Sunday, October 25, 2009

Weak opposition and a sad state of Affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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