of Assistant Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte, who died doing his duty while others chose survival over challenge. They are filling a black hole into which the Government has sought to consign that terrible memory. In the process, allegations have been made against serving police officers that cannot be ignored; they must be investigated, and the officers either exonerated or punished.

The reluctance of the politician to pursue the past can be easily understood. Much drama surrounded the resignation of the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. Where is he now? Why, in the Union Cabinet, of course, a loyal colleague of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, responsible for managing the whole nation rather than just one State. The resignation drama of 2008 was highly effective, since it staved off any punishment at the polls in 2009. Politicians are certain of one thing if they are certain of anything at all: the voter has a short memory.

Ruling party politicians might find it useful to recall, however, a well-known rule of democracy. When Opposition parties fail to play their role, the people become the Opposition. This takes a long time, and people give their Government a very long rope. But every rope is finite. And a rope can so easily become a noose

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bhopal: 25 years of sheer apathy

Bhopal: 25 years of sheer apathy
By M J Akbar

Every anniversary of a trauma, whether Bhopal, Bhagalpur, Bluestar, Ahmedabad or the anti-Sikh riots on Delhi's streets, turns into a struggle between anger and amnesia. It is a no-contest. Amnesia wins every time.

Eyeless in Bhopal. Heartless in communal riots. Clueless in Ayodhya. Mindless in government. And, maybe, pointless in rage. Perhaps the determining fact is that everyone, apart from the victim, has a vested interest in silence since the guilt, active or passive, extends beyond the obviously culpable. Governments might inspire and abet riots, but they are never possible without participation of the people. Every political party has an inconvenient truth in its history.

What, however, explains the callous indifference to the perpetrators of the Bhopal tragedy, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical? Twenty-five years ago, Union Carbide's factory in Bhopal spat out 40 tons of aerial poison in the form of methyl isocyanate, killing nearly 4,000 immediately and some 15,000 since then. It was a crime of greed, since this gas was used because it was cheaper than safer alternatives. The cover-up was dubious, at the very least. Carbide attributed the accident to sabotage by a disgruntled employee who was never named. This evasion was prelude to escape. In 2001, Dow Chemical bought Carbide for $11.6 billion.

Dow priced the Indian dead at an average of $2,200 per corpse, or around Rs 1 lakh at today's exchange rates. The blinded and maimed were dismissed with a compensation of $550 on average. That, explained a Dow spokeswoman, was "plenty good for an Indian". When Dow Chemical sets the price for Indian lives, we natives had better accept with folded hands. How much, incidentally, do you think your infant's eyes are worth? Raghu Rai, who gave the world the iconic image of Bhopal, of a dead child's face, could have provided the answer, but which establishment, political or corporate, has time for a photographer's pain?

Our governments, whether led by Congress or BJP, made the usual thundery noise in public and, in private, cooperated with Carbide/Dow Jones, starting from the day Carbide chief Warren Anderson was airlifted out of Bhopal to escape local wrath. Over time, even the noise has become a passing perfunctory statement. We have never asked for Anderson's extradition, although there is an international arrest warrant against him. Is Anderson hiding in the Amazon forest? No. He is living in a luxurious American suburb. Why should American authorities worry about accountability if we don't? Our unstated reason has been that action against Anderson would frighten foreign investors. Why let a few thousand corpses interfere with the balance sheet?

In 2006, Dow wrote to America's then ambassador in India, thanking him for obtaining our government's assurance that Dow would not be held liable for the mass murder of Bhopalis. Dow should now send a letter to our present minister of state for environment, who went to Bhopal to jeer at those who are still protesting against continuing death from left-over toxic waste. According to critics, from 15 to 30 people are still dying every month.

Dow Chemicals dare not be as casual about Americans. In 2002, it set aside over two billion dollars to cover Carbide's asbestos contamination liabilities. An American cough is far, far more expensive than an Indian life. Why? Because America cares for Americans. The poor in America have won their right to justice, and every company knows that it cannot sweet-talk its way through sleepwalkers in power.
If there is any explanation for Delhi's fudge-and-fuss approach, it can only lie in the Indian elite's very real indifference to the poor. What, one wonders, would have been the reaction if Carbide had leaked its poison over Lutyens' Delhi rather than five kilometers from the old Bhopal city? Would Anderson have spent 25 years in Tihar rather than a villa in Hampton's? You can bet your last silver dollar that Dow would have been both poorer and more contrite.

Abdul Jabbar Khan, convenor of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan, had much to say to the media as he led a rally from the homes of the dead to the death factory on the 25th anniversary. One sentence said as much as was needed: "We got no justice, no adequate compensation and not enough compassion." He was expecting justice from a meandering legal system, compensation from a caustic foreign company - and compassion from fellow-Indians. Of the three, the last hurts most.

Media has done what it could. The Times of India has done some moving reportage of the 25th anniversary in the last few days. It would be interesting to find out, possibly through market research, whether the readers of the nation's most powerful newspaper have been moved at all.

Appeared in Times of India - December 6, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Liberhan: 17 years and few surprises

Liberhan: 17 years and few surprises
By M J Akbar

A mere handful of professions are honoured with an honorific that survives beyond the office. Priests, judges, armed services officers, professors and doctors, of both the medical and academic disciplines: that’s about it. Journalists, even editors, and politicians, even cabinet ministers, would invite ridicule if they handed out visiting cards marked ‘Editor X’ or ‘Cabinet Minister Y’. Indians are, at best, ambivalent about media and politics. They respect our guardians of law, knowledge and security. There is a new tendency among former envoys to add ‘Ambassador’ before their name, a practice borrowed from America, but this is a title snatched from vanity rather than bestowed by popular acclaim.

Ego sometimes persuades a pompous politician to flaunt a bogus ‘Dr’ on his nameplate. This is not a reward for academic brilliance but an upgrade to a peacock feather, the ‘honorary doctorate’, a worthless piece of paper handed out by an institution desperate for attention. However, this does not matter too much, since we do not expect a high level of honesty from our politicians. Only two letters separate use from abuse, so there will always be a quack preening himself in the garb of a doctor. But when a person held in high esteem dilutes the trust reposed in him, it affects the collective reputation of the brotherhood.

Justice M S Liberhan did not need 17 years and a thousand pages to tell us what has been public knowledge since December 6, 1992. The Babri mosque was not torn down in the dark of night. It was brought down slowly, stone by stone, in Sunday sunlight, before hundreds of journalists, to the cheers of countless thousands of kar sewaks in and around Ayodhya. The mosque was not dynamited in a minute; it was demolished by crowbar and shovel.

Of course, senior leaders of the BJP and RSS were present, for they were kar sewaks as well. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not there, but he was in nearby Lucknow, albeit a reluctant guest, but unable to refuse the invitation to the party. Newspapers the next day, and magazines the next weekend, published their pictures, some of which became iconic. We did not need a wait of 17 years to learn that Vinay Katiyar was responsible: he has been claiming responsibility for over 6,000 days.

Sharad Pawar, then defence minister, showed a filmed record of December 6 to an invited group at the home of a party MP a few days later. The Liberhan Commission could have completed half its report by taking a look at that film. The media was equally comprehensive in its coverage of the brutal riots that followed: The Sri Krishna report has done far greater justice to the truth in its findings on the Maharashtra riots, so much so that there is all-party collusion on its non-implementation. There was only one question trapped in doubt: What was prime minister P V Narasimha Rao doing while Babri was destroyed on the longest day of the last two decades? Why was home minister S B Chavan, father of the present Maharashtra chief minister, immobile, inscrutable and stolid?

Shock raced through Delhi when word filtered through that an assault had begun in Ayodhya. Phone calls began to pour into the prime minister’s residence in the hope that he would use the authority of the state to uphold the rule of law and fulfil a political and moral obligation. There was a monstrous response from the prime minister’s personal secretary. The PM was either unavailable or, worse, asleep. It was a lie. Rao’s inaction and Chavan’s collaboration were deliberate.

Liberhan protects Rao with an equally conscious fudge, shuffling the blame on to unspecified intelligence agencies. Everyone knew what was going on, IB officers better than most. Rao called a Cabinet meeting only in the evening, when there was nothing left to be saved — not even reputation. By this time, fires of hatred were lighting up the dusk of Mumbai and dozens of cities across the nation. An elaborate programme of blame, reward and punishment was put into place. Those (including bureaucrats and journalists) who acquiesced in Rao’s charade were rewarded; Congress Muslims got a bonus for silence. Rao remained in power till 1996, but he neither ruled nor lived in peace.

The words of this column will make no difference. A government can reduce the past to rubble as easily as an Opposition party can erase a centuries-old mosque. My apologies for a rare detour into the personal, but this is a rare moment. I was a minor part of the Rao government and resigned on the night of December 6 since the stone wall constructed around the prime minister’s house had become impervious to anything except sycophancy. Words demand a different kind of loyalty, and one was relieved to return to the world of words.

Appeared in Times of India - November 29, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Terror threat: We have lost the plot

Terror threat: We have lost the plot
by M J Akbar

The ebb from outrage to rage, its decline to umbrage, and then a drift to amnesia is the narrative of the 12 months since the terrorist assault on Mumbai, which shook India and startled the world. America's immediate response to 9/11 was over the top; our phased reaction has been under-the-table. But a message went out from Washington: you provoke the US at your peril, no matter what the collateral damage. We play piped music before one trapped cobra and call it an opera. Then we fall asleep at our own show.

It is both easy and pointless to blame the government. Every government keeps a thermometer in its holster and calibrates its decibel levels according to ground temperature. If it's warm, it will blow hot, as Delhi did so vigorously between November and January. If it has cooled, Delhi will cool it as well. It is meaningless to blame our Opposition. We have an Opposition that has become impotent without ever turning potent. The politician will only be as resolute as the citizen, and our sensitivities have been dulled by a culture of complacence. Even trauma has been reduced to television drama; once the scenes are played out, our bluster slowly splutters into silence.

It is possible that the military-intelligence-political establishment of Pakistan understands us far better than we understand them. They must have dismissed us as a soft state whose breast-beating is easily calmed by tokenism. On the first anniversary of 26/11, it is not Pakistan alone that is laughing at our weakness. Washington too has measured the tensile strength of a nation that finds unique ways to postpone its threats to the next calamity. Last year, we gloried in the belief that the US had promoted us to the ascending plateau of a regional power, en route to the status of world player. This week, President Barack Obama used a communiqué in Beijing, of all capitals, to tell us where we stand in his estimation, as one of the nations of South Asia whose border problems the worldwide partnership of equals, US and China, would help sort out.

The lean and lissome Obama has learnt to slap with a long hand.

Obama did not have a word to say, incidentally, about Dr A Q Khan's latest revelations on Chinese help in fuel and technology for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, a clear instance of illegal proliferation. Do not be surprised, however, if India gets a lecture or two on nuclear proliferation.

War is not the only definition of strength. This fallacy has been promoted to disguise a policy of inaction. We have been cheated by this argument since it is obvious that war can have attendant consequences capable of deadly havoc. But there is a whole array or diplomatic and economic instruments that can be mobilized, nationally and internationally. We had the world's sympathy a year ago. We squandered it with inaction. Pakistan maneuvered its way out of international condemnation with some brilliantly painless promises. Islamabad bought the time that Delhi sold.

This week President Zardari presided over a meeting of the PPP's Central Executive Committee during which, in the words of Najam Sethi, an eminent Lahore editor, there was "a reassertion of Pakistan's maximalist position by both the prime minister and foreign minister on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute". This is probably a pre-emptive measure. Obama is likely to lean on Dr Manmohan Singh during the latter's visit to the White House, and push for a compromise on Kashmir acceptable to Pakistan. He might even wave a lollipop called a future seat in the Security Council as a distant prize for good behaviour.

Normalcy with Pakistan is a good idea: put me down as lead advocate of the band of peace missionaries. But before we seek normalcy, we must know what it means. Does it mean reward for unrepentant terrorism by post-Shimla Pact adjustments to the map of Jammu and Kashmir?

It used to be said that we do not have a foreign policy, just a Pakistan policy. We could have moved ahead; we may not even have a Pakistan policy now. We seem to indulge in a series of engagements with different nations, as if the world were an old-fashioned marketplace in which you could haggle your way through different shops, purchasing what was available at whatever price, without a coherent theme linking departure to destination.

Some politicians take recourse to fudge, and sell the notion of India as a soft power. This is a useful screen when you have turned the nation soft, instead of making it powerful. If we were in the midst of the Garden of Eden, this would have been laudable achievement. But we live in a region where terror haunts the headlines.

Amnesia is an invitation to the next terrorist assault.

Appeared in Times of India - November 22, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The news behind the teleview

Byline by M J Akbar: The news behind the teleview

Dr Manmohan Singh’s American month began with a warm lunch for George Bush in Delhi and will end with a more constrained dinner with Barack Obama in Washington. Always happy to oblige on cosmetics, the White House has awarded this meeting the status of a state visit, although in India’s parliamentary system the Prime Minister is not head of state. But there is a hard question behind the glitter. Dr Singh signed a landmark nuclear deal with Bush last year. Was that a mere sentimental knot with a “best friend” or was it a substantive document capable of survival beyond the predilections of a President?

The value of the nuclear deal, which was about much more than peaceful nuclear energy, lies in its tactile strength, but Delhi and Washington have begun stretching in different ways. Dr Singh expected it to be the launchpad of strategic and economic privileges. Condoleezza Rice did, a trifle gratuitously, promise to make India a superpower. But that was so last year. This year, the broad Democrat view is that Bush surrendered too much on core issues like proliferation for too little, and this is payback time for India. This is compounded, in Delhi, by the apprehension that India does not occupy primary space on the specific Obama agenda. The cynical interpretation is that India has been allotted 1.5 billion words a year and Pakistan 1.5 billion dollars.

Behind the smiles demanded by “teleview” international relations, Singh and Obama will find their flexibility hedged by compulsions. Obama inherited an economic catastrophe and a military crisis. He took advantage of both to win his election, but his victory was someone else’s punishment. Answers are more difficult to get than votes.

It is evident from the time invested during ten months in office that Obama’s axis of interest is a direct line between Beijing and Islamabad. He has been forced into a tightrope walk between his banker and his security subcontractor. It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that while Obama was walking the talk on the Great Wall, his national security adviser General James L. Jones dropped in to scold Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. The Pakistani armed forces, it seems, are so busy eliminating the extremist threat to Islamabad that they seem to have forgotten that American money is meant to solve America’s problems. Jones carried a letter asking Zardari to broaden the war to those elements of the Afghan Taliban who were using Pak territory as sanctuary.

America is discovering what India has known for a while: all terrorists are not equal. Those who serve Islamabad’s interests are kept in play through screens. It is common knowledge that Obama is increasing troop levels reluctantly, and wants to leave the Afghan battlefield as soon as possible. Hillary Clinton was candid recently on ABC’s This Week programme: “We are not interested in staying in Afghanistan. We have no long-term stake there. We want that to be made very clear.”

Pakistan, conversely, does have a long-term stake in Kabul, and America’s current foe, the Afghan Taliban, was its most useful regional ally till 9/11. It can hardly be lost on either Dr Singh or Obama that they will be meeting exactly one year after India’s 9/11: a year ago Pak-based terrorists launched an audacious and bloody attack on Mumbai. Doubtless there will be some variation of the two-minute silence in their talks, but tokenism has long past its sell-by date on the subcontinent. When American officials like the Ambassador Timothy Roemer in Delhi urge Islamabad to get serious about the masterminds in Lahore, it sounds worse than tokenism. America, which launched two wars in search of the perpetrators of 9/11, displays fleeting concern for accountability when India demands some from Pakistan.

Pakistan treats terrorists who attack India as “freedom fighters”: Islamabad may need the Afghan Taliban for strategic reasons; it supports anti-Indian terrorists for ideological reasons. China has a vested interest in the Kashmir dispute, since its own border disputes with India extend across the Himalayas. China has even tried to block efforts in the sanctions committee of the United Nations Security Council to name known terrorist organisations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Obama seems to have little interest in the complex regional conflicts in the nations south and north of the Himalayas, apart from what is necessary to pursue the American agenda as he has written. You do not have to be psychic to read Obama’s mind: he needs China on-side to prevent a collapse of the dollar; and his ideal end-game in Afpak would be to outsource the fighting completely to Pakistan so that American soldiers could return home. He was happy to project China as a benevolent partner in the effort to resolve disputes in South Asia, including Kashmir. Islamabad has not heard any music above the gunfire recently, so this particular aria must have sounded particularly mellifluous. But Obama’s next Asian engagement is with the Prime Minister of India. Delhi has already asked America and China to stay out of the Kashmir dispute.

For the last decade, since Atal Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister, each bilateral between India and America has been preceded by high expectations and succeeded by an expanding comfort zone. Dr Singh has invested hugely in the America relationship. He goes to Washington, however, engulfed in uncertainty. There will be pomp and circumstance enough to please television crews. The hard news could tell a more muted story.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why some political parties lost the plot

Why some political parties lost the plot
By M J Akbar

Defeat is the distance between a bedtime story and a wake-up call. The former starts with ‘Once upon a time...’ and lulls the voter to sleep. The second is an energiser that addresses a fresh dawn.

Three political parties have become victims of their own success: their narrative has run its course, and they have not been able to find a further chapter to their saga.

The BJP story is the simplest: the fairies have abandoned its fairy tale. It began as the party of refugees from Pakistan. The robust economic and social resettlement of the dispossessed, evident by the 70s, paradoxically, liberated them from the party which helped them. After the high-drama blip of the Emergency and Janata Party phase, the BJP reinvented itself as a champion of a psychological rather than an economic need.

The temple movement brought great rewards, culminating, albeit through a parabola enhanced by the charisma of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in six years of power at the Centre. But within this time, the Indian mood turned. Economic aspirations took primacy over psychological needs, particularly since the temple movement was made irrelevant by the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya. A functioning temple has come up on the site, a fact that seems to escape the attention of those writing the BJP manifesto, which keeps promising to build a temple.

Every political party has colluded in this change; even though self-proclaimed secular parties encourage Muslims to indulge in the self-delusion that a dispute exists. In truth, all that the BJP can offer is to build a bigger temple, which does not quite have the same emotive force as ‘Mandir yahin banayenge!’ The BJP’s cousins, the Senas of Maharashtra, have regional chauvinism to fall back upon. If the BJP wants to reclaim national space, it will have to establish another horizon.

When socialism became passe, Mulayam Singh Yadav resurrected himself brilliantly as the anti-thesis of the BJP, blending it with a distinctive element of Lohia socialism, empowerment of the backward castes. However, when the thesis is faltering, the anti-thesis cannot be robust. That is the Samajwadi Party’s problem vis-a-vis the Muslim vote. As for the Backwards: Mandal has been milked dry. Mandal has delivered for those whose prayers were answered in 1990. A new generation of Backwards needs solutions for the 21st century.

The last time the Left had anything original to say was more than three decades ago; and it had remarkable staying power in Bengal. But Bengali Muslims, critical to any democratic algebra, are now tired of the Left’s soft secularism, a formula in which their lives were secure from communal violence but their livelihood was left to the wolves. The subalterns of Bengal, across the religious divide, have adopted an interesting strategy: they have become, to a great extent, a non-partisan opposition. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is merely expanding its elasticity to contain voter anger to the extent it can.

There are no internal structures, nor is there any serious thinking being done by Mamata on how to fashion an alternative delivery system when she assumes power in the state. It is now a question of when the Left will be driven out, not whether. But in the current turmoil also lies an opportunity for 2016, if there is anyone left with the imagination to think ahead.

Mayawati survives in Uttar Pradesh, despite setbacks, because she is still waking up her support base. The Dalit deliverance is far from over; and her cross-ethnic alliances are still in infancy. Mayawati was out of her depth at the national level because she could not promise stability. In regional waters, she is still an Olympian. Her personality may be her biggest obstacle, but her agenda is intact.

The key to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s future will lie in his ability to unlock the next dimension of Muslim demands, and spearhead it. There is a transparent anger, leavened by confusion, among Muslims which is provoking a drift to the most familiar port, the Congress. But the Congress has nothing new to offer.

What the Muslims of UP are looking for, but have been unable to articulate, is a defined political space within which they can find food-and-faith security. Given the passions that such a demand could arouse, this quest might surface obliquely rather than directly. On the table is Ajit Singh’s dream of a Harit Desh in western UP. Such a state will have a substantive Muslim population, as well as a string of important Muslim educational institutions, from Aligarh to Deoband. It will become a natural socio-economic magnet for Muslims of the north. The idea is still in an embryonic stage. Whoever articulates it, will have rung a wake-up call.

Appeared in Times of India - November 15, 2009

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Unicorns in Kabul

Byline by M J Akbar : Unicorns in Kabul

At 11 a.m. on 11.11 a cannon boomed in London. For the uninitiated it was a puzzle edged with apprehension. For the British the moment was 91 years old. It marked the end of the bloodiest — till then — conflict in history. The last soldier died only seconds before truce as officers continued to waste “inferior” lives till the last gasp. War can become an addiction.

Enemies change; war never seems to end. The British this week mourned past and present, as coffins arrived from the opium fields of Afghanistan. This Afghan war had nothing to do with the British Raj. Empire had dribbled away after 1945, for the Second World War exhausted victor as surely as it obliterated the vanquished. But the victors barely paused before investing blood and treasure on a cold war which also ended in November, the 9th, two decades ago, when a popular uprising brought down the hated Berlin Wall.

The Afghan war of 2001 has been a war in search of an enemy. It began as a legitimate hunt for Osama bin Laden. When the combined skills of the Pentagon, the CIA and satellite science failed to find a six-foot-plus terrorist with a two-foot beard, the focus moved a few degrees. The Taliban, who had spread into nationalist space by challenging the foreign military presence, became the new reason for the military occupation of a rugged nation. Since the Taliban has refused to keel over, a supplementary logic is being disseminated in a bid to shore up ebbing public support: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal [estimated at between 80 to 100 bombs] must be protected from capture by “Islamists”. The proposition begs an obvious question: can a state which cannot protect its nuclear weapons be trusted to keep them?

The fog of war is being compounded by a mist of confusion over its rationale and finale. The Guardian warns, in a page-wide headline, that it could degenerate into a fiasco of Suez 1956 proportions. President Barack Obama seems keener on an exit strategy than an arrival plan. He dithers about whether to send 36,000 more troops or 40,000, as if 4,000 will convert potential humiliation into a historic victory. The US ambassador to Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, cables the State Department that he wants no extra troops until Hamid Karzai has ended corruption. The officer-diplomat has a powerful friend in Washington, for his secret missive is leaked to the Washington Post. We soon know who the friend is, for a jet-lagged Hillary Clinton echoes this view during an ASEAN summit in Singapore.

If America is waiting for corruption to end, these troops will arrive in 2109 or Judgement Day, whichever comes first.

I have no idea whether Obama and Hillary have managed to instil some fresh fighting spirit into the Afghan armed forces, but they have certainly aroused the warrior in Hamid Karzai, who seems to have launched a vigorous offensive against Washington. Karzai publicly accused Britain of ferrying Taliban elements by helicopter from their base in the south to the northern provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz and Samangan, attributing this knowledge to his intelligence agencies. The fecund tribe of conspiracy theorists in Kabul, and elsewhere, eagerly linked this to the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban manoeuvre floated by no less a personage than Obama, near the start of his presidency. Obama refuses to fight a war which George Bush knew how to begin but no one knows how to end.

The perfect end from the Pakistani perspective is the replacement of Karzai by a non-Mullah Omar Taliban, which could declare peace through a bearded mutter and let America leave Kabul at a stately pace rather than via the rooftop helicopters of Saigon. In the absence of any other proposal, this must seem to have some merit. The “good Taliban” would send Afghan women back centuries and the country into puritan coma, but they would be allies of Islamabad and, by implication, its mentors in Washington and London. At least, that would be the theory. Of course Islamabad might have sounded more persuasive if a domestic Taliban had not been detonating its backyard.

Let us leave the last word to a warlord who has never been disturbed by sentiment. I have met the Uzbeg General Abdul Rashid Dostum once, in Mazar-e-Sharif; his views are always forthright even if they are not necessarily right. But he had valid points to make in an interview with Dean Nelson and Ben Farmer of the Daily Telegraph [published on 13 November]:

* Not one Afghan officer of the rank of captain or major has been killed in battle in six years, since Afghans do not consider this their war;

* Western leaders are mistaken if they believe that Taliban soldiers will defect, or betray Osama;

* Western aid has not touched poverty, but only killed local initiative and enriched the political elite;

* Taliban can only be defeated by a pragmatic military strategy that avoids categories like “good” and “bad” and involves local communities.

Dostum dismissed the anti-corruption sanctimoniousness in a classic sentence: “They are demanding unicorns in Kabul.” Touché.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sex & scams: How we turn a blind eye

Sex & scams: How we turn a blind eye
By M J Akbar

Our Indian response to a scandalous mess is neat and categorised. Cash and sex are the north and south pole of mass interest, each with a sprawling magnetic field. We divide the hemispheres with the equator of logic. Cash and corruption are the preserve of politics. Sex is the province of glamour. We refuse to recognise any cross-over evidence.

No one wants to know how much black money floats in cinema, although the float might be a flood from dubious sources. Film publications are apathetic to finance. Their cover stories are devoted to who is sleeping with whom, or, more likely, pretending to sleep with whom. Lead stars are sometimes required to manufacture an affair as part of a film’s pre-launch publicity even when it is obvious, from body language, that the hero and heroine are heartily sick of each other.

Equally, mainline media shrugs off a politician’s private life. This is in sharp contrast to the Anglo-American press and public, who hold a public figure to standards of probity they do not apply to themselves. It seems odd that societies so liberated on Friday nights should turn so puritan over politicians’ weekends, but there it is. The French are more honest. They vote for lunch hour frisson.

No journalist worth his or her laptop, therefore, would waste a moment on the private life of Madhu Koda, the 38-year-old Jharkhand politician who worked in a mine in the early ’90s but is apparently purchasing Liberian mines today. If CBI leaks are to be believed, then young Koda has enough left over to lubricate the silent wheels of hawala and make a bid for a Rs 4,000 crore SEZ. Think. If this is what Koda can do at 38, what might he have achieved by 76, which is within the age band of our PMs. Think again. If this is the loot from a small state, what could another Koda earn from Maharashtra, Andhra or Karnataka? The BJP government in Bangalore is not coming apart because of a deep and riveting ideological debate on Hindutva. It’s the money, honey. If the figures seem insane, just remember that greed spits at limits.

A relevant measure of Indian democracy is the shift in the scale of scandal. V K Krishna Menon was pilloried because he arranged some 50-odd jeeps for the Congress in the first general election in 1952. At the end of the decade, Feroze Gandhi, Mrs Indira Gandhi’s husband, commandeered the headlines by exposing a couple of businessmen. Their names are unimportant now. Suffice to say that it was all very secular: one was a Hindu and the other a Muslim. The sums involved were a piffle. No inflation-escalation calculation is going to bring them to Liberian levels.

The connivance of major parties in the Koda scam is the icing on the story. They all helped his upward mobility in one form or the other, with Congress support for his chief ministership being a stunning example of cynicism. Local journalists had reported much of this while he was in power. No one bothered.

The news from the south pole is actually far better. The filmstar scandals of the ’50s were often tainted by the communal acrimony of the post-Partition decade. A film paper like ‘Mother India’ used to go apoplectic when Nargis and Raj Kapoor practised in real life what they preached on-screen. Today, Raj Kapoor’s granddaughter lives with a man born a Muslim and no Indian owl cares two hoots. Nor is box office affected. Indians have shed much of the compulsive bitterness in Hindu-Muslim relations.

The north pole, however, is in meltdown, the body politic ravaged by venality beyond the voter’s comprehension. What was a nick in Nehru’s time, needing a mere Band-Aid, has spread into an incurable cancer.

Patriotism, goes the proverb, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The first refuge of a man charged with swindling thousands of crores of public wealth is clearly a stomach-ache. The second refuge is high blood pressure. Between the two, you can always smuggle yourself out of the dreary confines of custody, with mere mosquitoes for company, to the more salubrious environment of a hospital, which is where Koda reached at a brisk pace. The stomach-ache is key to this life-enhancing, if not quite life-saving, switch. High blood pressure, regretfully, can be measured and lowered. A stomach can always ache at will, swerving away from the locational probes of a doctor, particularly in a well-nourished stomach.

In any case, time, and a generous bank balance, tends to soften the discomforts of incarceration. If the cash flow is supportive, a prison can even become a health ashram, with badminton thrown in as an optional extra. You never know: with diet control and regular morning walks that stomach might never need to ache again. It is not the health of a robust Koda that should be our concern, but that of a more fragile entity called democracy.

Koda has a stomach-ache. Democracy has cancer.

Appeared in Times of India - November 8, 2009

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Davutoglu’s Doctrine

Byline by M J Akbar: Davutoglu’s Doctrine

When Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul visits India early next year he will be representing a nation that has reinvented its geostrategic role through an independent foreign policy in barely eight years. I hope he brings along Ahmet Davutoglu, who shaped the theory and then structured the practicals, first as principal adviser to Prime Minister Recip Tayyab Erdogan, and now as Foreign Minister. He must be one of the few academics fortunate enough to get a chance to make ideas work.

The starting point was 2002, when the Justice and Development Party [AKP] won the elections and ended the monopoly on power exercised by a military-bureaucratic-civilian Istanbul-centric elite which claimed the inheritance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his European-style secularism which still prohibits a Turkish woman from wearing a headscarf to university. This elite protected Ataturk’s secular vision, but, somewhere along the way lost sight of Ataturk’s independence.

The wives of Erdogan and Gul wear headscarves, but that is not the point: the wives of many Cabinet ministers and high officials do not, and are not required to. What is relevant is that AKP subtly shifted a policy that had become synonymous with America’s, without the angry rhetoric that has become a regrettable hallmark of so many who strut as lead actors on the anti-American stage. AKP proved that change was possible without compromising an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship with Washington. Their predecessors had America’s friendship. AKP has America’s respect as well.

Turkey has played a pivotal role in two of the three great wars of the 20th century. It was an ally of Germany and the Central Powers in the First World War, but refused to declare war on the United States even when the latter joined the Anglo-French alliance. Even though it lost its empire in the fighting, Turkey did not permit a single enemy soldier on its territory during wartime. Istanbul was occupied only after truce. Ataturk, victor of Gallipoli, was the great hero of this conflict; but took his true place in his nation’s history after 1918, when the vainglorious trio of Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Clemenceau, leavening their intent with anti-Muslim Crusader sentiment, armed and financed a Greek invasion of Turkey. Their aim was to partition the country and leave Turkey as a rump Anatolian state. Ataturk mobilised a proud army and people, and shocked the victors of World War I by destroying the Greeks after they reached the outskirts of Ankara.

Ataturk, protecting his nation’s independence, kept Turkey neutral in the Second World War. Historic fears of next-door Russia, now the Soviet Union, drove Istanbul into Washington’s embrace in the Cold War. But when in the 1980s flexibility became an option, and in the 1990s a necessity, Turkey remained rigid. When it looked south it could only see Israel; when it looked east it could see nothing more than Pakistan. Both were American allies. Turkey did not have a policy or a vision for the 21st century.

Davutoglu selected the moment of departure with uncanny vision: George Bush’s war on Iraq in 2003. It gave an early sign of change, when it refused to let American troops pass through Turkey on their way to Iraq. It also realised, fairly early, that America would be weakened by Bush’s Iraq folly, creating space for new players, since the Soviet Union was too weak to play any role at all.

Israel and Iran have sufficient muscle to fill a regional vacuum, but both were inherently belligerent. They would be able to intervene, but as destabilisers rather than stabilisers. Iran had a natural advantage in Shia-majority Iraq, but it simultaneously provoked deep suspicions in the Arab world. Turkey set itself up as the region’s centre of stability. Ironically, this was its role during the days of the Ottoman Empire; but this time around, it could create an arc of influence only through diplomacy and harmony, not imposition.

Turkey set about strengthening its relations with Arab nations. It distanced itself from warriors in Israel, without breaking ties of trade and cooperation. It criticised Israel’s Gaza war unambiguously. But it realised that a critical key to peace lay in the amelioration of its own antagonisms with its neighbours. This was, given the emotionalism that is attached to the past, difficult.

But Turkey has now signed historic protocols with Armenia, warmed icy relations with Syria to the point where visa has been abolished, lifted ties with Iran and become a vital partner of Iraq in the reconstruction of the country. In October Erdogan signed 48 MoUs covering energy, commerce and security (among other things) with Baghdad. Davutoglu paid a visit to the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, which is equivalent to an Indian Foreign Minister dropping in on Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Not too long ago, Turkey’s air force was bombing this Kurdish region as punishment for being a base for terrorism. Turkey, America and Iraq are working together to bring the long and bitter Kurdish war against Turkey to an end -- another sign of Washington’s new respect for Istanbul.

Pakistan has recognised the change as well, but done so in its India-centric manner. It has asked Turkey to help solve the Kashmir problem. Istanbul is not so green as to try and do so; and certainly Delhi will be frosty towards any such misguided initiative. But Turkey has found its role on the world stage. A stem in the Cold War greenhouse has flowered in the fresh air of an open mind.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Indira: Great heroes make great mistakes

Indira: Great heroes make great mistakes
By M J Akbar

Gandhi gave us freedom, Nehru protected our independence and Indira Gandhi saved the nation. Is that too neat to be correct?

A leader, unlike a mere office-bearer, possesses the ability to define the existential challenge of the moment, and guide a generation towards a promised destination. Gandhi, Nehru and Indira were leaders, albeit on different tiers of history, each a mixture of success and failure. Gandhi's pedestal is secure from controversy but elevation tends to deflect his achievement. As Jawaharlal observed, Gandhi freed Indians from fear; freedom from the British was a consequence. Gandhi's most significant failure, by his own values, was surely that he could not free Indians from violence.

Did Gandhi insist on non-violence for both moral and tactical reasons? He was committed to the principle, of course, but did he also suspect that only an inherently violent people needed the imposition of non-violence in order to save themselves from themselves? Did he suspect that armed Indians might destroy each other in the name of caste or creed long before they identified the true enemy? Untouchability is best described as insidious and silent violence. Gandhi lost his life to the gun he could not eliminate, but his cathartic death exhausted India's surge towards civil war.

Nehru understood, better than some of his successors, that freedom was not synonymous with independence. Neo-colonization is, after all, the grant of independence on condition you do not exercise it. British India was both colony and neo-colony, the latter being the status of princely states. Nehru saw, all around him, how quickly the post-colonial world sought the sanctuary of nurseries set up by both Washington and Moscow. He believed that India's tryst with destiny was something more substantive than occasional lollipops; that India's success could not be outsourced to even a well-wisher, let alone any cynical superpower searching for allies in a Cold War. He needed to look no further than Pakistan for a narrative of dependency. He stumbled when he trusted the Third World as much as he distrusted the First. His Himalayan blunder was a calculation, or miscalculation, that China would be a partner in such a world view. He confused himself with others, and the Chinese laughed at his commitment to peace. Trust is so often the ultimate naivete.

India welcomed the realism of Indira Gandhi after the travails of Nehru's idealism. Her two decades, between 1964 and 1984, as cabinet minister and prime minister, constituted an age of violence in all its myriad complexities: communal, ethnic, linguistic, Communist, secessionist. Language riots in the south; Hindu-Muslim mayhem across the map; Naxalite insurgents lighting a Maoist prairie fire; radical trade unions; a war with Pakistan; Emergency; and, in her second term as prime minister, upheaval in Assam, explosions across the North-East and a full-fledged rebellion in Punjab led by a charismatic theocrat. Calm was not written in Mrs Gandhi's fate lines. Was Bangladesh her high point and Emergency the nadir?

India could have gone the way so many post-colonial dictatorships in Africa and Asia if the Emergency, justified by sycophants as essential to the national interest, had stratified into long-term one-person rule. Some of her closest advisers were determined that it should continue for 20 years. The government had survived the initial outburst by sending the Opposition into prison and the press into coma. Individuals and institutions were gradually co-opted into the quasi-dictatorship. But just when hope for democracy had begun to ebb, one person realized that a government without a mandate was illegitimate. That person was Mrs Gandhi. In January 1977, she shocked friend and foe by calling a general election. In March, she was shocked when the Congress was routed. Democracy has never been challenged again.

It is odd that a leader who was so adept at war in 1971 should prove so gullible in the subsequent peace process. No matter which way you look at it, the Simla Agreement of 1972 was an opportunity thrown away. The cease-fire line of 1948 should have been converted into the permanent border, sealing, thereby, the 1966 Tashkent Agreement in which India and Pakistan inked a commitment to respect this line. Mrs Gandhi held all the trumps in 1972, and lost the hand to Zulfiqar Bhutto. His successor, Zia-ul-Haq, took revenge for Bangladesh by helping foment the Punjab revolt: its apex, in 1984, saw the destruction of the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the frenzied massacre of Sikhs. Zia-ul-Haq could not tear India apart, but he left a wound in India's heart.

Mrs Gandhi's martyrdom washed away her mistakes from public memory. But only great heroes make great mistakes.

- Appeared in Times of India - November 1, 2009

Saturday, October 31, 2009

An Indira Gandhi Moment

Byline by M J Akbar: An Indira Gandhi Moment

If so many male members of the Delhi establishment were not irredeemably bald, the loudest sound in the capital would be that of hair being torn in frustration. Those who have rescued their pates with American wigs [probably made with recycled hair from Tirupati] or artificial implants are not going to risk their camouflage by an injudicious display of temperament. So the prevailing noise in Delhi is the sound of gnashing teeth. The despair is over the upsurge of Naxalite violence.

While it is understandable that successful India should get antsy over subaltern anger, perhaps we should pause to consider what the Naxalites have not done; this would shade the focus, which is at the moment concentrated on what they have done. They did not kill the police officer they picked up in Bengal. They released him in exchange for tribal women in Government custody. They did not bargain for the release of their leaders, sending a message to a vast constituency that tribal women were equal, on their scale of values, to the top brass. You can appreciate the electrifying impact on their support base. And while relief will be the overwhelming sentiment among the passengers of Rajdhani, who were unharmed after five hours as captives, they will, on reaching home, search in the debris of memory for some answers. The Governments of Bengal and India were helpless when the train was brought to a halt, and impotent during the hours in captivity. The authorities did not rescue the passengers. The abductors freed them. These Naxalites have decided that their war is against authority and its structures and symbols, and not against the people of India.

This is a significant shift from Naxalite thinking in its first phase, the decade between 1965 and 1975, when the leadership was with Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal [a tribal leader] and their intelligent, if apoplectic, student comrades like Ashim Chatterjee, hero and scourge of Kolkata’s Presidency College campus. Then they targeted civilians, whether clerks or kulaks, and semi-civilians like constables. For the first time, traffic policemen in Bengal were forced to wear firearms, and all traffic points had to have at two least two men on duty — one to direct the city’s horrendous traffic and the other to guard his partner. This should have led, at least in my view, to learned internal dialectic debate on “Is the constable a class enemy?” I do not know if it did. What I do know is that when dread of Naxalites seeped down from those at the top of the power-pyramid to those in the middle and the base, it fomented a government-people-political parties partnership that destroyed the Naxalites. The state provided ruthless determination; the people gave information; the Congress and the CPI[M] used their cadres in the counter-offensive.

The Naxalites made a second serious ideological mistake, which they have consciously avoided this time around. The walls of Bengal were daubed with the slogan “Chairman Mao is our Chairman”. The Chairman of Beijing may not have been consulted on this honour, but he was not one to kick away a garland strewn in his path. Those were turbulent times in China as well; the Mao-inspired Cultural Revolution was an exercise in havoc, and mesmerised young Chinese waved Mao’s “Little Red Book” as the magical panacea for their myriad problems. No one wanted any little red book in India.

Mrs Indira Gandhi, who was martyred a quarter century ago, was Prime Minister for most of that long decade of insurrection. She did not waste any sentiment while dealing with the Naxalite threat. She gave carte blanche to Bengal’s political leadership [first, the United Front and then Congress Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray], police chiefs like Ranjit Gupta and finally the armed forces who, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Jacob, played a decisive role in the state response to urban insurgency.

But Mrs Indira Gandhi addressed the fundamental cause of the revolt through a brilliant, almost instinctive manoeuvre. She realised that you could kill Naxalites, but you could not meet the challenge of Naxalism, unless the government brought the corroding problem of poverty to the top of its concerns. The theme of her re-election and government became “Garibi hatao [Remove poverty]”. She held out the hope that poverty could be eliminated through the democratic process, and was thereby able to convince the base that violence was not an answer.

In the event, Mrs Gandhi was unable to do very much to eliminate poverty — she was partly misled by the “Congress Left”, which was neither Congress nor the Left. But the special place she still retains in the hearts of India’s poor is evidence of her powerful political achievement. The state would not have succeeded as effectively without the parallel political mobilisation by Indira Gandhi.

In 2009, we are not short of Hurray-Henrys who would be happy to mow down Naxalites with blazing submachine guns in order to make India safe for themselves and their self-serving economic policies. They do not realise it yet, but they are going to miss Indira Gandhi.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Weak opposition and a sad state of Affairs

Weak opposition and a sad state of affairs
By M J Akbar

Rahul Gandhi is the perfect post-ideological politician. Those who think he is preaching to the choir are missing the point: a significant chunk of the electorate is tired of grand creeds. Rahul Gandhi leaves behind a trail of feel-good bubbles on his travels. Contrast this with the hyperventilation of his cousin, who believes that B-grade histrionics pave the way to stardom.

But disdain for ideology can make you indifferent to ideologues. Pakistan is more than ‘‘just a piece of land’’. It is a powerful idea that broke Muslims from Hindus in 1947, Muslims from Muslims in 1971 and has now fomented a toxic civil war that could prove contagious. The hinge of its conflicts is the ideology of the state. Every Pakistani is convinced that the country should be ‘‘Islamic’’ but no one is completely sure what this means. At the moment, the argument is being conducted with air force raids, field artillery, roadside bombs, tanks, machine guns and suicide missions.

Obviously, Islamabad does not have the same interpretation as Hakimullah Mehsud, who told Sky News, ‘‘We want an Islamic state. If we get that, then we will go to the borders and help fight the Indians.’’ The map of the ‘‘Islamic state’’ includes the Kashmir valley. Both sides of the civil war, Army and Taliban, are in complete agreement on the map, and co-operate on the snatch-Kashmir project when they have time left from destroying each other. It is now academic that scholars like Maulana Azad pointed out that faith was never a touchstone for nationalism. The simple fact that the Arabs are spread across 22 nations is evidence that religion is insufficient as rationale for a state.

We Indians are curiously tempted towards a phallic view of geopolitics: size is strength. This is unsupported by our own historical experience. How big was Britain when it conquered those parts of the world worth conquering? A hundred thousand British civilians and soldiers ruled 300 million Indians. They did not have to be WWF wrestlers to do so.

The external threat to the Indian state from the arc of theocratic nationalism is now compounded by an internal threat arising from the anger of the impoverished, who have turned to violence as the last resort since the benefits of economic growth have been creamed off by an acquisitive class. ‘‘Rising India’’ promised a theoretical trickle to the teeming base of a bent cone, the famous ‘‘trickle-down theory’’. But very little seeped down, for an acquisitive culture is defined by excess. After 17 years of economic reform, the percentage below the poverty line has jumped from 28% to an astonishing 38%. Add the marginals and the homeless, who live outside the fluctuating zone of census statistics, and more than half of India sleeps hungry and hopeless.

The Congress, BJP and CPM have reached a seamless consensus on the need for sustained war against Naxalites, because they have no solution for poverty except for palliatives as a tactic and violence as a strategy. They have the nervous support of some 300 million better-fed Indians. This is why, as even the October election in Maharashtra and Haryana showed, anger against the establishment is either opting to remain outside electoral politics, or searching for the fractious fringe and radical formations.

When the fragmentation of the Congress began in the 60s, it created huge fissures in the ruling space that Congress had occupied since Independence, and provoked the instability of ridiculous coalitions at the apex of power. We are seeing a reverse phenomenon now: the fragmentation of Opposition space, since no Opposition party seems capable of creating a coherent narrative for the poor. This has caused instability at the base, whether in the shape of the massive Naxal challenge or regional agent provocateurs like Raj Thackeray.

The well-armed and unemotional state will probably win the battles against Naxalites, but at the cost of weakening the nation. Weakness is an opportunity for the ideological foe as well as the opportunist. Could China extend the pincer around and within India by extending help to Naxalites? The Chinese, thankfully, have deified Mao and abandoned Maoism, much in the way we have elevated Gandhi to camouflage our disdain for Gandhism. China will be motivated by opportunism rather than ideology but, as any footballer can tell you, a good opportunist scores goals. Moreover, it is much safer to export rubber dolls than it is to export revolution. There will, however, be no reluctance on China’s part to destabilize a debilitating India, should we begin to totter under the burden of expanding inequity.

The strength of nations has more nuances than the single dimension of geography. If the new aspirants to high office do not understand this, they will serve neither their personal nor their national interests.