Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Curious Vibrations of Sound and Silence

Byline by M.J. Akbar: The Curious Vibrations of Sound and Silence

The Congress has begun its campaign — for the general elections of 2012-13. All over Kolkata, to take a revealing instance, the party has put up hoardings with a single face, that of a smiling,heavily-dimpled Rahul Gandhi. The visual message is “cute”. The written message is unambiguous: this is the face of the future. He may be forced to share the limelight with his elders in 2009, but this is the last compromise.

The campaign accepts, without stressing the fact too much, that Dr Manmohan Singh is the Congress candidate for Prime Minister this year,but marks him as a transition figure, or in Arun Jaitley’s more ebullient phrase, as a “night-watchman”. Dr Singh sort of lurks around the edges of the campaign, visible occasionally, out of courtesy, but far from dominant. He may get a few extra hoardings in the city where he lives, Delhi, but the proportion sinks rapidly the moment you move out of the capital.

It is curious, given the need for clarity and discipline incommunication, that the party should announce a transfer of power before the shift has taken place, offering Dr Singh the dubious distinction of a lame duck, but passages of life are never easy to handle. In any case, it is evident that even if the Congress manages to retain power after the April-May poll, the office will go to Dr Singh but power will shift towards Rahul Gandhi. We have had a bipolar Government so far, divided between Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi. This is being stretched into a triangle. But a second Manmohan Singh administration will serve at least one useful purpose: the Cabinet will include Rahul Gandhi, along with a dozen of his peer group. This will be the answer to the “experience” dilemma. A couple of years in office will be cited as proof of ability to deliver as Prime Minister.The Kolkata campaign is relevant for another reason. Rahul Gandhi’s hoardings are not restricted to constituencies where the Congress could contest if an alliance with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress became a reality. It has already flowed over into Mamata territory.

Once again, the meaning is utterly clear. The Congress strategy is focused on building up Rahul Gandhi as leader of the whole country,not merely of those parts of it that have been left to it by coalition politics. This is the last election that the Congress is going to fight with such a profusion of partners. If alliances happen in 2009, it will go along with them, whether in Bengal or Tamil Nadu. Even inStates where the Congress is ready for an alliance, it is using this campaign to establish the difference both with the Opposition as wel las with its poll partners. If talks over seat sharing fail anywhere,the Congress will not break out in a sweat. It is confident of retaining enough seats in the next Parliament to be a player at the roulette table that will open for business as soon as the election results are declared.

The logic is transparent. Two thirds of the country is below the age of 35. The young want someone young. QED.

There is of course a degree of naiveté in this equation. The young are not a category without distinctions. The child of a field labourer who joins the Naxalites at 20 is not as eager to inhale the fragrance of Fair and Lovely as the college student whose parents are spending acomparative fortune to get him or her through a private college.

It is interesting, therefore, that Rahul Gandhi is speaking like Mamata Banerjee in Gujarat, while the Congress is hammering Mamata in Bengal for being anti-development. Rahul Gandhi accuses Narendra Modi of precisely the same sins that Mamata Banerjee holds Buddhadeb Bhattacharya guilty of: of creating jobs for the rich at the expenseof the poor. Even the phrases are similar, as is the symbol, Tata’s Nano project. It is only a matter of time, I suppose, before Mamata Banerjee, citing none other than Rahul Gandhi as her inspiration, describes Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as the Narendra Modi of Bengal. That should make the CPI[M] cringe!

It is perhaps inevitable that a national party should be tripped up by contradictions when there is such divergence in regional realities.But this is a difficult one since it addresses a fundamental issue of the core constituency: jobs. Urban youth want Nano, and rural youth do not want to sacrifice their minimalist insurance policy, land.

Narendra Modi has provided jobs through industrialisation, and won the endorsement of his State, of the young and of industrialists. If you criticise his economic performance in order to reinforce your minority base, you sow doubt about your intentions. While politics is a flexible art, it is not so very easy to lambaste industrialisation in Gujarat and seek it in Rajasthan.

This election effectively shuts the door on the ambitions of Dr Singh’s peer group in the Congress. There is no space for anyone else to become Prime Minister. If Dr Singh relinquishes office on grounds of ill-health — his heart is not in the best condition — then there will be no dispute within the Congress as to who shall be the successor. If the allies do not accept Rahul Gandhi, they may beforced into an unwelcome early election. The track record of the lastfive years shows that no small party, or semi-small party, is willing to surrender the privileges of office until a Constitutional deadline puts an end to the fun.

What about the chances of claimants from outside the Congress or the BJP? That option will be in play only if the Congress gets less than 120 seats, and the UPA is punctured. This is not impossible to visualise. The anti-incumbency factor is far stronger in UPA States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra than it is in NDA States like Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Askewered result would encourage ambition. Sharad Pawar has alreadymade his intentions evident. Others, like Chandrababu Naidu, prefer discretion.Silence travels a longer distance than noise in Delhi.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Single-faith nation is an open invitation to Taliban

Single-faith nation is an open invitation to Taliban
By M J Akbar

Many questions demand answers. The Pakistani army has an estimated strength of 12,000 in the region of Swat. Why was it unable, or unwilling, to subdue an insurgent force of some 3,000? The Pakistani army is not a pushover. Why was it pushed over in Swat? Is the Pakistani soldier increasingly unwilling to confront an ideology it implicitly sympathises with? How much of such sympathy is shared by the middle-ranking officer, who entered the force during the seminal leadership of General Zia ul Haq? To what extent has Ziaism become the secret doctrine of sections of the Pakistani forces?

Breast-beating has its dangers. You could lacerate yourself while the assassin laughs all the way to the graveyard. The international lamentation over the negotiated surrender of Swat in Pakistan to what might broadly be called the Taliban is high on moaning and low on illumination.

There is a symmetrical irony. Benazir Bhutto handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban. Her husband Asif Zardari might have laid the foundation stone of Talibanistan inside Pakistan by accepting Sufi Mohammad's Tehrik-e-Nifz-e-Shariat Mohammadi as the law for the former princely state of Swat. This demand was first heard in November 1994, the month in which Kandahar fell to the Taliban.

Many questions demand answers. The Pakistani army has an estimated strength of 12,000 in the region of Swat. Why was it unable, or unwilling, to subdue an insurgent force of some 3,000? The Pakistani army is not a pushover. Why was it pushed over in Swat? Is the Pakistani soldier increasingly unwilling to confront an ideology it implicitly sympathises with? How much of such sympathy is shared by the middle-ranking officer, who entered the force during the seminal leadership of General Zia ul Haq? To what extent has Ziaism become the secret doctrine of sections of the Pakistani forces?

What price will Pakistan's polity pay as the last civilian hope degenerates into a national heartbreak? The legacy of Benazir, the charismatic romantic, has been usurped by a semi-literate authoritarian who has seized executive power through a virtual coup against his own government. Zardari was elected to a ceremonial office, not an executive one. His principal achievement so far has been to make the era of Pervez Musharraf seem like a golden age. If she had been in charge, Benazir may have been able to mobilise her country's youth by lifting the economy and offering a liberal horizon. Zardari's ineffectual rule, wafting along compromise and mismanagement, can only create the space for a theocratic impulse that has been waiting to find its moment ever since Pakistan was born. Musharraf doubled the GDP of an insecure economy. Under Zardari, Pakistan is dwindling into a "basket case", a term Henry Kissinger coined for the eastern half of united Pakistan. While Bangladesh is leaving that stigma behind, Pakistan is entering the vortex of the begging bowl.

Military chaos opened the door for the Taliban in Kabul. Could economic chaos open the door in Islamabad? Has Pakistan begun to realise that faith-based nationalism is not synonymous with peace?

The Frontier and North Punjab, the principal catchment areas of the Taliban, have had a Muslim majority for perhaps a thousand years. It is not widely known that Mahmud of Ghazni's territories extended to what is roughly the line of the Indo-Pak border today. (This fact is not lost on terrorists who want to use Pakistan as a base from which to launch assaults on the heart of India.) But this area was never a single-faith entity. Hindus and later Sikhs created, along with Muslims, a dynamic shared culture that blossomed through partnership. The presence of the other also became an antidote to puritanism of any hue. The region was ruled successively by Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. No ruler, not even Ghazni, drove Hindus and Sikhs out. It was only after 1947 that the region became a single-faith hegemony, and from that point a breeding ground for theocratic militancy.

The power of a minority is rarely acknowledged by those who seek to turn it into an enemy. A minority is the yeast that enables the national flour to rise. Hindus and Sikhs were the yeast of the North West Frontier and Pakistani Punjab just as much as Indian Muslims are the yeast of Hindu-majority India. Their existence was a daily lesson in co-existence. Their absence has shifted the gears of social evolution and driven the people into rancid and arid territory.

Will the answers be more optimistic than the questions? That too remains a question.

Appeared in Times of India - February 22, 2009

Dancing with a Bear

Byline by M J Akbar:Dancing with a Bear

Instead of banning opinion polls during election time, the government should ban subversive academic organisations like Kolkata's IndianStatistical Institute (ISI). Opinion polls and exit polls are way off the mark, so why bother? A ban only betrays the nervousness of a government anxious to come back to power, but uncertain about how this will happen.

It is true that the slightest shift in the electoral demographic could send a government from the heaven of office to the hell of irrelevance. But does the Cabinet of Dr Manmohan Singh and the partyof Sonia and Rahul Gandhi actually believe that the Indian voter sitsbiting his nails before a television set in order to make up his mind about how he will vote?

The really accurate psephologist is not a pseudo-scientist available on hire, but the social scientist whose name you do not know.The facts that are moulding the mood of the voter have been gathered by the ISI, based on data collated by the National Sample Survey Organisation from about 124,000 households across the country. Get ready for a sharp crack in your first illusion. The UPA government,through its economic spokesman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, has sold us the bait that poverty has gone down under its watch.

Fact: the number of people living below the poverty line has actually increased by a horrifying 20%. India had some 270 million people below the poverty line in 2004-5, when the present government took office. That number has gone up by 55 million, or 20%, after five years of policies named after the "aam aadmi" (common man) but shaped for the "khaas aadmi"(vested interests).

The economic map of India has shifted the axis of tension. The old notional north-south line that divided the country into broad politico-cultural halves is passé. There is a new poverty diagonal that separates the nation on a north-west to south-east arc. The India to the east is sinking towards Bangladesh and Burma; India to the west is rising, and becoming the stuff of popular aspiration and fantasy.If you want to know why Mamata Banerjee could undermine the rampartsof the red fortress in Bengal, pore over the ISI report. A stunning 14 out of Bengal's 18 districts are among the 100 poorest in India, after three decades of Marxist rule. The most indigent district in the country is not in Bihar, Orissa or Jharkhand, but in Bengal,Murshidabad, capital of a principality that once included the whole ofBengal, Orissa and a significant part of Bihar. When Robert Clivestepped into Murshidabad in 1757 after victory in the Battle of Plassey, he looked around in wonder and exclaimed that it was richer than London. Today he would look around and find women slaving away,making bid is at the rate of Rs 41 for a thousand, out of which the middleman keeps six rupees. In percentage terms, the rich pay far less to their middlemen.

Muslim-majority Murshidabad has a population density of 1,102 persquare km against a national average of 590. Among its constituencies is Jangipur. Its Member of Parliament is the present Finance Minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Marxists were pushed back in Bengal but won Jangipur, as the law of accountabilitybegan to extract its price? The job losses that could cross over ahundred million by March are going to have significant impact on voter mood. January saw a fall of 24% in exports from last year. Realists consider the Reserve Bank of India's projection of 7% growth optimistic.

Rising India might be under a cloud for the last six months, but Stagnant India has been in gloom for years. There is little coverage of this gloom since media is driven by advertising; advertising is interested in consumption, and the hungry do not even consume food. It is extraordinary how political parties shy away from decisive facts, and chase ephemeral ones. The extended BJP family is sending vigilantes to check on what the young are doing in their leisure time,but displays little interest in what the young really want — someoneto worry about their workplace. It is understandable when a ruling party shies away from the economy because it has no answers. Whyshould an Opposition party be averse? All it has to do is ask questions.

The political discourse, on all sides, is consumed not by issues that are relevant to the voter, but by posturing and negotiations for partnerships of convenience. The parties do not even pretend to have any ideology in common, or even a purpose that is vaguely similar.Everyone knows that the negotiations for office after the results will have little to do with the manifestos that will be printed before the elections. There is only one weight that will be placed on the scales of judgment, the weight of numbers. [The scales of justice have noplace in politics.] One is often reminded, while watching the pantomime, that when you dance with a bear you don't stop. Those who stop get mauled before they can walk off.

A friend reminded me of an even more appropriate aphorism, and was kind enough to add that this had become relevant to the whole of SouthAsia. The quotation was from the Bible of South Asian democracy, Alice in Wonderland. If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

All Religions are not same, but Fundamentalists Are

All Religions are not same, but Fundamentalists Are
By M J Akbar

Given the staggering backlog of cases that clog the Indian judicial system, is it necessary to put Sri Ram Sene chief Pramod Muthalik through the full rigours of the wrench? Here is a suggestion for cruel and unusual punishment that can be administered immediately: he should be forced to see a collection of item numbers from Hindi movies.

Alternatively, he could be subjected to six hours of solitary confinement in front of MTV. A serious study of pole dancing to the strains of Kaal kaal mein hum tum kare dhamaal might open his eyes. When those eyes are open, he might recognise that popular culture in India has moved far beyond pubs. Every government in the past two decades has endorsed this advance: the once-beady eye of the censor board now winks merrily at the exploding screen. The censor cannot lag behind the audience, or the entertainment industry will become defunct.

All religions are not the same; but all fundamentalists are. They share an aversion for modernity and a hatred of gender equality. It is entirely logical that the Ram Sene should find an ally in the Jamaat-e-Islami; their ethos is not dissimilar, no matter how different the imagery their rhetoric might contain. The same mindset persuades some maulanas to issue a fatwa condoning divorce through triple talaaq even when the husband is drunk. The very clerics who will damn you to eternal hellfire for touching alcohol are ready to rationalise any diktat that amounts to subjugation of women. Eminent Islamic scholars have repeatedly proved that instant triple talaaq is bad in Islamic law, and such variations even worse. Islam institutionalised the rights of women; such distortions are at variance to its liberating spirit. But the issue is not law: this is conservative, male domination over women.

Sex, or an ugly offshoot, vulgarity, is not modernity. Since sex began with Adam, it must be as old as existence. The pub, or tavern, can claim a bit of antiquity as well. The four principles of a modern society, which is a necessary prerequisite of a modern state, are gender equality, political equality, religious equality and economic equity.

India is one nation among the many who emerged from the ruins of the British empire capable of claiming the mantle of modernity. This is not because Indians are superior to their neighbours, but because the idea of India is better. Democracy, secularism, equality and freedom are an Indian's non-negotiable birthright. There is only one serious weakness: poverty has to be reduced at a much faster rate than the growth in prosperity. As long as we are burdened with this wretched malaise called poverty, we cannot call ourselves a modern nation. Economic equality is a fantasy; but an equitable distribution of national wealth is a compulsion. A civilised nation cannot divide its people by a hunger line. Citizens must live in various categories of a comfort zone, and the most basic comfort is a full stomach. Freedom is incomplete without freedom from hunger.

The poor are never unreasonable. They do not believe that there is any magic wand that can suddenly make them wealthy. But they have every right to economic justice. When they find India rising, but they are not rising along with their country, there is envy and anger. The young men who become the club-wielders of socially regressive organisations are motivated by more than one reason, but a principal cause is denial of the liberties and pleasures that a disposable income brings. They may not realise it, but they want what they seek to destroy. It is a familiar paradox.

Social reform has not come to all Indian communities at the same pace. Groups like the self-appointed All India Muslim Personal Law Board have used evocative sentimentality and identity politics in order to block reform and gender equality among Muslims. They have received patronage from politicians with a vested interest in the status quo. But there is a new murmur among Muslim youth, who are ready to reject this false equation between identity and regression.

This is an age of information. If they cannot go out to the world then the world can come into their drawing rooms through the television set. They want to be a happy and creative part of a modern India: engineers, managers, technocrats, writers and sportsmen building the emerging nation around them. They will not be held back by the discrimination of others or the frozen minds within their own. For evidence, read the story of cricketer-brothers Yusuf and Irfan Pathan. They are the flavour of the present and the prescription of the future.

Appeared in Times of India - February 15, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The High Fives of the Big Five are over

Byline by M J Akbar: The High Fives of the Big Five are over

The release of Pakistan's serial nuclear-offender A.Q. Khan, afterfive years of house arrest, is concrete evidence of the dual narrativethat all nuclear nations employ over proliferation. There may besolemn sermons about law and security in public but there is heroworship of scientists who have delivered in the national, and, in thecase of Khan international, interest.

The hypocrisy is not limited to new arrivals. The official andoft-declared objective of America since President Dwight Eisenhower,who succeeded Truman [the President who ordered the catastrophicbombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki], is a world free of nuclearweapons. But Britain and the United States are the originalproliferators, although you will be sent to Coventry if you daremention such subversive truths. They set up Israel's nuclear weaponsprogramme by supplying technology and reactors. But the three holycows of the nuclear game, America, Britain and Israel, will neverallow even a whisper to arise in the public discourse of eitherIsrael's nuclear status or the Anglo-American alliance's culpability.Dr Henry Kissinger has just written a persuasive essay on the vitaland immediate need to check the growth of nuclear weapons [distributedacross the world and printed in the International Herald Tribune of 7-8 February].

He argues, "Efforts to develop a more nuancedapplication [of nuclear power] have never succeeded, from the doctrineof a geographically limited nuclear war of the 1950s and 1960s to themutual assured destruction theory of general nuclear war of the1970s". Today's dividing lines of ideology and regional conflict,rogue states and non-state actors, he continues, constitute a veryreal possibility of a bomb being used by stealth. The possibility ofpreventing such a catastrophe "will prove increasingly remote unlessthe emerging nuclear weapons program in Iran and the existing one inNorth Korea are overcome".

But everything links back to the cause-and-effect chain. Iran'sprogramme is a consequence of Israel's weaponisation; India wascompelled by China; China was certain that it could not be recognisedas a superpower if it did not create a counteroffensive response tothe Soviet Union and America; and the Soviet Union would not have gonenuclear if America had not displayed the might of the bomb at the endof the Second World War. Pakistan may have passed on information toNorth Korea and Iran, but Pakistan itself received help from China.The chain began at the top and the unravelling, if there is to be any,must also start with the top.

The implicit justification for Israel was its "right to exist". Well,in case the policy wonks of the West may have missed the point,everyone has a right to exist. It is interesting that Dr Kissingermentions every nuclear power except one: Israel. It is a convenientsleight of mind. That apart, he is clear-headed about where theprocess needs to restart. America and Russia control 90% of theworld's weapons, with America having a clear advantage in the numbersgame. Dr Kissinger also implicitly admits that Japan, South Korea andAustralia are weapons-capable; certainly the first two are respondingto North Korea's arsenal.

There is a silent consensus among strategic-policywallahs in much ofthe post-colonial world that nuclear weapons are the only guarantee ofindependence in the age of neo-colonisation. This, as much as Israel,motivates Iran. Teheran has watched America invade nations to itsright and left, and threaten Iran on a regular basis. The pretext isIran's nuclear programme, but there is a double paradox operating. TheWest might argue that the nuclear programme makes Iran vulnerable;Teheran believes that it is safe only because it is in the process ofbecoming a nuclear power. There is no certainty about the radioactivefallout from the destruction of its plants in Natanz or Bushehr. Thisfallout might not be so kind as to restrict itself to Iranianairspace. Dubai, the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iraq would be in immediatereach. Contaminated oil, anyone?

Is the alternative a gradual escalation in the number ofnuclear-weapons states, all the new entrants beginning theirenterprise for, naturally, only the peaceful purposes of nuclearenergy?

Not necessarily, although if the present duplicity continues that isprecisely what will happen. The first requirement is to expand theclub of decision-makers on this subject to a realistic 15 or so. Thiswould include the five recognised nuclear powers, the fourunrecognised ones, and those waiting at the door with a polite smileon their face. The dismantling of weapons, if that is considered apriority, cannot be symmetrical. The smaller powers will not surrendertheir deterrent to suit someone's clever numbers game. But the key tode-escalation is some form of security guarantees in which the threatof invasion by a superpower is removed from the range of optionsavailable to it. Will this be acceptable to those who have thecapability of invasion? One thinks not. Some very good arguments canbe made for intervention, including provocation by irresponsiblestates. But unless nations feel that their national integrity can besafe by means other than nuclear weapons, the stockpile of weaponswill continue to grow. If this argument works for Israel then it worksfor Palestine as well. Gaza and the West Bank may not have their ownweapons, but there can always be a surrogate arsenal.

Sometimes, the most important problems need the artificial impetus ofa deadline to move. There is one such visible. America is preparingfor a review conference on the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty in thespring of 2010.

Both the treaty and the world have changed beyond recognition since itwas first envisaged.

The Big Five will have to take a deep breath and ask one questionbefore they pepper the rest of the world with their queries. Why arethey the Big Five of the international jungle? Was there some divinedispensation that made China a member of this Five, smug with nuclearweapons and a veto in the Security Council, and kept India outside?The Big Five were fortuitous in being official allies, although onecould argue that the Indian Army, which fought in Africa, played assignificant a part in the Allied victory as the armies of China andFrance. Moreover, India was a colony, and had no independent right ofchoice between the Allies and the Axis. Be that as it may, what isrelevant is the contemporary world and not that of Hitler andMussolini. To lock the world up in the power equations of 1945 is notthe best route to the solutions needed for 2009 and 2010.

Those who have institutionalised their power always find an excuse topostpone its surrender, if they can no longer justify its continuity.

The rationale heard most often for the veto-nuclear-United Nationsregime is that it has preserved world order for six decades. This istrue only to the point that we have not blown the earth tosmithereens, for the world has seen more conflict after the SecondWorld War than before it. The point should not be lost on the Big Boysthat a noose has emerged: these "minor" conflicts have become thesource of major danger because nuclear weapons could well slip out ofthe tight monopoly of Governments.

The simple fact that A.Q. Khan was never punished is a message thatwill be heard by those who seek to emulate him.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Why blame Kalyan alone? He was foe, not hypocrite

Why blame Kalyan alone? He was foe, not hypocrite
By M J Akbar

Deathbed repentance is a charming philosophy. Is it designed to fool God, society or oneself? Since God can't be taken for a ride, and it is pointless making an ass of yourself, it must be society. Poets and seers (who cook up proverbs) have noticed. Hence: Aakhri waqt mein kya khaaq mussalman honge! (Become a Muslim in my last breath? Let me be the way I am...) And, more mundanely, Nau sau choohe kha ke billi Haj ko chali! (After eating 900 mice, the cat is going for Haj).

Apparently, plastic repentance still manages to generate a headline or two, as Kalyan Singh's sudden conversion to secularism indicates.

Kalyan Singh has not found God; he has only discovered a different denomination of voter. He has never asked UP Muslims for support, but thinks he knows how to: with emotionalism, not facts. He is titillating them with false humility.

The facts might serve Kalyan Singh better. He was never guilty of hypocrisy. The BJP had Ayodhya at the top of its agenda. As BJP chief minister he could not have stopped the kar sewaks. He accepted the dilemma between party and state and resigned.

The true guilt lies with those who promised to protect the mosque and then were deliberately complicit in the demolition. Hypocrite-in-chief was the prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao, closely followed by his home minister S B Chavan. A central force was in place to stop the destruction; it was kept on the sidelines. Rao, when asked later, explained that he had been asleep during the day. Rao slept, Chavan snoozed. It was such an effective snooze that his son has been rewarded today with the leadership of Maharashtra. The cabinet and Congress party acquiesced in the Rao deception: the cabinet was full of luminaries who would, doubtless, prefer their names to be omitted now from any column on the subject. Facts are injurious to votes.
Two politicians have the right to be critical of the Babri episode, despite later compromise: Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Congress may have been in power then, but Sonia Gandhi was not. She was deeply distressed by the demolition and did what she could to raise public awareness. The other is Mulayam Singh Yadav. As chief minister before Kalyan Singh, he was unequivocal in its defence. Mayawati was not in power during the years of the Babri agitation.

One fact, which would glare you in the face if you turned your face in the correct direction, is carefully ignored by the whole political class. The destruction of the mosque was only the beginning. The rest of a long story is the quiet construction of a temple at its site, although, in the courts, it is still disputed territory. In the last 17 years, every political party has been in power in either Delhi or Lucknow. Each one has sanctioned or condoned the use of state funds to strengthen the security of this functioning temple at Ayodhya.

It makes sense to argue that any attempt to take a technical and legal view, and to stop the functioning of the temple would cause serious ethnic violence, so such facts are best ignored. If that is correct, then every party, however 'secular' it may claim to be when standing at the loudspeaker, agrees, in practice, with the BJP that a temple should be permitted on the site of the mosque. The law can take its own course, or no course at all; popular sentiment will prevail. Why then blame Kalyan Singh alone?

If the Muslims of UP want to hold Kalyan Singh accountable, why are they being so lenient to those who became cabinet ministers under Rao as representatives of the Muslim community? Why have they forgiven A R Antulay or Jaffar Sharief, not to mention a host of dimmer lights, for not uttering a word of protest before Rao? One Muslim cabinet minister would, in less than the time it takes to whip out a green handkerchief, lace his face with woe, suck tears from his stomach to the brim of his eyes, and say that his resignation letter was in his pocket. It is possible that the resignation letter is still in his pocket; it certainly did not come out during the three years left of Rao's term.

Congress Muslims clambered over the dead stones of the Babri mosque in order to get promotions or places in the Rao cabinet. They sold Babri for a bowl of thin soup. If all is going to be forgotten, why should Kalyan Singh's sins be remembered? He was the opponent outside, not the enemy within.

Appeared in Times of India - February 8, 2009

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Riders to the Bank

Byline by M J Akbar: Riders to the Bank

J.M. Synge is not a name to send a modern aesthete into ecstasy, but in the days when English literature was taught in schools and colleges, rather than merely English, his plays were a standard text. Riders to the Sea, a moving depiction of the sorrows of fishermen who went out into the treacherous Irish Sea, was a personal favourite.

Like so many other perennially broke Irish writers in the first quarter of the 20th century, Synge preferred to live in Paris rather than Dublin. He had a good friend, Stephen MacKenna, equally penniless. When asked how they managed to survive, someone replied: "Oh, Synge lives on what MacKenna lends him and MacKenna lives on what Synge pays him back."

This story is the finest metaphor for the current state of capitalism and the equation between the world's most powerful governments and the world's most powerful capitalists. Capitalists are living on what the government hands out, and the government is living on what the capitalists pay back. The fact is that both are broke.

The obscene manner in which Western governments have gifted money to irresponsible banks and corporations, without demanding a hint of accountability in return, has finally begun to shock the taxpayer whose money is being misused by fatcats. Misuse is an underestimation. Some of the facts about the behaviour of American chief executives are enough to make anyone vindictive. I offer a sample:

* Wells Fargo, the huge American bank which got $25 billion in federal funds, planned to use some of it on "employee recognition outings" at luxury hotels in Las Vegas. I get it. You don't really begin to recognise an employee until you see him, or her, at a Las Vegas strip show or roulette table.

* Bank of America, which got $45 billion, sponsored a five-day carnival outside the stadium where the Super Bowl was played.

* Morgan Stanley, which received a mere $10 billion, parties at a three-day conference in Palm Beach, and was going to send senior employees to Monte Carlo and the Bahamas until the silly puritans called taxpayers stopped the dance. It is perfectly rational that senior bankers should hone up their expertise at gambling dens. They were gambling with their money, in any case.

* Citigroup, which was handed out $50 billion, flew out its former chief executive for a Christmas holiday in a company jet to a $10,000-a-night resort, just after it had sacked 53,000 employees worldwide. The jet was equipped with a full bar, fine wines, carpets, Baccarat crystal, Christofle silver and pillows made from Hermes scarves.

* John Thain, an auto executive, found himself in trouble for ordering a commode for the office that cost $35,000. Actually I have heard of an Indian fatcat who bought eight $20,000 commodes for his private use at home with office money, but then he may have got the same pot at Indian discount rates. So it is possible he is arguing before his board, if the board has the guts to question him, that he saved the company money.

In India, of course, we generally glorify and glossify, if one may be permitted to coin a word, anyone who steals shareholders' money, so commodes are small excreta.

But at long last, one can see the first glimmer of the common man's revolt against the arrogance, impunity and self-indulgence of the rich. Barack Obama, who is more populist than insurrectionist, would not have capped salaries of chief executives of funded firms at a pitiful half a million dollars, and delayed bonuses till funds had been returned, if he had not heard anger on the American street. One cannot accuse such executives of having lost their moral bearings, for they had no morals. What is probably far more dangerous is that they have lost their common sense. Wealth, individual and corporate, has removed them from the real world. They have been floating in a Paradise of bubbles and such has been their swoon of self-induced ecstasy that they did not hear bubbles burst even when their companies became beggars.

Feudal dynasts used to survive on the principle that they could never be mistaken, and if anything did go wrong it was someone else's fault. Their rights and lifestyle were impervious to change. Capitalism has produced its own non-hereditary royalty, financed just as the old rulers were, by public money. Elected officials have become the conduits through which a thin veneer of legality is accorded to the loot of public monies.

Since globalisation has turned the world into a village, it is entirely appropriate that we take an instance from Singapore, on the other side of the world geographically but very much part of the "West" economically. A high-ranking government officer, a permanent secretary, has enraged the country by boasting about having taken expensive private cooking lessons in France. Tan Yong Soon spent $46,000 (Singapore dollars, but still dollars) on his three-member family to become educated in the arts of high cuisine. This did not go down too well with his fellow-citizens, thousands of whom are losing jobs or taking pay-cuts to survive. The bureaucracy, among the highest-paid in the world, had no such worries.

The heat of popular anger is beginning to singe the wings of high-fliers. People want success without excess, and when Synge and MacKenna lend and return to each other they had better do it in cash that actually buys something, rather than IOUs.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Hatred can also become a need

Hatred can also become a need
By M J Akbar

There was no ambiguity in the press release welcoming Pranab Mukherjee to Colombo on January 27. "Minister Mukherjee's visit takes place at a time of repeated success in the security operations to free the civilian population from the terror of the LTTE, is in keeping with the tradition of regular, frank and constructive dialogue between India and Sri Lanka at the highest levels of political leadership, on important matters of mutual interest."

Translated into Bengali, this is what it meant:

- We know you are coming because your ally Karunanidhi has to play to his declining Tamil gallery, but don't expect us to provide any escape route to the LTTE. Delhi is neither Big Brother nor Sugar Daddy. Our knees do not wobble when you clear your throat.

- We used the word "terror" deliberately. It is a word that has appeared often in your recent pronouncements. Don't you wish you had the chief of Lashkar-e-Taiba where we've got Prabhakaran now? He may be hiding behind civilians now, but he will appear within our sights sooner rather than later. If Karunanidhi doesn't like that, tough luck.

- Don't even think of offering Prabhakaran sanctuary. Surely your hunger for power isn't so ravenous that you have forgotten the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi?

- If you want to play games, stick to cricket. That understood, welcome. There is a lot to discuss about saving civilians, offering a political structure to Tamils and rebuilding the war-shattered north.

Mukherjee, foreign minister of a party that had once trained, armed and financed the LTTE, placed India's interest above politics, ignored any potential anger-lament from the DMK, agreed that Prabhakaran was a terrorist, negotiated a commitment on civilians trapped by the war, and went home.

Paradoxically, Colombo has been able to succeed militarily and diplomatically precisely because it has overcome its obsession with India as an enemy. Hatred is also a form of dependence. Enmity becomes the sole definition of your identity. Colombo has reason for continued suspicion of Delhi. The UPA alliance is heavily dependent on the DMK, to begin with. But it has exchanged past bitterness for commonsense, refused to let animosity interfere with trade, benefited from the ensuing economic partnership and created a sustainable and equitable relationship with Delhi.

Contrast this with Pakistan, which continuously uses confrontation with India as the critical tool in the promotion of its self-interest. It sits at a poker table, using proxy war as playing chips and nuclear weapons as collateral. Instead of using the terrorist attack in Mumbai as an opportunity for cooperation, Zardari has formally upped the stakes with an article in the Washington Post. Its blunt message is, force India to surrender on Kashmir or terrorism will continue. India will not be permitted to use the Indus waters as leverage either, since water deprivation will fuel "the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism".

This is blackmail in correct English, for which Zardari's ghost-writer should be congratulated. Being blackmailed in good grammar causes less confusion. Zardari also linked Kashmir to Palestine, completing the loop thrown by Delhi's favourite foreign dignitary, British foreign minister David Miliband, who made a similar point on Indian soil and was then honoured with exclusive poverty tourism.

The end of the war against the LTTE has to become the beginning of a peace process with the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Delhi can be credible partner in the management of peace, precisely because it has shown the respect for Sri Lanka's territorial integrity and independence that must be the foundation of any relationship. Lifting any siege needs partnership.

Conflict is a man's disease. For six decades men - and one woman who was often called the only man in her Cabinet - have believed that they can redraw frontiers with the nib of a gun. Mrs Indira Gandhi succeeded in 1971, but Bangladesh needed a unique combination of circumstances, including an amazing election and extraordinary stupidity on the part of the enemy. When she attempted a repeat in Sri Lanka with support for Prabhakaran, India, and her son Rajiv, paid a heartbreaking price. An age may be coming to an end with the defeat of Prabhakaran.

The transition to cooperation will be the principal challenge of inter-nation relations in South Asia. No victory can last if it leads to the humiliation of the defeated. The lines of tension overlap so easily; kinship, loyalty and revenge can acquire primeval ferocity. Indian Tamils have a legitimate affinity towards fellow Tamils across the straits, but no bond can become a noose to strangle a neighbour. Confrontation did not work. Peace could.

Nehru's moral code remains the only valid political philosophy. Non-interference in another country's internal affairs was a cardinal principle of panchashila. War needs courage. Peace needs both courage and clarity.

Appeared in Times of India - February 1, 2009

The Public Faces of Power

Byline by M J Akbar: The Public Faces of Power

Dr Manmohan Singh is the Abdul Kalam of politics: both are admired among the middle classes for decency, integrity, education and achievement in their preferred discipline. Sometimes it takes a tragedy like ill health to evoke emotion, and the response in the urban areas to the Prime Minister's hospitalisation must have come as a bit of shock to the Congress Party, which had convinced itself that Sonia Gandhi was its only mass leader and Rahul Gandhi the only possible heir. Dr Manmohan Singh today is far more popular than the Congress president among the middle class.

But this popularity, in all cases, is hedged with a problem: there is what might be called insufficient ownership of their identity among voters. Christians do identify with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, but in demographic terms they are too small and too thinly spread. Dr Singh has never been a conventional politician from Punjab, while Muslims do not really think of Dr Kalam as one of their own. But Dr Singh and Dr Kalam are icons of an emerging, non-sectarian India that will come into its own, electorally, five or ten years later. Their support is largely among the young. It is a foolish notion that youth only wants youth. The young want someone who can offer a future, which is quite a different matter. Age is incidental, neither an asset nor a liability. Both Dr Singh and Dr Kalam are in their 70s. Ability, backed up by a successful track record, is essential. Tomorrow's electorate will vote on merit, not reservation.

That is going to be a problem for the Congress, which cannot think outside hereditary reservation when it comes to a post-Manmohan Prime Minister. On the eve of going to hospital for his heart treatment Dr Singh did what was proper, and nominated his senior-most colleague in the Cabinet, Pranab Mukherjee, as the person who would stand in for him during the crucial hours under anaesthesia and for the period of his convalescence. It seems that Mrs Sonia Gandhi was unable to live with the minimalist necessity of Mukherjee becoming the public face of Government at the Republic Day parade and functions. This would mean televisual presence, sending a signal that Mukherjee was the natural successor to Dr Singh. Instructions were amended and the public face of power was distributed into a Picasso duality. Defence Minister A.K. Antony was given the high-profile presence at the Republic Day parade. He had one specific virtue. He is not a declared player in the Prime Ministers' stakes, a race that will open the moment the results of this year's general elections are announced. Pranab Mukherjee, on the other hand, is going to be an enthusiastic participant.

Dr Singh was not playing favourites when he named Mukherjee to stand in for him. Pranab Mukherjee has carried this Government through some difficult challenges in the past four years. His reward has been rejection. The Left wanted him as President instead of the insipid Pratibha Patil. He wanted the job as well. But Mrs Sonia Gandhi rejected the proposal, arguing that he was too invaluable in Government. If she meant what she said, she should have publicly endorsed Dr Singh's decision instead of amending it.

Veerappa Moily attempted a specious explanation, that there could not be two Prime Ministers at one time. He got it completely wrong. The last thing that the nation can afford is confusion over Constitutional authority while a Prime Minister is under anaesthesia. India is a nuclear power, but this is probably less important than the fact that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. There is tension between the two nations. Dr Manmohan Singh understood that you couldn't play politics with security.

Dr Singh's medical condition is a clear setback for the Congress. His heart condition will prevent him from campaigning as vigorously as the party would want. This is not a provincial election. This is an election for his job. The Congress, and the UPA, might need to offer a number two even if the number one remains in place. Rahul Gandhi has not acquired the gravitas necessary for the job, and those with gravitas do not seem acceptable to Mrs Sonia Gandhi because they would be a threat to her son's ambitions. Sharad Pawar, for instance, has already indicated through a spokesman that there is no reason why he cannot lead the alliance.

If Dr Singh is the Kalam of politics, can Kalam become the Manmohan Singh of the future? The thought must have occurred to someone. There is already talk that if the verdict of this year's general election is fractured, then someone like Kalam could be offered leadership of a national Government. This is probably far-fetched, but stranger things have happened. Who expected Dr Singh to become Prime Minister?

On a more realistic note, the Kalam projection is an over-stretch. The NDA has the advantage of clarity on who would be Prime Minister if it got the numbers, which is L.K. Advani, but then it must get the numbers. There is an "if" hanging over every destiny, which is what makes Indian democracy the most fascinating exercise in international politics. No election is a mirror of the other. The mood needs to shift marginally to create new configurations in the kaleidoscope. Aspirations might solidify into ambition if a regional party does exceptionally well, and the BJP under-performs. In Bihar, Nitish Kumar might even woo the Muslim voter by implying that if he gets enough seats, he could be the NDA nominee for Prime Minister.

The field is open until the home stretch, when the numbers will tell us which horse is the winner.