Sunday, March 29, 2009

Battle for survival of the fittest unfolds

Battle for survival of the fittest unfolds
By M J Akbar

In a year when the rest of the country has forgotten him, Indian politicians are paying due homage to Darwin on the 200th anniversary of his birth.This general election has turned into a ferocious display of the survival of the fittest. As Darwin told us there is neither emotion nor kinship nor morality as the strong proceed to decimate the weaker of the species. The processes of the laws of political nature are a marvel to behold.

Loyalty is an imbecile’s begging bowl. Those who ask for it do not deserve it. The only measure of a relationship is strength. Where there is a conflict in assessment, the dispute is being put to test without reference to yesterday’s commitments. New alliances are impervious to anything but the calculation of a temporary bargain. Every duel is a cold battle, untouched by past dalliance, or the lure of future romance. Divorce terms are being negotiated without the door being shut on the option of remarriage.

Deals are being made, and abandoned at the first prospect of a higher bid. Trust has been abandoned with impunity in states as diverse in their politics as Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. Shall we just say that the last tea party of the season has not been held at Jayalalitha’s Poes Gardens. The kettle will keep boiling across the country till the final moment of nomination.

In an exalted tribute to Darwin, we should probably rename the Election Commission and call it the Selection Commission. The survival of the fittest is the law out there as well.

The conventional tools of democratic appeal have faded in the culture of self-preservation as the highest good. There is no point bemoaning the collapse of ideology. Convictions cannot survive in a junkyard auction. Ideology is too far a horizon. This election is shorn of even a new idea. Can you cite a single speech that has floated a new thought?

The irrelevance of every manifesto is obvious in the absurdity of its content. Parties are offering so many things free that we might as well do away with currency. There is insanity in the competition for handouts. How will any future government pay for what is on offer? Who cares? A ruling party’s promises beg the obvious question: why weren’t these offers implemented when the party was in power?

Politicians know that no one is gullible in their tribe. Every election is a Russian roulette: someone will end up with a brain injury if not worse. But their manifestos and speeches imply that they consider the voter to be a gull. But the glitter of the packaging cannot really hide the fact that there is nothing in the package. When the minorities hear that they will get reservations this time around they do not break out in joyous dance. The choice before them is not for the best on offer but the least worst. Their vote will scatter in the fog of uncertainty.

There is only one prominent politician who is not making any deal with any other party. Mayawati has clearly decided that the moment for deals is after the strength of every species has been revealed in the ballot. She is courteous to friends, offering them a decent dinner when they come calling. But she is utterly indifferent to any suggestion on seat adjustments. She wants no kindness and offers no generosity. She is contesting more seats than either the Congress or the BJP. There is a BSP candidate in nearly every constituency. Is this chutzpah? But there just might be a plan beneath the expensive bravado.

A set of statistics might give us a hint of her plan. In 1989 she got 9.41 % of the vote in UP and Congress 27.9. She had 13 seats and Congress 94. Follow the graph through the elections of 1991, 1993, 1996, 2002 and 2007: 9.44 and 17.32; 11.12 and 15.08; 19.64 and 8.35; 23.06 and 8.96; 30.4 and 8.84. She moved from 13 seats to 206; Congress slipped from 94 to 22. It took six elections for the chip effect to hit critical mass.

The obvious contenders are hoping to become prime minister in 2009. But there are three politicians who have time on their side: Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Mayawati. Each would like to do well in 2009 but this is not the year of their dreams. Their objective is to sow the seeds this time around and wait for the next elections which, in their estimate, are less than five years away. Age is with them now. They have to find a way of getting the country behind them.

Evolution, as Darwin pointed out, needs time of course, but human beings did not become the supreme species without intelligence.

Appeared in Times of India - March 29, 2009

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Banking on Bankruptcy

Byline by M J Akbar: Banking on Bankruptcy

Washington: Why did the Washington Post downgrade its business section when a crime story is always a great read and the best crime stories of America are now on the business pages? Add this to the many things one cannot understand about American media.


Who would have thought that the first word might serve as the last word and the first word would be uttered by George Bush? Bush’s plaintive analysis of the Greatest Crisis in Human History was pithy: “If money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down.” All right, not quite how Keynes or Galbraith might have put it, but elegance was not the issue when the Titanic hit the iceberg. One suspects Bush rather enjoyed the thought that the sucker might suck someone else down.


We tend to forget that “bank” is the first part of “bankruptcy”. Barack Obama’s problem however seems to be a bankruptcy of ideas. No one I spoke to — and among them were high officials of finance — is yet certain how the most powerful economy in the world turned into a cashless casino. Obama’s solution is to flood the casino with money so that the game does not suddenly stop. How much money? A trillion dollars, and more to come. What happens when the dollar starts to slip to the value of printing ink? China, which has invested heavily in dollars, is getting edgy. Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is not impressed by Barackonomics. He writes that Obama is squandering his political capital by replicating a solution even Bush abandoned: cash for trash. The Titanic might leave the dollar on thin ice.


Ordinary eyes see clearly what expert vision misses. There is rage on the avenues of America. The working class, increasingly bereft of work, was moving in busloads for a few days in search of bankers who had compounded their irresponsibility with the sin of drawing bonuses from dole. The pitchfork, once a weapon aimed at witches, is the symbol of anger. Ed Rollins, a Republican pundit who is a TV regular, reported the public mood succinctly: “They think it’s all occurring because of the greedy bastards on Wall Street and inept officials.”
Inept? Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s chief of staff was a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. Does that say something?


Citigroup boss Vikram Pandit has a nickname: Pandit the Bandit. He has just begun renovating his offices, at a cost of $10 million. He will get a sub-zero refrigerator as opposed, one presumes, to the above-zero machines available in the country of his origin. He will also get “premium millwork”. No one knows what this means, but I can see Indian chief executives calling up their interior decorators.


Add a new word to your conversation. Hyperopia. Fear is making people look so far ahead that they cannot enjoy the present.


Why are American TV anchors so fond of redundancy? Why have they begun to say, particularly on CNN, “take a listen” when “listen” is perfectly serviceable? Is “take” more virile? The only explanation is that TV anchors are so in love with their voices that they will not give up a chance to squeeze an extra three seconds.


Bankers are not the only fatcats. John Clay of the World Wildlife Fund informs us that the American cat eats more fish each year than the African human being. On top of this the cat eats chicken and beef. Will fatcats be affected by the fact that the American economy has shrunk by 6.3%?


A cartoon by Mike Luckovich in Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes gallows humour to the gallows. A banker, with a grin and a bonus bag, is standing outside a cave in Afghanistan. An irate Osama berates him: “Find your own cave...”


Barack Obama has earned, so far, $8,605,429 from book royalties. That’s fair reward for the journey to the White House from a madrasa in Indonesia. Tom Friedman has sold 12 million copies of his flat earth thesis without ever wanting to become President. On purely partisan grounds, including professional kinship and personal friendship, I declare Tom the winner of the royalties contest.

Both are getting ideological competition from a surprising source: John O’Hara. The Grapes of Wrath, a huge indictment of materialism published in the 1930s is the sleeper success of publishing. In 1959 O’Hara wrote to his friend Adlai Stevenson, the great icon of liberals, “If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”


Obama got half a million dollars for the children’s rights of his memoirs. But what do children really read? The boy in the lift of my Washington hotel was not old enough to be in double digits. I was impressed: he had a book in his hands. I asked what he was reading. “A kind of funny book.” Title? “Five People Who Died During Sex”. Wasn’t he a bit young for such intellectual stimulation? “Oh,” he replied unfazed, “it’s about a lot of things... Paranoid rulers...” His floor came and he went off. If he understood the meaning of paranoia, sex should be no problem.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Don’t take the Indian voters’ silence lightly

Don’t take the Indian voters’ silence lightly
By M J Akbar

We confuse elections with noise. In truth a great silence descends upon India the moment the Election Commission rings the starting bell. Media amplifies the jangling nerves of a candidate into a scream but how do you cover the silence of the voter?

The anonymity of the opinion poll is one method. But the Indian electorate has now become the most secretive in the world, and if he does not unlock his mind all the figures that emerge from surveys add up to no better than guesswork or, at best, a rough direction-suggester. John Kenneth Galbraith once suggested that the only purpose of economic forecasting was to make astrology look respectable. Some opinion polls make star-gazers seem prophetic. Perhaps, Jayalalithaa knows what she is doing when she asks aspirants for her party ticket to come armed with horoscopes. They are probably a more accurate guide than opinion polls.

The sphinx-like stolidity of the voter can be unnerving, particularly to a candidate who has lived largely in an urban drawing room. The immature can be so easily induced into hysteria. The likes of Varun Gandhi miss an important development of the last decade when they seek support by demonising Muslims. The Hindu voter has matured. He is now enthused by the prospect of a better life, a higher income and the promise of peace within which to enjoy that income. He has contempt for the politician who cannot understand what is so easily apparent to him: that you can either encourage the arsenic simmer of communal violence or you can enliven the throb of an expanding economy. You cannot have both.

This is not to say that we have eliminated aggression from our consciousness or our discourse. That would be self-delusional. Aggression comes particularly easily to the Indian elite, but it is equally wary of any blowback. It has, therefore, devised the strategy of passive aggression, exercising its sectarian or casteist prejudice in verbal assault, always taking care to ensure that the target is not within hearing distance. The elitist anger against Mayawati has nothing to do with alleged corruption. If corruption was a social sin, in Delhi very few ministers would get invited for dinner. Mayawati’s problem is that she is ‘‘not one of us’’.

The prejudice of 10,000 years is not going to disappear after only 60 years of an egalitarian polity.

Mature politicians participate in the clamour of claims and repartee, which is the essential menu of a democratic diet. But they do their real calculations in silence. If you want to understand what Lalu Yadav really thinks of the Congress, ignore the verbiage of the accolades he may occasionally deliver in praise of Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Check what he did in silence. He and Ram Vilas Paswan allotted just three seats out of 40 to Congress in Bihar. This was an assessment not by enemies but friends. Mulayam Singh Yadav does not really believe Congress deserves more than six seats out of 80 in UP. Mamata Banerjee had one seat out of Bengal’s 42 in the present Lok Sabha; the Congress had five. She sent the ultimatum in the new alliance and the Congress crumpled. Deve Gowda did not even bother to open negotiations in Karnataka.

Such dismissive treatment is not exclusive to the Congress. Naveen Patnaik did not think the BJP deserved an alliance in Orissa. Where regional parties see value they change their attitude: in Assam, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab for the BJP; in Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand for the Congress.

Never confuse the Indian voter’s temporary maun vrat with the silence of the lambs. This is the silence of tigers, as they pad noiselessly towards their quarry, shattering the air of the jungle only once, with a roar with the final leap towards the prey. When tigers feed only once in five years, the casualty rate can be terrifying.

Appeared in Times of India - March 22, 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Out of Balance

Byline by M J Akbar: Out of Balance

The last SMS on my mobile as I left Delhi was from a friend who has been watching cricket — on the field, not in the drawing room — for more than four decades. His SMS was either a cry from the heart or a joke, or possibly a cry from the heart disguised as a joke. It will be safe, he wrote, to conduct the IPL tournament during the elections as almost all the criminals in India will be busy contesting the elections.

Without dissecting the pleasantry with the heavy scalpel of bombast, consider this: if there was a vote on whether the cricket should be postponed or the elections, which way would the electorate go? Why miss out on a contest of skill and transparency when all we get in return is a murky game where a tribe of varied characters spend dubious money in a process that may not even declare a clear victor? At least the 20-20 rules do not permit indecision.

To be fair, democratic politics always needed money as a part-time servant. Unfortunately, the dependency has been reversed. Money now needs politics at its beck and call.

The most powerful people in India used to be elected politicians and the institutionalised bureaucracy. They were not well paid. Salaries have improved of late but are nowhere near private sector scales. However, authority was a proud compensation. There was some vicarious pleasure in seeing the fattest of cats purr before a joint secretary and meow piteously before a minister. Ministers would not deign to give appointments too readily. But equations have changed. Money has become an independent power. Ministers now seek appointments from fatcats in the guise of socialising. The business-political nexus is now celebrated over pleasant evenings. Business expect and get decisions tweaked to suit their interests as a price of their contribution to the political kitty. If there is nothing called a free lunch there is nothing called a free general election either.

Uncertainty over results has fuelled inflationary pressures. The present government purchased an extra year of life by buying MPs during the nuclear debate. The current talk in Delhi is that the next government may need a hire purchase system from inception.

If neither the BJP nor the Congress has enough seats to provide a stable core to the next coalition, Delhi could well become, at least temporarily, the most exciting auction house in the world.

Dr Manmohan Singh is said to have despaired privately of the amount of leeway he had to give his ministers, both in his party and among his partners, to keep his government afloat. But he did nothing about it. I wish I was able to use, at this point, a hapless pun and note that there was no check on cheques. But politicians do not deal in cheques. All transactions are in cash.

A friend has suggested a solution. The only way to kill, or maul, this chequeless corruption is to demonetise all bank notes above 100 rupees. His point, and a valid one, is that if the American economy did not need a currency note above 100 dollars why should the Indian economy? All high value transactions would be by either credit card or bank transfers. High denomination notes had been introduced to facilitate the cash-driven black economy.

The argument demands attention. Sudden demonetisation would, for a start, bring down the circulation of black money since you would have to explain to the authorities how you came into possession of the cash you wanted to exchange for new legal tender. Additionally, bribes in crores would become more inconvenient. You would need trucks for transport and godowns as private safety vaults.

Why do I think there will be no takers for such logic?

Corruption has become a devilishly tangled knot. There is no option except Alexander’s system. You cannot untie its strands. You have to cut with a slash of the sword.

The odour of crime pervades over all systems, but the definition of crime changes. The whole of America is currently enraged at the unthinking greed of the executives of American International Group, the biggest culprit in the financial meltdown. It has decided to pay $165 million in bonuses to executives primarily responsible for the massive mismanagement. The company survives only because it has been gifted $100 billion of taxpayers’ money. The House of Representatives has approved legislation that would impose a 90 per cent surtax on the bonuses. The Senate could get more punitive. All America believes this to be a crime.

And so it is. But it is, to resort to an oxymoron, a legal crime. The bonuses were part of a contract and all payments will be by cheque which is why they can be taxed.

The greed in Delhi is within the safety zone of privacy. There is no tax on Indian corruption.

Our notes proudly flaunt the image of Mahatma Gandhi. Is this the highest form of insult to the Mahatma?

At least Vijay Mallya bought the Gandhi memorabilia with a cheque. There is, I know, an incendiary and possibly unacceptable SMS doing the rounds: Gandhi’s samadhi will now read ‘Hey Rum’, and he will be known as the Old Monk who walks with an air hostess on either side. But I suspect that the old saint in heaven must be blessing Mallya with a toothless grin. At least the money was white, not black.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tale of two nations: Indian order, Pak disorder

Tale of two nations: Indian order, Pak disorder
By M J Akbar

The most dangerous kind of lie is the one that has a tiny bit of truth mixed inside. As maxims go, that is not very well known. Liars do not advertise their wares, and the truthful are easily seduced. The broad space between honesty and deception is occupied by the gullible. To prey on the gullible is the politician's art.

Politicians in power have an advantage. They can segue the clout of office with the credibility of the medium to make a sale. The transaction is propelled by a primary rule of advertising: hearing is believing. Shoddy goods are packaged in the glamour of power. There is a catch, though. Those in power lose their capacity to notice when they have become stale, let alone putrid. Asif Zardari has long crossed his sell-by date.

There is a striking, albeit accidental, similarity between Islamabad and New Delhi. Both have governments on their way out without any certainty about what is on the way in. The difference in the transition is the story of the subcontinent.

The process in India is natural, orderly and bubbling with the excitement of many ambitions. Sharad Pawar is quite correct when he says that every political party can have its own candidate for prime minister. There is no divine right in democracy. Pawar is too astute a professional to have made his bid unless he was confident that the present coalition would need radical restructuring, starting from the top. The Congress has said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue; Pawar does not think so. Many hearts are beating more quietly, including within the Congress.

The contenders have been encouraged by the sight of NDA dropping a chunk from the side like an iceberg caught in Orissa heat. Every satrap is keeping all options open. Naveen Patnaik may have left the BJP but he has not joined the Congress or the Third Front. Sensible politicians know only one thing, that no one knows what might emerge when the verdict is read out by the greatest jury in the world, the Indian electorate. The array in India is in sharp contrast to the disarray in Pakistan.

Zardari has always used the dangerous lie to great effect. He used it to reach the president's office and then upgraded a non-executive post into an authoritarian outpost. The same tactic was used with Delhi over Mumbai terrorism; a little truth was fed into a massive cover-up to protect the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He bluffed Nawaz Sharif by promising an independent judiciary and then turned judges into a row of poodles on morphine. They obediently dismissed an elected government in Punjab, triggering off the long march of lawyers and opposition parties on Islamabad and the crisis that woke up the only uncle still sending Pakistan Christmas gifts. A phone call from Richard Holbrooke in Washington diluted the crisis by reversing Zardari's orders and castrating his role in government. It also indicated the degree to which Pakistan has compromised its independence. America has become the principal arbiter of its internal affairs.
Leaders depart when their moment is over in any nation, but in a democracy they depart with dignity. Delhi has, in my estimate, the largest collection of ex-prime ministers in the world - and given the likely evolution of politics in the next few years, more are on the way.

It would be dangerous if the victors and losers of the long march forget that the real danger to Pakistan still comes from the short march. The Taliban is only a short march away from Islamabad. The Taliban did not take Afghanistan in one swoop, but city by city. One is not suggesting that Pakistan is as vulnerable as Afghanistan was in the winter of 1994, or that wars between its politicians resemble the pitched battles between the various claimants to Kabul. But the fall of Swat is not a solution; it has become the fortress of a dangerous problem. Shopkeepers in Peshawar selling 'modern' clothes for women have begun to get the message and are fleeing to other cities. But is there sufficient space for retreat? Peshawar is less than 90 minutes from Islamabad.

A compromise that keeps Zardari in office but out of power is the application of a band-aid when the disease is cancer. Power abhors a vacuum. If it has left Zardari's grasp, then it can only gravitate back to where it has always been more comfortable: in Army headquarters.

Appeared in Times of India - March 15, 2009

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Forward to the 18th Century!

Byline by M J Akbar: Forward to the 18th Century!

Such is the uncertainty of our times that astrologers are searching for politicians almost as fervently as politicians are looking for astrologers. Both sets of professionals want to feed off the other’s core competence. To be fair, politicians are far more unsure than astrologers. Their nervousness is understandable. They have much more to lose.

A good indicator in the circumstances might be called the “Nerve Test”. Who is better at holding his or her nerve, particularly in the edgy matter of negotiating for seat-share in an alliance? There is not a single party of any significance without an ally; indeed, which is not in search of more allies than it has. Leaders like Sharad Pawar have made no secret of their position. Their electoral ally, whoever it may be, is only a stepping-stone to post-poll alliances that could be dramatically different. Pawar is being honest. At least half a dozen others have the same scenario in mind but will not go public because of political or personal inhibitions. They do not know who among them will win the lottery, but each one is clutching a ticket.

Sixty years of democracy has brought Indian politics to the 18th century in one crucial respect. Delhi does not determine the fortunes of the regions; the provinces decide who will hold how much power in an increasingly wobbly Delhi.

The battle for Delhi will begin after we have established who is the new Chhatrapati of the Marathas, the Nawab [or Begum] of Awadh, the Maharaja of Punjab, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Sultan of Mysore, the Maharaja of Darbhanga, the Rani [or Raja] of Jhansi, the Maharaja of Gwalior, of Bharatpur, of Vadodara — and of course discover whether indolent Bengal has fallen to the East India Company or not. It cannot have escaped your attention that the person on the gaddi of the Delhi court has absolutely nothing to say or do about the regional power-plays. He waits to be either retained or replaced. The decision is with others. That is precisely what the fate of the Mughal Emperor was for three quarters of the 18th century.

Regional powers will regroup after 16 May, when their precise strength will become clear, and an epic battle of Panipat will follow to determine the fate of Delhi throne.

In the interests of the nation’s nerves if not the politicians’, we can only hope that the battle of Panipat will be swift, sharp and decisive. It could so easily become a desultory squabble stretching over weeks.

Three politicians with a reputation for both temper and temperament are handling the preamble to the first round in a surprisingly cool manner. Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee can leave a trail of destroyed egos in their wake, but their legislators put up with them because they have the support of the voter. All three have one fixed, non-negotiable target. Otherwise, they are as flexible as the situation warrants or opportunity permits. Mayawati will have nothing to do with Mulayam Singh Yadav, Jaya with DMK and Mamata with the CPI[M]. Their opponents return the sentiment. Politics is personal, as it so often was in the 18th century during the long decline and fall of the Mughal Empire. They have no hesitation in negotiating with any other party, whether it is the Congress or the BJP. P.V. Narasimha Rao had a pact with Mayawati in 1996, a decision from which the Congress has not yet recovered. The Congress has not been able to re-enter the space it vacated for Mayawati, and then lost more. Mamata was in the Congress, broke away, became an ally of the BJP and is now a partner of the Congress [unless there is a last-minute collapse]. Jayalalithaa, who had a sharp remark or two to make about foreigners holding positions of power in India, recalled recently that Mrs Indira Gandhi treated her like a daughter in an effort to work an alliance with Congress. All three are unfazed by questions, or simply indifferent to accusations. That is cool.

Are they also confident? They are, but not over-confident. That is why they are ready to discuss alliances, but not willing to surrender more than a pre-determined number of seats. Mamata will not give the Congress more than 12 viable seats in Bengal, plus a couple which the Congress can never hope to win. Jayalalithaa would never have been as generous to the Congress as the DMK is going to be. Mayawati of course is engineering social alliances rather than partisan ones, in the valid assumption that voters are more dependable than parties.

It is the compelling draw of the voter that has taken Naveen Patnaik out of the NDA. An alliance cannot be frozen in stone. The base of parties either expands or shrinks depending on public perception. If a party feels that the votes have stopped being transferable, or that it is giving more than it gets, then tensions arise. The question in Orissa is whether Patnaik hopes to increase his share by dipping into the Congress vote or the BJP vote — or perhaps both. Such are the questions that make a psephologist rich and an astrologer go crazy. Clarity will come on 16 May when the secrets of the electronic voting machines begin flickering across television screens.

How many seats will the three ladies control in the next Parliament? If you listen to their lieutenants, their tally could be well in excess of a hundred. A more realistic assessment would keep them somewhat short of three figures. Mamata Banerjee’s ambition is to decimate the Left Front in this election and demolish it in the Assembly polls so that she can become Chief Minister of Bengal. Not easy, but no one said politics was nursery rhyme. The other two have been there, done that. Mayawati is the other regional satrap, apart from Pawar, who has announced her bid for Prime Minister. Jayalalithaa never rejects the possibility.

Such is fluidity of fortune in a year of open relationships, bereft of commitment, that even “impossibles” are trying to smuggle themselves into the “possibles” category. Hearts will burn, of course, by the time a winner is declared. The great role models of the “possibles” are Inder Gujral and H.D. Deve Gowda, who became Prime Ministers out of some conjurer’s hat. Dr Manmohan Singh at least had a substantive party behind him. The mavericks might want to remember how brief those Governments were, and the price that the economy had to pay for instability and uncertainty. 2009 is a year when the country needs a stable Government as rarely before.

If politicians do not care, the voter should.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Flawed Idea

A Flawed Idea
By M J Akbar

Indians and Pakistanis are the same people. Why then have the two nations moved on such divergent arcs over the last six decades? The idea of India is stronger than the Indian, and the idea of Pakistan weaker than the Pakistani. Multi-religious, multi-ethnic, secular, democratic India was an idea that belonged to the future; one-dimensional Pakistan was a concept borrowed from the fears of the past. India has progressed into a modern nation occasionally hampered by backward forces. Pakistan is regressing into a medieval society with a smattering of modern elements.

Pakistan was born out of the wedlock of two inter-related propositions. Its founders argued, without any substantive evidence, that Hindus and Muslims could never live together as equals in a single nation. They imposed a parallel theory, perhaps in an effort to strengthen the argument with an emotive layer, that Islam was in danger on the subcontinent. Pakistan's declared destiny, therefore, was not merely as a refuge for some Indian Muslims, but also a fortress of the faith. This was the rationale for what became known as the "two-nation theory". The British bought the argument, the Congress accepted it reluctantly, the Muslim League exulted.

The Indian state was founded on equality and equity: political equality through democracy, religious equality through secularism, gender equality, and economic equity. Economic equality is a fantasy, but without an equitable economy that works towards the elimination of poverty there cannot be a sustainable state. India, therefore, saw land reforms and the abolition of zamindari. Pakistan has been unable to enforce land reforms. India and Pakistan were alternative models for a nation-state. Time would determine which idea had the legs to reach a modern horizon.

The two strands within Pakistan's DNA began to slowly split its personality. The father of the nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, thought he had produced a child in his own image, but his secular prescription was soon suppressed. His ideas were buried at his funeral. His heirs began to concede space to mullahs like Maulana Maudoodi who asked, in essence, that if Pakistan had been created to defend Islam, then who would be its best guardians?

After some debate, the first Constitution in 1956 proclaimed Pakistan as an "Islamic" state. It was an uneasy compromise. No one cared (or dared) to examine what it might mean. The principal institutions of state, and the economy, remained largely in the control of the secular tendency until, through racist prejudice, arrogance and awesome military incompetence it was unable to protect the integrity of the nation. The crisis of 1969-1971, and the second partition of the subcontinent, which created a Muslim-majority Bangladesh out of a Muslim-majority Pakistan, forced Pakistan to introspect deeply about its identity.

Perhaps the last true secularist of this Islamic state was the Western-Oriented-Gentleman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who came to power in 1971, preached emancipation from poverty and did not mind a spot of whisky in the evening. By the end of his six years in office, he had imposed prohibition. The ground had begun to shift even before the coup that brought Gen Zia to power.

Zia had the answer to his own question: if Islam was the cement of Pakistan, how could you expect the edifice to survive if the cement had been diluted. Islam became the ideology of the state, not as a liberal and liberating influence, but in its Wahabi manifestation: compulsory prayers in government offices, public flogging, the worst form of gender bias in legislation, the conversion of history into anti-Hindu and anti-Indian fantasy, a distorted school curriculum, with "Islamic knowledge" becoming a criterion for selection to academic posts. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided the excuse for the adoption of "jihad" as state policy as well as a medley of irregular forces, liberally funded by American and Saudi money. The madrassas became not only the supply factories for irregular soldiers, but also the breeding ground for armed bands that are holding Pakistan hostage today.

If it had been only a question of an individual's excesses Zia's death could have been a swivel moment for the restoration of the pre-Zia era, particularly since his successor was Benazir Bhutto. But in the quarter century since his sudden death by mid-air explosion, no one in Islamabad has had the courage to change the curriculum or challenge the spread of the madrassas. There are now over 20,000 of them, with perhaps two million students, most (not all) of them controlled by extremists. Worse, prompted by thoughtless advice, Benazir engineered the rise of the Taliban and helped it conquer Kabul. The children of Gen Zia are now threatening Islamabad. Sometimes a simple fact can illuminate the nature of a society. During the 2005 earthquake, male students of the Frontier Medical College were stopped by religious fanatics - their elders - from saving girls from the rubble of their school building. The girls were allowed to die rather than be "polluted" by the male touch. This would be inconceivable in India.

For six decades, power in Pakistan has teetered between military dictatorship and civilian rule. When the credibility of civilians was exhausted the people welcomed the army; when the generals overstayed their welcome, the citizen returned to political parties. Pakistan is facing a dangerous moment, when the credibility of both the military and politicians seems to have ebbed beyond recovery. How long before the poor and the middle classes turn to the theocrats waiting to take over? The state has already handed over a province like Swat to Islamic rule. Men like Baitullah Mehsud, Mangal Bagh and Maulana Faziullah are a very different breed from the mullahs who have already been co-opted and corrupted by the system. They have a supplementary query which resonates with the street and the village after 9/11: why is Pakistan's army fighting America's war against fellow Muslims? Any suggestion that Pakistan might have become a much larger base for terrorists than Afghanistan ever was is met with the usual response, denial.

On the day that terrorists attacked Sri Lankan cricketers, I had a previously arranged speaking engagement at a university in Delhi before largely Muslim students. I began with the suggestion that every Indian Muslim should offer a special, public prayer of thanks to the Almighty Allah for His extraordinary benevolence - for the mercy He had shown by preventing us from ending up in Pakistan in 1947. The suggestion was received with startled amusement, instinctive applause and a palpable sense of sheer relief.

Byline by M J Akabr: Arrows in the air

Byline by M J Akbar: Arrows in the air

What happens when Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party woos the Shiv Sena’s patriarch Bal Thackeray with cut glass and high-quality watches? Does Pawar become communal or does Thackeray become secular?

What do Rahul Gandhi and Sharad Pawar discuss when they are on a sight-seeing tour of the excellent work being done in Pawar’s factories? Do they stick to the welfare of the local community and the potential for agro-businesses? Or do they also discuss which one of them could become Prime Minister in case Dr Manmohan Singh thinks, once the votes are in and the verdict is the expected mishmash, that he simply does not feel healthy enough to carry the burden of a Cabinet that consists not of equals but of opposites? I can’t imagine that they would be saying “Pahle aap” to each other. In fact, a close confidant of Pawar, Govindrao Adik, might have indicated what is on the former’s mind by suggesting that Rahul Gandhi should be an apprentice — a sort of trainee Prime Minister — for ten years under Pawar so that he can understand the fibre of the ropes that bind this nation.

Sharad Pawar is not alone in declaring his bid for the Prime Ministership after the 2009 general elections. Lalu Yadav has not hidden such ambitions, although he may be hampered this year by the awkward possibility that his party’s tally may not enter double digits. The thought also seems to have crossed the mind of his Bihari colleague Ram Vilas Paswan. Leaders outside the UPA have been a shade more discreet, but lack of transparency should not mean that they would not grasp at the chair if the mildest glimmer of a chance came their way. H.D. Deve Gowda is surely checking up on the number of auspicious days in May with his astrologer. In fact, the only person not checking up with any astrologer is probably the declared NDA nominee for the job, L.K. Advani, not because he doesn’t the job but because he doesn’t want to be near astrologers.

Compare this with the situation five years ago. The parties that later created the UPA, including the Congress and its electoral allies, entered the last general election without anyone in the starring role of potential Prime Minister. Mrs Sonia Gandhi was hesitant; Rahul Gandhi was too young; and no one else was bothered by the thought.

What does this rash of potential PMs indicate? First, Pawar and leaders of the middle space between the Congress and the BJP seem quite confident that neither the Congress nor the BJP will get enough seats to become the uncontested claimants for the post. It is natural for a politician like Pawar to feel that parties against him — in this case the BJP — will lose. What is significant is that he should feel that the Congress is sinking. If Pawar thought that the Congress would get 160 seats, or even retain what it has in the present Parliament, he would not be wasting his breath or pumping up the expectations of his party.

He is also very certain that without a substantial victory the Congress will not be able to claim the office for Rahul Gandhi. He is equally sanguine that the present combination of the UPA will not get a majority on its own, and therefore will need support from parties in the Third Front as well as in the NDA. He is sure that his personal contacts will make him the magnet for the next coalition.

He is unperturbed by ideology. The principal glue of the UPA was a common desire to keep the BJP out of office, but Pawar has jumped across the BJP and moved to its extreme by reaching out to the Shiv Sena. It will be interesting to see whether this affects Muslim support for him in the coming elections. It would be illogical if it did not, but then logic is not always the main motivator for the electorate.

One reason why this general election seems enervating rather than energising, or even enigmatic, is because of a growing consensus in the political class that it will be a fractured House with no clear winner. The results of 16 May are seen as a starting point on the road to power, not as a destination. The game has begun for the result of the results.

Is there anyone in the current playlist who could change the nature of the post-result game? Yes. Mayawati. This is not the first time that she is being underestimated. No one expected her to get a simple majority in the Assembly elections. Conventional wisdom is giving her around 35 seats. This was the projection made by the Times of India, which had the honesty to call it an opinion rather than fool us, as some media continues to do, by publicising opinion under the mask of an opinion poll. But her formula still has legs. All her Muslim candidates — and she has got some formidable names — will get their community’s vote. Despite talk to the contrary, the state’s Brahmins have not quite deserted her. Some fluctuations in the vote are inevitable from election to election, but there is no evidence that the broad pattern has changed drastically. Her supporters believe that her tally will be closer to 50 than 35. She is also going to damage the prospects of others in a crucial state like Maharashtra where the big boys are not taking her corrosive threat as seriously as they should.

Memories are poor. We tend to forget that the incumbent UPA government was a post-election phenomenon, patched together after the results were declared. The election of Dr Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister was the surprise of the decade. Why should we be surprised if there is another surprise? Further thought: the prospect of the unusual should not blind one to the possible success of the usual. Since we are getting ready for a “surprise” we might be surprised if there is in the end no surprise. All options are possible. There could be many permutations before there will be a combination; and an existing combination could make permutations irrelevant.

The truth is that no one, not even someone whose life has been steeped in electoral politics, really knows what is going to happen on 16 May. We are all shooting arrows in the air, and if one of them lands on the target the lucky chap will pretend he has been an Olympic champion sharpshooter. Until the next elections.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fiction is much more appealing than sordid facts

Fiction is much more appealing than sordid facts
By M J Akbar

Charity, all too often, is a form of sycophancy. The rich give not because they feel for the poor but because they need something from God in an immediate transactional basis. They buy divine favour with donations. Sometimes such worship is less immaculate.

There was the odious case last year of fatcats queuing up to hand out dole to Kalawati, the widow of a Vidarbha farmer, because her poverty had been cited by Rahul Gandhi in a speech in the Lok Sabha. One hopes that Rahul Gandhi was as unimpressed as divinity for hypocrisy.

There is national schizophrenia and media dyslexia at the quixotic elevation of Indian poverty in Anglo-America. The Indian well-fed have perfected their formula: they exploit poverty when they can [witness how they generally behave towards domestic servants, mostly children] and keep a safe distance when they cannot. The English-speaking Mumbaikar finds it so much more pleasant to see Dharavi through Hobowood (what else would you call a partnership of Hollywood and Bollywood?) than stop at the great slum on the way to the airport. Fiction is so much more palatable than fact. It comes dressed in A R Rahman’s music.

Indifference is the respectable fact of contempt. The rich don’t quite understand why there is so much fuss about calling a child a ‘slumdog’, possibly because they treat their dogs better than they treat slum children. Is there a movie waiting to be made titled ‘The Capitalist Kutta of Malabar Hill’? One thinks not.

There was no antidote to the plague of puns on ‘dog’ that devastated the front pages of newspapers after the Oscars. You could see the agony on the face of the English language as it was tortured beyond reason, but that is minor price extracted by editorial creativity. The hype had only one explanation: we love the idea of winning even if it is through surrogates.

Mohammad Azharuddin, the ‘dogstar’, was welcomed on his return from Hollywood with a nation’s garlands at the airport and a candlelight dinner at home. The candles were a necessity, not a romantic affectation. This was life at the base camp: Edmund Hillary can’t live on the peak of Everest forever. The poor are very sensible. Fate is consistent, for them, not fickle; it does not promise fortune. Azharuddin’s parents clearly refused to invest the wages of passing glamour on upward mobility that might become unsustainable. Azharuddin ate with a satisfaction that he could not have felt for hamburgers.

The slum story of the year has appeared on the inside pages of the print medium. According to the Indian Statistical Institute’s survey of the country’s 575 districts, urban poverty was bleakest in Mumbai, the city that was being advertised as the future Shanghai. It added that the number of people living below the poverty line had risen — repeat, risen — by 20% in the last five years. Murshidabad, once capital of Nawab Siraj ud Daulah, described by an astonished Clive as richer than London when he saw it for the first time, is now the poorest district in the country, with 1.47% of people below the poverty line.

In a separate report, the United Nations World Food Programme says that the largest concentration of hunger in the world is in India: 230 million, or 27% of the world total. Fifty percent of child deaths are due to hunger. Nearly 43% of children under five are underweight, as compared to only 28% for sub-Saharan Africa. And, 70% of children under five are anaemic, a figure that has risen by six per cent in the last six years.

Television, that lightning rod of middle-class values, which screamed itself into a stupor over the Oscars, ignored these reports completely. They were not even awarded the courtesy of a crawler, the line of letters that trots by on news channels below the aggressive self-importance of the screen. No anchor had a question as to how numbers below the poverty line have risen by 20% in the last five years when every minister of the Union of India has proclaimed that the era of dross has given way to the age of gold.

But such facts are not televisual news. They don’t dance to the rhythm of music. Who shall dare tell the bloated that hunger is the ultimate siege within?

Appeared in Times of India - March 1, 2009