Sunday, July 26, 2009

Indo-Pak peace: Play to win, Mr Prime Minister

Indo-Pak peace: Play to win, Mr Prime Minister
By M J Akbar

If war between two nuclear powers is unthinkable, what is thinkable? States who sponsor terrorism have done their thinking: surrogate war, not easily traceable to its masters. This leaves India with a problem. Since we are a status-quoist power, without territorial ambitions upon any neighbour, our defence forces are what they say they are. Their purpose is to defend India's space and peace. Their mechanisms for offense are designed for counterattack, not attack. When we did attack in the special circumstances of Bangladesh, we left within four months of completing our mission. We had no territorial aims. Pakistan's armed forces, in contrast, still play war games whose end-point is Srinagar.

This is the strategic dilemma of Delhi: if war is not a policy objective, what options, including pre-emptive, are we left with? Conversely, the enemy can be sanguine that India will respond only when provoked by formal war.

One cannot argue, in principle, with Dr Manmohan Singh's bid for peace with Pakistan. India is slowly rising out of the quagmire of community conflict that sucked the air out of the three decades before he became finance minister in 1991. He wants to release the subcontinent from this debilitating, suicidal malaise.

Peace, alas, is too elastic a term; war is taut, specific. When Dr Singh looks for peace, he must be absolutely sure that India and Pakistan are searching for the same thing. Does Pakistan want peace in order to resolve a six-decade conflict, or does it want peace because its armed resources have been diverted towards America's war in Af-Pak?

In 1965 Lal Bahadur Shastri thought a little give would purchase a lot of take at Tashkent. In 1972, Indira Gandhi bought Bhutto's plea that what remained of Pakistan would crumble without her sympathy. She did not insist on a written agreement ending the Kashmir dispute along the Line of Control. Atal Bihari Vajpayee reached out to shake Pakistan's hand at Lahore, and got slapped in the face at Kargil.

In 1972, Pakistan accepted peace because its army was incapable of war. We provided a decade of rest and recuperation. The moment Pakistan's army was rejuvenated, in 1980, with American aid (after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) Pakistan resumed action on its eastern front. It armed and abetted an insurrection in Punjab, where it had no dispute with India. The cost was catastrophic: the tragic destruction of the Golden Temple, assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, anti-Sikh riots. The price of trust can be unbearable.

For Dr Singh, the gamble is on. He has staked vital diplomatic assets at Sharm el Shaikh. He cannot walk away from the table. Dr Singh can explain his joint-statement gambit only as an interim bet, not a final show of the cards. Poor drafting is an alibi, not an explanation; the written word is the sole value in this game, the spoken word is irrelevant. Dr Singh either gets up with massive winnings, or he ends up a pauper. The moment of truth must come, soon. If he can get explicit commitment from Islamabad on a deal left implicit in 1972, he will be a hero. If not - well, you do the math.

He has already done Yusuf Raza Gilani an incalculable favour. Gilani's credibility has multiplied to the point where he feels strong enough to challenge Asif Zardari. The ISI, not famous for doveish sentiments, has already planted a dossier blaming India not only for Balochistan but also for the attacks against Sri Lanka's cricketers in Lahore. The ramifications are unfolding. In the political calculus, Gilani does not have to do much more to survive. After all, what can India do if he does nothing? Start a war?

It would be unwise to forget that the Mumbai outrage, and the post-operation legal soft-pedalling against terrorist masterminds, happened under Zardari-Gilani's watch. Islamabad's first reaction to Ajmal Kasab's detailed confession, from defence minister Chaudhury Mukhtar, does not augur well: "The confession is made by a person under the custody of Indian jail authorities. It is no evidence." Did Mr Mukhtar want a statement from Kasab after he had been awarded a medal for valour in the custody of ISI? Pakistan is still interested in the least it can do, not the most. It will not be doing India any favours by arresting Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafeez Sayeed. It will be meeting its obligations under international law.

The Indo-Pak conflict was begun by Pakistan within six weeks of freedom because it wanted to seize the Kashmir valley from India. There is only one way to end it: a treaty in which Pakistan abandons its claim to the Kashmir that is now a part of India.

The Sufis had a wise theory: when you are trapped in a vicious circle, draw a larger one around it. The first circle will tighten and suffocate the government unless the prime minister can draw the larger circle of a final settlement on Kashmir.

Appeared in Times of India - July 26, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dulcet smiles in public, straight talk in private

Byline by M J Akbar: Dulcet smiles in public, straight talk in private

To get an Obama-Hillary promotion from “dormant superpower” to "active superpower” India needs to sign the NPT, which will force Pakistan to sign as well. [There is very little talk in Washington, incidentally, of getting Israel to sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.]

Mrs Hillary Clinton’s seamless public-posture-private-face skills, surely honed during the many domestic and national crises during Bill Clinton’s term as President, were put to admirable use during her visit to India. Her first visit to India, as Mrs President, was arguably her most important. It established the goodwill that her husband put to such excellent diplomatic use during his state visit. The ice that Bill Clinton broke became a tide during George Bush’s eight years. The jury is still out on whether the tide will recede, stagnate or become a flood.

A politician without public relations has to be terribly lucky to be popular. Mrs Clinton has outdistanced luck. She crafted her language with enough nuance to fool an advertising agency. Focused on the Indian need for appearances she de-hyphenated her visit from Pakistan and bracketed it with ASEAN. Delhi squirms at any equivalence with Islamabad, as an India-Pakistan itinerary would imply; its self-image, backed up by international recognition of its growing economic muscle, places India on a much higher status platform than Pakistan. Mrs Clinton surely recalled one reason why her husband was such a hit in India: because he gave Pakistan barely the time of the day on that subcontinental tour, stopping over only for a humiliating few hours after some rather desperate pleading by Islamabad. A hyphen with a neighbour like China is no problem for Delhi, as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia gauged so astutely during his breakthrough visit to India.

Mrs Clinton began by upgrading India from “emerging” superpower to “dormant” superpower, before slipping in the stiletto: if India wanted to be called grown-up it would have to behave like one. To get an Obama-Hillary promotion from “dormant superpower” to “active superpower” India needs to sign the NPT, which will force Pakistan to sign as well. [There is very little talk in Washington, incidentally, of getting Israel to sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.] India would also have to stop being, to use an appropriate term, defensive about the end-users agreement, a necessary precondition for arms sales from the sole technology superpower. If other nations purchasing American arms could find pen and ink to sign, why should India be exempted? Otherwise, dear Indian friends, you are going to be stuck with Sukhois in the sky while the Pakistanis get boutique arsenals at Wal-Mart prices, the cash for which comes from Washington in any case. Make up your mind, sleepyhead! If you want to become a strategic partner of the United States, the deal is crystal clear: India gets the partnership while Pentagon decides the strategy. That’s the way with Nato, and near-Nato allies like Pakistan. If India wants to be a near-near-Nato ally, keep the ink wet.

Friendship can always take a tweak or two, if required. America’s nuclear industry would be delighted to fulfil the Indian order for two plants, indented in the Letter of Intent given in September 2008. There is merely the little matter of insurance liability. Everyone remembers Union Carbide’s grinder through the courts after Bhopal. Which sensible corporation would want to shut down as a consequence of one mistake? Lots of mature, flourishing and indisputably independent nations place a cap on insurance liability so that a brave company like Westinghouse knows exactly what it is getting into. Moreover, if an Indian company like Tata or Ambani operates a Westinghouse plant, the insurance liability should be a local, not American, headache, even if the damage is through a design flaw. If Americans had operated the plant they would have discovered the flaw before the accident, isn’t it?

Who could argue with Hillary Clinton’s dulcet public smile and private straight talk?

I cannot recall an equally impressive American Secretary of State since Henry Kissinger, and, take my word for it, Kissinger’s smile was not dulcet. Hillary’s forthcoming book on diplomacy should have a working title: How to make friends in India and influence people in Pakistan. All through her India trip she dropped little alibis for Pakistan, and no one either noticed or cared, even when she explained away Islamabad’s duplicity in the case against Hafeez Saeed. The legal process tends to be time-consuming everywhere: we all know that, don’t we?

Language, the right choice of phrase, the selection of proper nuance and moment: these were Hillary Clinton’s great weapons. How unobservant of her hosts, then, not to pick up a lesson in the fine art of shaping opinion. The joint statement in Egypt is a problem. The people have questions. But the justifications trotted by Delhi’s second-tier power line have only made the Government’s dilemma worse. To accept that the drafting was poor was to admit error; what is poor for India must be ipso facto rich for Pakistan. This was compounded by an atrocious claim that the joint statement was not “legally binding”. International relations are taped to the written and signed word. That is why we hold Pakistan down to Pervez Musharraf’s recognition of cross-border terrorism in a joint statement. Even in the wasteland of the Indo-Pak dialogue, joint statements are the landmarks by which we negotiate the journey. They must be laughing off their heads and giggling across their bellies in Islamabad.

The Congress Party, sensibly, imposed omertà. Silence can do no worse than evoke a snide aside from media. Since a thick skin is compulsory in public life, such nicks leave neither a mark nor a scar. A twist-and-weave misstatement, on the other hand, can stain a Government’s reputation without cleaning the mess. But who can tell the bold and the beautiful that it is sometimes better to be cool and quiet?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why the budget brings a smile to Bengal’s Muslims

Why the budget brings a smile to Bengal’s Muslims
by M J Akbar
(In The Siege Within - Times of India column)

The most communal punishment you can inflict upon any community is to deny it an education. Ignorance is the other face of poverty. No one is illiterate by choice. Which child would bleed her fingers rolling a beedi in preference to a classroom?

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s provision of Rs 25 crores for an Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) affiliate at Murshidabad in Bengal is only too little, and not too late. You can only get a degree college with such money. But one college is a million times better than none.

Two objections have been raised in Bengal: that AMU is too much of a Muslim, and not enough of a university. AMU is, today, about as Muslim as St Stephen’s College is Christian. AMU graduates do not emerge flaunting special degrees in ‘‘Islamic fundamentalism’’. You could check this out with our Vice President, Hamid Ansari, who was both a student and vice chancellor. It doesn’t seem to me that he was either a member of, or presided over a secret society of Indian Taliban, during his days at AMU.

If the 1940s are going to be dragged into the debate, then why restrict ourselves to that turbulent decade? Do we really want to revisit the acrimonious debates about the admissions policy of Calcutta University before the 1940s? Should one travel fast forward? When we were students in Presidency between 1967 and 1970, a Muslim could not get a place in its Hindu hostel for the simple reason that the hostel was reserved for Hindus. One does not recall any major media campaign urging reform at the time.

Reform came because Indians wanted it, not because media wanted it. A substantial, if quiet, Indian achievement is that we have retained the best from our past and jettisoned, without any fuss, the worst. Compare this with a certain neighbour, which tends to invest in the worst and deny the best of its history and culture. Indians are sensible heirs. Just as other institutions have moved away from a certain pre-Partition ethos, so has AMU.

Destroying the good in the name of the best is an old and faintly odorous tactic of the artful saboteur. It is perfectly true that AMU’s academic quality has deteriorated, but it remains a far sight better than the proliferating private money-churners that pretend to offer an education. Thirst has outstripped supply, and mercenaries are filling the gap. Those who can least afford expensive education end up paying the most. If there is hunger for an AMU in Murshidabad today, it is because through two decades of Congress raj, three decades of Marxist domination and one decade of intermediate confusion, no one did anything to assuage this hunger.

AMU does have serious problems that demand urgent redress: there is no reason why any quality Indian university should slip towards a lower common denominator. Its administration is, at this moment, a scandal fuelled by sectarian politics at which Delhi is adept. If AMU is required to create affiliated units then it must possess the administrative ability and academic quality needed, otherwise it will be cheating the very Muslims it claims to serve. Rather than lifting its affiliates, the children could drag down the mother even further.

There is a potential paradox in play as well. Many colleges in Aligarh city and Uttar Pradesh have demanded affiliation to AMU, but it has been resisted in order to prevent any dilution of AMU’s minority character. This minority status has, in any case, been transferred to a gray area through an amendment passed by Parliament in 1981. Doubt seems to suit both judges and politicians.

Muslims would be making a grievous generational mistake if they turned AMU into the sole answer to their educational needs. Education has to be community-specific, and the principal objective must be quality at the school level. That is what will make Muslims capable of finding a place in Presidency or St Xavier’s.

The Sachar Committee’s statistics tell many a revealing story about Bengal. The state’s literacy rate is 68.6%; among its Muslims, the figure drops to 57.5%. The urban situation is better; the figures travel up to 81% and 66%. What is truly encouraging, however, is the quantum leap taken in school enrolment. By 2004-05, 82.8% of Muslim children between the ages of 6 and 14 were in school, as compared to the state average of 85.7%. Here is the evidence, if any is required, of the growing conviction that education is the only route to a better future. But what happens after that? The percentage of Muslims who completed middle school in 2001 was 26%. Those who finished the next level and became eligible for college were a mere 11.9%. Some improvement will definitely have occurred since 2001, but the pattern is evident. The higher you go, the less education you get.

That is why the Rs 25 crore Aligarh Muslim University affiliate at Murshidabad is not too late, although it remains too little.

Appeared in Times of India - July 19, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A statement out of joint

Byline by M J Akbar: A statement out of joint

A principal purpose of diplo-speak, and more particularly diplo-write, is to state the obvious. Platitudes are the daily diet of dialogue. Prudent officials wander from the obvious with great trepidation, and when tasked to create a new approach, they agonise over every word. Babur was wise when he warned, in Baburnama, “He who lays his hand on the sword with haste/ Shall lift to his teeth the back of his hand with regret”. This tenet of war is applicable to diplomacy. He who lays his hand on the pen with haste on foreign shore, shall scratch his head on returning home with deep dismay.

One sentence in the joint declaration issued by Dr Manmohan Singh and Yousaf Raza Gilani is going to hover over the future relationship: “Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.”

You do not need a dictionary to decipher its meaning. This absolves present and future governments of Pakistan from any guilt in cross-border terrorism, a scourge India has to face for decades. It is a commitment that governments should continue the process of dialogue no matter how much havoc a terrorist group from Pakistan creates in India. If this principle had been in operation last year, India and Pakistan could have continued their Composite Dialogue in December after the savage Mumbai terrorism in November.

It reverses a consistent position taken by India from the time Mrs Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and General Zia ul Haq financed and armed a massive terrorist upsurge in Punjab, even as his intelligence agencies trained and prepared young Kashmiris for a decisive “Jihad” in the valley. The role of the Pakistani state in this strategy of “war by other means” has now been documented in countless books and research papers. President Asif Zardari admitted as much when he said, very recently, that “yesterday’s heroes are today’s terrorists” — although officials tried to dilute the implications by suggesting he was talking about the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, they could not obscure the fact that he was referring to the hero-terrorist syndrome in operation against India.

There is no evidence, as far as the Government of India is concerned, that Pakistan has changed this policy. Terrorism remains its major export to India. The joint statement was signed on 16 July 2009. On 9 July, just seven days earlier, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna told the Indian Parliament, “Notwithstanding Pakistan government’s assurances to us, terrorists in Pakistan continue attacks against India.” If Mr Krishna was misleading Parliament, he should be dropped from the Cabinet. If he was reflecting the Government of India’s considered position, then one can only infer that Delhi had decided to delink Pakistani terrorists from Pakistan’s government even before the Prime Minister left for Egypt. Otherwise there would have been no consensus in Sharm el Sheikh. The delegation accompanying the Prime Minister, including Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, was aware of this change and party to it. Junior minister Shashi Tharoor was clearly not considered important enough to be kept in the loop, since, as he told a television journalist, the media had seen the joint statement before he did.

The Prime Minister has been very keen to resume talks with Pakistan, as he wants to expand his legacy. One can see some merit in this desire. The Indo-Pak gulf is infested with sharks. One treads with care. Some thought on how to handle the language would have given him what he wanted without compromising India’s options. Here is an alternative formulation, without the now infamous brackets: “No peace process can go forward without the support of the people, and people will not offer support until terrorism is eliminated, since they are its direct victims, as evident in the tragic events in Mumbai last November. The Composite Dialogue shall resume as soon as possible, but only after the Indian people are convinced that credible action has been taken against the perpetrators of the Mumbai havoc.” The second sentence is, in fact, precisely what the Prime Minister said at his explanatory press conference after the joint statement.

The problem is that press conferences have no status in international affairs; signed statements are the only documents that matter. Who recalls what was said before, during or after the Shimla summit in 1972? The signed agreement is what holds.

The Pakistani delegation used some very thin fudge to explain its impotence in the case of Hafeez Saeed, head of the Lashkar-e-Tayaba or whatever that terrorist organisation’s current name is. It passed the blame on to the state government of Punjab, run by Shahbaz Sharif, brother of the more famous Nawaz Sharif. Any reading of the government lawyer’s statements to the Lahore High Court, widely reported in media, would make clear that Islamabad was complicit, since the judges were not convinced that Islamabad was certain that the LeT was a terrorist organisation. There was deliberate ambiguity in the official stance. Moreover, action against a single individual would be inadequate. The danger is organised and spread across more than one network.

This leads us to a fundamental flaw in the joint statement, which may have escaped those who drafted it.

The text repeatedly uses the term “terrorism”. It is very easy for India and Pakistan to agree on terrorism. What they do not agree on is a collateral question: who is a terrorist? Pakistan still refuses to admit that any “Jihadi” who uses terrorism in pursuit of an independent Kashmir, or in support of Kashmir’s merger into Pakistan, is a terrorist. Pakistani diplomats and interlocutors repeatedly sought to condone the Mumbai attacks through the “root cause” theory. Kashmir was the root cause of terrorism, and therefore unless the Kashmir problem was sorted out (presumably to Pakistan’s satisfaction) terrorism would never end. America has bought this argument, because Pakistan has some excellent advocates in Washington. Should one surmise that Delhi is now nodding its head in the same direction?

Curiously, the joint statement includes a reference to Balochistan, lending implicit credence to Pakistan’s accusation that India is behind its troubles in Balochistan. If this were not the case, why mention Balochistan in an India-Pakistan statement? We did not make any effort to include the Naxalite violence in the statement, did we?

India may have gone to Sharm-el-Sheikh as the victim of terrorism, and returned as the accused.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Politicians can learn about change from Grandma

Politicians can learn about change from grandma
by M J Akbar

If you want to know where India is heading, check out the grandmothers. A chance flick of my television remote, perennially restless with boredom, took me to one of those imitative dance competitions that apparently keep millions transfixed in the name of talent. My reaction was a mere fix, rather than a heavy transfix, but that glimpse was sufficient to reveal the contours, literally, of a rising phenomenon. Preteeners, inbetweeners (that aggressive demographic segment between child and adolescent) and nubile fantasists were gyrating with enough sexual innuendo to embarrass a Bollywood choreographer.

That, however, was not the story. We are all aware that celebrity is the new morality and many young people will do whatever it takes to reach within camera-distance of glamour. Popping eyeballs in countless homes are, for the fetishists, a reason for celebration, not reticence.

The story was in the front row of the seated audience watching this televised show, where steely mothers and intoxicated grandmothers cheered every pseudo-sexual pirouette with increasing hysteria. The intoxication was not from something as pedestrian as alcohol, but from the prospect of stardom and its attendant wealth. These were not cosmopolitan-liberated women. They were from small towns, and had trained their children in the arts of public seduction to help them break into the glamour palaces of Mumbai. These mothers were not born in 1980; many looked four decades older. Their parents would have blushed if two flowers got too close on the cinema screen. They have abandoned this soggy morality, including its notions of dutiful sex, in their thrust for the material and sensual gratifications of an evolving multinational world. Do not sneeze at the upwardly senile; they are having fun.

A social revolution in values is visible across India, in public and private entertainment; in the lifestyle of campuses and the elasticity of leisure. Politics was and is economics. That is the core. But politics is also a cultural fact.

Culture, in its traditional and respectable manifestation, has been heavily influenced by religion, or religiosity, and the ethical codes it demanded. The grip of religion over identity has loosened, particularly among the majority communities that together constitute the Hindu population.

Religion remains a vital existentialist force among minorities because it defines the difference. And so, the use of the headscarf, or even the burqa, is rising among young Muslim women while young Hindu women are celebrating the fusion of western sauce with Indian fashion.

There is an internal logic, even if you may not consider it a justification, in the fact that the mosque, gurdwara and church continue to play a far greater role in minority politics than the temple does in majority thinking. This is why the BJP’s promise to build a worthy temple on the site of the Babri mosque now provokes a yawn instead of a war cry. Jawaharlal Nehru once called dams and steel mills the temples of modern India. The temples of post-modern India are malls, television studios, dance halls and stock exchanges. This new culture is edging towards a new politics, even as it tests the endurance of established virtue in the process. This is not to suggest that the establishment is dead. You can see its vigorous rearguard action against the liberalization of homosexuality laws.

A political party must, of course, spread its attention span beyond a single section of the electorate, but parties that become so embedded in their past that they cannot come to terms with a new and growing influence in public life, pay a heavy price in elections.The practical way of dealing with change is pragmatism. The BJP and the Communists are mired in post-electoral ideological confusion for a very good reason: they have an ideology. Ideology gets brittle when it remains locked in the fetters of its birth. Flexibility is always a difficult call for believers, and every debate about the exact degree of dilution necessary is an invitation to acrimony.

The Congress is comfortable because it replaced ideology with pragmatism in 1991. It can adapt its cultural and economic stresses according to circumstances, sometimes even at the same moment. It can represent the liberal face of the Delhi High Court judgment on Section 377 even while it conducts a placatory dialogue with the church on how far to go. Pragmatism gives it the leeway to shift its stresses from one problem area to another in its budgets. Pranab Mukherjee can switch the gear from urban to rural seamlessly and without internal dissent because there is no dictum in the party’s prayer book.

Matthew Arnold is a name that might, or might not, stir the memory of a student of English literature; he was not top of the class even among the great range of Victorian poets. Even fewer will have heard of his "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse", written in 1855. But forgettable poets can leave behind unforgettable lines. This couplet seems eminently suited to India 2009:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,The other powerless to be born.

Appeared in Times of India - July 13, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Monsoon Without Music

Byline by M J Akar: A Monsoon Without Music

There are two ways of checking out the state of the monsoons. You can always enquire from the meteorological department, and take their variable word at face, or faceless, value. The more pleasant option is to switch on the music channels of All India Radio; the radio jockeys of their Hindi film song programmes look out of the window. AIR has a fabulous stock of saawan and barsaat songs that it reserves for the season beginning from around the second week of June, its monsoon music.

There has been a faint edge of panic — or is it helplessness? — around the umar ghumar kar aayi re ghata and dum dum diga diga mausam bhiga bhiga songs this year. The clouds have not arrived with the customary charm of sky-wide turbulence. [I fear the onomatopoeia of the lyrics is beginning to affect the phrases of the column.] Mumbai’s radio jockeys can occasionally sprinkle a bit of moisture into their chatter, but those in Delhi are parched and in central India completely arid.

You can sense the onset of depression in the mood. The Indian economy escaped the international collapse because its capital was not tied to the world of capitalism. It is more dependent on nature than bankers. If the kharif crop is depleted, as now expected, the consequences will be an inflationary Diwali and bleak winter. The omens are ominous. The price of Lord Ganesha idols being prepared for the festival season is expected to rise by 30 to 40% over last year.

Pranab Mukherjee’s budget was not designed with a future drought in mind. It had an economic message and a political purpose. The man who was hailed as the best Finance Minister by the World Bank during Mrs Indira Gandhi’s time sent a sharp signal that his India was far larger than the stock exchange or the tie-suits who have usurped economic policy in the name of economic reform. This was important course correction. Pranab Mukherjee may not have been the principal activist in Nandigram, but he has absorbed its meaning. There is a growing feeling in rural India that the much-hyped economic reforms are a cosy arrangement between industrialists and the urban middle class from which they have been minused; their only role is to hand over their lifeline, land, as and when commanded to do so by the lords of industry and their obedient political servants. Pranab Mukherjee did not create jobs through an agrarian-industrial revolution, but he changed the internal equation of the budget. Rural India got 60% space instead of 40%. That is roughly equivalent to the demographic divide.

In ten weeks at least some of the industrialists who feel that they have not been sufficiently appeased by lollipops and cola could be thanking Mukherjee for having put some purchasing power into rural India. Nearly 70% of the telecom industry is now village-dependent. The days of cottage industry soap in small-town shops are over. National and multinational brands dominate the shelves. But we are not talking good news here; merely that without this budget the situation in rural India would have been much worse.

Urban India will be squeezed by a triple whammy: higher prices, lower production, fewer jobs, and retrenchment. Since the overwhelming majority of India’s working class is still in the unorganised sector, and the Left has done absolutely nothing to move beyond its traditional trade union constituency, the voiceless will be worst hit.

A crisis is visible. Why, then, does everyone seem so sanguine in Delhi? The absence of tension is easily explained. Politicians, of all hues, turn tense only when their jobs are at stake. Other lives will be affected; theirs will go on, in enviable comfort. Delhi soaks up the tax wealth of the nation under the excuse of some extravaganza or the other. This budget was no exception in its generosity to the home of the all-party ruling class.

If the monsoon had failed last year, the sound of alarm bells would have woken up every household from here to Washington. The next general elections are now too distant to disturb the even tenor of the recently-rewarded. The only signs of worry are on experienced foreheads — those of Dr Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, for instance. They have seen an India tortured by food shortfalls. The last serious droughts were when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, in 1998, more than two decades ago, and in 2002, when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. Nature’s seven-year itch is back, but excellent disaster-management and comfortable reserves have dimmed the memory of punishing food shortages. Most MPs, particularly the younger lot, tend to lapse into a complacent confidence. The careful and the experienced understand the value of precaution.

Urban and rural are not homogenous labels. At the very least there is the hunger line divide in both categories, with poverty being more intense in rural India. More than half of rural India is still beyond the reach of Mukherjee’s allotments. Governments are always reluctant to admit the truth of poverty; numbers below the poverty line have actually risen in the last five years in absolute terms. The poorest suffer the most in any weather. There is no music in their brief lives; they are outside the range of the radio of all-India.

We can continue to ignore this nether India, but are we sure that it will continue to ignore our self-satisfied approach? How many times do Naxalites have to blast our police-protected comfort zones for us to get the message? Pranab Mukherjee has seen what Nandigram did to the most entrenched political system in the country, the Marxists in Bengal, before the elections. He has watched what Lalgarh has done after the elections. He has just taken a tentative step towards telling the India of budgets that those without budgets are knocking at the gates with axe and arrow.

Another of AIR’s favourite monsoon songs is the Jaya Bhaduri number Ab ke sajan saawan mein, aag lagi jiwan mein. This year, the fire, which once spoke of love, might have a totally new connotation.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Does Justice matter after 17 Years?

Does Justice matter after 17 Years?
By M J Akbar

The first inquiry into the demolition of the Babri mosque on December 6, 1992 was completed within seven days. On the morning of Sunday, December 13, Sharad Pawar, then defence minister, invited a group of friends and colleagues to the home of an associate MP. He watched a film - live footage of the whole episode, taken by some government agency, possibly intelligence. Those antique reels should still be somewhere in the archives. There was little that any inquiry committee could have added about the sequence of events on December 6 that ended with the fall of the mosque by the evening.

The causes of this historic event were also a matter of public record. L K Advani's rath yatra was not a surreptitious journey. Indeed, extensive media coverage may have been part of the purpose, since he wanted to create mass momentum for his political project. Neither was there any secrecy when Congress laid the foundation stone of the temple to Lord Ram in the middle of the 1989 polls. Babri was a central theme, along with Bofors, of those dramatic elections. The 1989 BJP versions of Varun Gandhi were full-throated, not muted, in their slogans as parties sought votes with a rhetoric that has been subsequently banned: Mandir wahin banayenge! and Mussalman ke do sthaan, Pakistan ya kabristan! No one hid anything: We shall build a temple on that precise spot! Muslims have two options, either Pakistan or the graveyard!

Democracy is a volatile game played in the open. What was there left to inquire into?

All that an official inquiry could do was place a stamp of judicial impartiality on known facts. It did not seem strange, then, that Justice M S Liberhan, appointed on December 16, 1992, was asked to deliver his report in three months. If he had extended it to six months or even a year, it would have been reasonable. Why did he take 17 years?

The key actors were known and available. No sleuths needed here. Why did Liberhan take more than nine years to obtain V P Singh's deposition, and nine-and-a-half for P V Narasimha Rao's? Surely they were not evading his orders? Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti were ministers in a BJP-led government when they gave evidence. Former RSS chief K S Sudarshan appeared only on February 6, 2001. Rao could have said all he had to long before April 9, 2001, four years after he lost his job as prime minister.

Had the commission already served its first purpose by 2001? It had outlived Rao's term in office and thereby, ensured that its findings could not be used to demand Rao's resignation. Rao survived December 6, 1992 by the cynical expedient of buying out those he feared most, Muslims within the Congress. Some inside government were given promotions; most outside were inducted in a January 1993 reshuffle. Conscience purchased, life went on.
It would be interesting to know if the Liberhan Commission has disclosed the one mystery of December 6: what was Rao doing that entire day? Babri was not destroyed by a sudden, powerful, maverick explosion. It was brought down stone by stone, the process punctuated by the rousing cheers of kar sevaks.

So, what was Rao doing during those minutes and hours from morning till sunset? Sleeping. That is what his personal assistant said to the many agitated Congressmen and women who phoned to ask why the government was asleep. They were shocked to learn that this was, literally, the official explanation. Their agitation cooled when they realized that the party would have to pay a horrendous price if government was destabilized. Plus, of course, there were concrete benefits in silence.

There may not be a rational explanation for a 17-year inquiry, but there is a political explanation. Every government between 1992 and 2004 had a vested interest in delay. The minority governments of H D Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral could not have survived a day without support from the Rao-Sitaram Kesri Congress. (Mrs Sonia Gandhi was not party president then.) Neither Gowda nor Gujral would have wanted a report that indicted their benefactors.

The BJP-led coalition that ruled for six years had the guilty on its front row. Only Uma Bharti has been candid enough to say that she was delighted when the mosque fell ("I'm ready to own up to the demolition and will have no problem even if I'm hanged"). Justice Liberhan could have punched mortal holes into the BJP front row when it was in office. And so when he sought one extension after another, there was public silence and private relief.

Whether advertently or inadvertently, Justice Liberhan protected politicians on both sides of the great divide. There remains a curiosity question. Why did he not submit his report in 2004? Admittedly Dr Manmohan Singh was finance minister in the Rao government, but he had nothing to do with the politics of Babri. When delay becomes so comfortable, why bother?

Appeared in Times of India - July 5, 2009

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The dangers of political capitalism

Byline by M J Akbar: The dangers of political capitalism

Power is the pre-eminent value in Delhi’s value system. I was tempted to write ‘only’ instead of ‘pre-eminent’, when some passing sympathy for exceptions interfered with the syntax. A sidelight of this week’s main event reminded me of this basic principle of what might be called political capitalism (how else should we describe the culture of a capital?).

But first to the highlight; a sidelight can only follow.

Mamata Banerjee pulled off a spectacular budget on Friday. There is no doubt about that. She was always a master populist. She has now rounded off this quintessential virtue with just that touch of maturity that enables a politician to pole-vault over the rest of the tribe. Her visage was blooming with the confidence that victory brings; what used to be dismissed as querulous once had transformed into good humour. She might still jump a little over the top while pole-vaulting, but that is a manageable and even agreeable excess. She was very much a Bengali railway minister, distributing as much largesse as she possibly could to the people who made her railway minister, and reminding her voters back home that a successor to A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury had finally turned up in Parliament.

But she also made sure that it registered that she was the nation’s minister as well, parking a gift in every corner. Her railway budget was drawn up on a map of India much more than on a ledger. Politics was written all over it, and why not? A decisive turn in the Muslim vote had brought her to power, and she remembered that children of the country’s madrasas are also students who deserve discounted tickets. Her cultural appeasement (the Urdu couplet at the end, accompanied by the mention that she was speaking on a Friday) fell a bit flat, but who cared?

You can bet that even if some of her promises remain paper decorations a year later, the train line between Nandigram and Singur will be completed. The much-dedicated freight corridor might remain dedicated to the future rather than the present, and those SMS-es that the Railways have so grandly promised could end up as no more than a theoretical blessing, but that power station near Lalgarh will materialise. [Check this out: for how many decades now has Indian Railways taken your telephone number for further communication? Has anyone got a single call helping the customer in all these years?]

Mamata Banerjee has many points to prove in Bengal. Her strategy is uncomplicated: she is sending her voter a simple message. ‘If I can do so much for Bengal with control of just one portfolio, how much more will I be able to achieve if you give me the state government!’
She remembered that she was a member of the House in addition to being a member of the Cabinet. Every MP was given a chance to distribute some largesse through her ticket scheme for the poor. Sharp. There is no easier way of getting the support of the House. Amethi and Rae Bareli were mentioned more than once when the Santa Claus bag was opened. That was appropriate. She knew that all last-minute hitches in the Trinamool-Congress alliance were cleared by the direct intervention of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. It is always good in public life to make your gratitude public. Her triumph was visible on the ashen faces of the Left Front MPs. She reversed their attempts to disturb with a potent jibe: “What have you done in 32 years?” Since they did not have a credible answer they opted for retreat. They knew that this speech, being watched avidly in Bengal, was a major leap forward in the credibility stakes as Mamata Banerjee strides towards her real goal: to enter Writers Building in the heart of Kolkata as Chief Minister of West Bengal. With such nimble political virtuosity it will be difficult to stop her.

The great adage of political capitalism was not at work in the budget speech, but in a derivative. One cannot easily comprehend why Lalu Prasad Yadav chose to become the Left’s chief ally during the railway budget. Surely he does not believe that he is the permanent superstar of railway ministers, nonpareil and beyond emulation. Has he become a victim of the Harvard hype — the adulation of economic capitalists who lured into believing that he had turned into a miracle CEO because he fell into the trap of believing that profits were the only criterion of success? That is one man’s folly. But the political capitalism story lay askance of Lalu’s cracking self-image. It was amazing to behold all those suit-and-tie types who till yesterday were pumping Lalu Yadav up as the biggest balloon since man invented a ledger book, the middlemen who thought that Lalu Yadav deserved a separate chapter in the Harvard curriculum, the tour operators who ferried American students to guided tours of Lalu Yadav’s office and cattle-packed Patna grounds, suddenly seeing merit in the announcement that a white paper on his last five years was the compulsion of the hour.

When the mighty fall there is a thud gleefully recorded by media and transmitted to millions who take vicarious pleasure in the pop and crackle of a bursting ego. Why are there no questions when the sycophants who have inflated any ego into a monstrosity switch their attentions to the next object on their agenda? When Lalu Yadav became railway minister Harvard simply did not exist in his thoughts. On Friday afternoon in Parliament he was possibly thinking of nothing else. Who were the misleaders of this leader?

The misleaders are part of the record. Unfortunately, they are not part of our attention span.