Sunday, January 25, 2009

More Food, Less Fear will win the Future

More Food, Less Fear will win the Future
By M J Akbar

Can you win a general election without winning the argument? Curiously, both the ruling coalition and the principal opposing alliance seem to think so.

The government has a vested interest in fudge. After all, there can be no opposition if there is no position. Its best hope is to muddle through the April-May poll and return with roughly the same numbers through a strategy of least resistance. What is less comprehensible is the response of the BJP. It looks befuddled before fudge. Instead of raising issues, its spokespersons throw pebbles. If you cannot clear a haze, the haze has won the day. The Left has been more successful in creating the tension of a debate, but its resonance is limited to a couple of pockets, while the Third Front is too thin to be considered a net, let alone a magnet.

This is going to be a cold election. Neither candidate nor party will be able to waft on hot air. If the BJP wants to succeed, it has to remember a key fact: the Hindu voter is outgrowing communal rhetoric. He wants more food and less fear. At the moment he is getting the reverse.

The Congress has one advantage: Muslims, its main votebank, do not vote for something; they vote against someone. This suits the Congress perfectly. It feeds fear to Muslims, and offers development to other electorates.

Success breeds imitation, but change, the slogan which dazzled the US in autumn, will be insufficient in an Indian summer. Frustration has stripped the Indian voter of illusions. Offer him change, and he will demand to know to what. Promise him a job and he will ask where, when, how and to whom. Americans gave Obama a pass on delivery systems and destination. The relevant slogan is not the one that defeated Bush the Son, but the one that laid out Bush the Father 16 years ago: ‘‘It’s the economy, stupid!’’

Since no government in its senses would want to contest an election on the economy when jobs are disappearing in cities and farmers are committing suicide in village, the Congress seems poised to offer a virtuous trinity of vitality (Rahul Gandhi), morality (Manmohan Singh) and nobility (Sonia Gandhi). The voter will, however, check for substance behind the advertising. The chief minister of the biggest Congress state, Rajashekhar Reddy, has become synonymous with sleaze. He has lost the plot. Or, more accurately, he has sold the plot to Satyam.

The arithmetic of a cold election will be determined by the sum total of regional numbers. The formation of the next government could depend on how well the allies, rather than the principals, do. The BJP’s partners seem more confident than the Congress’ friends. But such is the perceived fluidity of options that Pranab Mukherjee, Nitish Kumar, Jayalalitha, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Chandra Babu Naidu and Sharad Pawar see themselves as possible occupants of 10 Janpath. They may not agree on anything else, but they believe that neither the Congress nor the BJP will cross the 150-seat mark necessary to become the plank on which a government can rest. The politics of the Nineties and the Noughties has seen the rise of flexible morality leading to an explosion of opportunity.

Will the politics of the Twentytens be different? Yes. There is likely to be fatigue in north and central India with the insular dynamics of small parties, trapped in concentric rings of family and state; and a yearning for political formations that offer more than stagnant regional horizons. The next government in Delhi, like this one, might be less than the sum of its parts, rather than more. There are no institutional methods of re-nourishment once the leaders of small parties become vulnerable to age or accident.

You might then, with good reason, consider 2009 the semi-final election. The finals will take place in the elections after this, probably in 2012 or 2013, when the Congress and the BJP will square off in most parts of the country, sufficient to give one or the other over 200 seats. They will have younger, if not newer leaders, creating the base for single-party majorities again.

The debate will not change, because the problem will not have been resolved. Whoever wins the argument on food and fear in 2012 will control the decade.

Appeared in Times of India - January 25, 2009

Hope, but Carefully

Byline by M J Akbar: Hope, but carefully

Foreign policy is not made in a day, much less on inauguration day. The smiles that broke out in Delhi when President Barack Obama cautioned Pakistan that non-military aid would be cut if it did not curb domestic terrorism were premature. In any case, it is military aid rather than civilian aid to Islamabad which should be of more concern to Delhi, but the government in Delhi has become so dependent on the United States that it gets pleased with very little. An inaugural speech can only be peppered with markers that will slowly be fleshed into policy. But amateurs in Delhi have rushed to judgment where professionals fear to tread.

There was an air of simulation in the bluster with which Pakistan reacted. The boys of Islamabad know a charade when they see it; they are experts in the game themselves, after all. They don't need spectacles to read between the lines of Obama's South Asia policy.

Obama, still brimming with the audacity of hope, has promised peace all over the world and war in one corner: Afghanistan. Pakistan is not very competent in the disbursement of peace. Its expertise lies in the dissemination of war, by declaration or proxy, on enemy territory or the land of friends. And now of course it is fighting more than one war on its own soil. Pakistan knows that America cannot fight in Afghanistan without force, intelligence and logistical support provided by Pakistan. As long as this material situation does not change, America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America. Pakistan has decided to not merely extract a financial price for this support, but also a political price.

London and Washington already know what the price is, and are getting ready to pay it in some abbreviated form. Pakistan has begun with a tremendous advantage over India in the Washington diplomatic game. It engaged with the Obama campaign and the transition team, while Indian diplomats, taking their cue from Dr Manmohan Singh's near-obsessive love for George Bush, concentrated totally on Bush and the Republicans. This has been a great failure of foreign policy for which we have already begun to suffer. Pakistan has persuaded key advisers of Obama that it cannot fight the Taliban with its full resources as long as it has to simultaneously defend its border with India. The Indian threat can only be lowered with a resolution of the Kashmir issue. Therefore, it is time America and Britain persuaded India to discuss and settle Kashmir.

In an extraordinary manoeuvre, Pakistan turned around the Mumbai terror attack, organised on its soil. From predator, it refashioned itself into a victim. It used the war rhetoric from the Indian government to warn the West that it would pull out of the war against the Taliban. Delhi's hot air proved doubly insipid. It did not frighten Pakistan one bit, but it scared the wits out of Washington and London, who rushed to Delhi and leaned on it. Delhi succumbed. India has lost twice over through Mumbai. It has become a laughing stock at security conferences. And it has allowed what could have been a diplomatic coup against Pakistan to become a diplomatic coup against India. This is incompetent governance, not just abysmal security.

The British foreign secretary David Miliband was audacious enough to contradict India's Prime Minister on Indian soil, by saying that the terrorist attack was not sponsored by the Pakistan government, and that India had better do something about the core cause, Kashmir. Instead of snubbing him, Rahul Gandhi, Congress' proxy Prime Minister, took Miliband for some private tourism of poverty. British correspondents in Delhi have applauded Miliband for telling it like it is, throwing in a sentence that this is going to be Obama's line as well.

Hillary Clinton, the incoming Secretary of State, has already enunciated the Obama doctrine at her confirmation hearings in the Senate. The 'hard power' of Bush will be replaced by 'smart power'. This has been defined as the application of a "full range of tools…diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural" in the pursuit of American interests. Pentagon awe will be accompanied by nudge and arm-twist. By the time the twisting is over, Delhi might need a heavy bandage on the elbow.

Obama's policy towards South Asia will be controlled by the compulsions of a war he wants to win in a hurry, before fatigue and a rising death toll turn it into another Iraq, or, worse, Vietnam. The battlefield will not be Afghanistan alone. American forces might soon have to fight in the western half of Pakistan, from Karachi to Swat, which is already being christened Talibanistan (the eastern half still remains Pakistan). Americans have reached that curious state of mind in which they want to win wars without losing soldiers. Their military research is concentrating on the robotisation of the armed forces where even the infantry could become mechanical instead of human. But that is a long way ahead. The war for Afghanistan will be won or lost long before that.

Muslims across the world are taking comfort in the semantics of Obama's initial remarks. After being misbespoken to, and misunderstandimated for eight years, it must be a relief to hear correct grammar. Some of them have taken partial ownership of his presidency because he used his middle name, Hussein, while taking the oath. But the issue is not what Obama says. It is what he does.

Will he be able to get a resolution to Palestine except on harsh Israeli terms? Even if we ignore his campaign rhetoric — he could hardly afford to alienate the most powerful lobby in the United States — there are powerful interests protecting the expansionist reach of Israel. At all events, it will not be easy. Neither will be a victory in Afghanistan. As pressure mounts on him, he will be tempted to mount pressure on India through Kashmir.

It is going to be a complicated game, which might drift endlessly to a point where every side looks like a loser. Hope needs to be handled very carefully if it wants to remain audacious.

Monday, January 19, 2009

India and Pakistan are not neighbours. They are worlds

India and Pakistan are not neighbours. They are worlds
By M J Akbar

1947 divided us, but did not separate us. We still met, through family and media. Separation came with war in 1965, instigated by fantasists like General Ayub Khan and Z A Bhutto. It extinguished the flickering embers of trust. Walls of regulations were raised to block knowledge, and then vision. If you do not see a neighbour he is not a neighbour. There are no neighbours in the huge apartment blocks of Mumbai, only adjacent numbers.

The middle class Indian's true neighbour is America, sharing culture, language, consumerism, celebrity-worship and an insatiable desire for upward mobility. He knows more about the intricate processes that make Obama president than it does about the hop, skip and jump that Zardari used to acquire the same title.

India and Pakistan share a past but not a present; the future is vulnerable to imagined realities. Those with goodwill sell notions of excessive, even emotional hospitality. Those with ill will, the preponderant majority, provoke images of demonic horror. The young Pakistani men sent to Mumbai on a killing spree were fed on lies salted with evil; they had no independent reality check.

For four decades an investment in ignorance has nurtured an incremental interest in hatred. Pakistan has become a breeding ground for permanent war against India. Indians have developed a deep aversion for Pakistan. If a poll were taken in India asking whether Pakistan should be relocated in Latin America, the answer would be an unanimous yes.

Neighbours do not need to be permanent friends. France and Germany fought each other with a deadly bitterness that was once synonymous with Europe, but there was always individual, social and intellectual discourse between the two. Neighbours do not need to be equals. The US and Britain have been the best of neighbours since 1918, dining and hunting together. They have replaced each other as Emperor of Most of the World Worth Ruling, and the relationship has survived the trauma of self-appraisal. Neighbours may not share the same language, but they must know how to communicate, to understand what the other is doing, and why. Peace is impossible without understanding. The fog of ignorance only induces conflict through the illusion of victory. Ironically, the real deception is that the deceiver never knows how much he has deceived himself.

Knowledge of the other is impossible without free flow of media.

Newspapers and television stations may be terrible, but they are not terrorists. They may occasionally bore you to death, but they do not actually kill anyone. Indians and Pakistanis can see CNN at the flick of a finger but not each other's channels. So what if media sometimes gets hysterical: it never takes too long for hysterics to make fools of themselves. Sadly, hysteria can also influence policy, so it is important to know what the other is ranting about. Moreover, information cannot really be kept in solitary confinement; it always dribbles out as misinformation. It makes sense to offer it as information.

I saw the January 10 issue of Pakistan's most important English newspaper, Dawn, purely by accident. Page 1 had a report from Lahore about five low-intensity explosions that ripped through five theatres. This was the work of the same fundamentalist minds that sent terrorists to India; their enemy was not just India, but any sign of modernity in Pakistan. No one accused these bombers of being RAW agents.

From Kohat came a story of heavily-armed Sunnis attacking a Shia procession with rockets. Five died. Communal riots do not necessarily need men of different faiths.

The edit page had a brilliant piece by Shandana Khan Mohmand. It asked Pakistan to get real, and acknowledge that terrorist organizations were sustained by popular funds. It also noted, calmly, that "Pakistan needs to accept a very harsh reality - it is not India's equal."

Far from being banned, Dawn should be made compulsory reading in India.

The United States and the Soviet Union also blocked information during their Cold War and paid good money to mislead. But distance reduced flashpoints to a minimum. India and Pakistan have become enemies cursed by a common frontier.

The ground has been frozen on the frontier into a glacier, but the air is still free, albeit polluted. If we want to clear the air - if - we have no option except to use that inconsistent broom called media.
Appeared in Times of India - January 19, 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flattery, please; who wants friends?

Byline by M.J. Akbar: Flattery, please; who wants friends?

One of the most instructive stories I have read about democracy comes from 1865. Just to place the date in context, America had just saved the Union from a civil war; Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated; Paris was in turmoil; the fabulous Ottoman Empire was rotting at the roots; and Delhi was still a ghost capital, being punished for the temerity of having risen against the British Raj. Only America, with partial franchise, and Britain, with limited franchise, could claim to have governments which were accountable to civilian audit in the form of elections.

John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, was an independent parliamentary candidate for Westminster that year. He was campaigning to extend the franchise to the working class. He was making his pitch before an audience when someone entered the hall carrying a billboard. On it was a quotation from Mill's Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform: "The lower classes, though mostly habitual liars, are ashamed of lying."

The proverbial thunderbolt had interfered, and it could have left the candidate dead. He was asked, had he written those words? Mill paused, but for only a second. "I did," he said. There was another pause. And then audience erupted, applauding, clapping, whistling, and stamping their feet in approval. Their leader, George Odger, cheered Mill with a classic remark: "The working class had no desire not to be told of their faults; they wanted friends, not flatterers."
Friends, not flatterers. If you emptied Delhi of flatterers and limited the political-bureaucratic ruling class to friends, the city's population would come down by 99%. It is pertinent to note that Mill got elected. The point of the story is not the honesty of the intellectual, but that of the working class. The electorate would have punished a lie. Obviously, not everyone was blessed with such virtues, but you have to be blind not to recognise the value system that made Britain, a nation of shopkeepers [Napoleon's phrase], into the 19th century's pre-eminent superpower.

They had a word for it, character. Character was a moral asset that combined honesty and loyalty to a fellow citizen or comrade-soldier. It is a reflection of contemporary morality that we have changed the meaning of the word. Today a character is either a chap with a tic in his metabolism, or a role in fiction, film or television. From a truth, character has changed to artifice.
The front page of every newspaper in Delhi provides daily testimony to the fact that Indian power politics is about flattery, which is why loyalty has overlapped completely with obsequiousness. The sycophancy may be marked in Congress, but other parties are hardly immune. A new low was reached when two newly appointed ministers in Jammu and Kashmir showed their gratitude by prostrating themselves at the feet of the party president, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. They did not ask her permission, clearly embarrassing her. At least the sycophancy was secular: one minister was a Hindu and the other a Muslim. Mayawati routinely demands cringing obedience from those hapless enough to have taken a favour from her, and uses humiliation as a political tool. Stories from the South are worse.

Such political culture does not encourage honesty. The fraud at Satyam is not a mere economic offence. It is also a political offence. Satyam is a Hyderabad story. Crooks who steal shareholders blind cannot do so without political patronage. Bankers – some of whose hypocrisy is matched only by their pomposity – hand out huge amounts in the full knowledge that the money is going to be stolen by promoters they cozy up to. The kickbacks are substantial, because the first principle of dacoity is that there has to be equitable (if not equal) distribution of the spoils. The slicing order of the stolen cake is this: company promoter takes the biggest chunk, politician gets the second bite, and banker nibbles at the third.

Andhra Pradesh is rife with thuggery. There is one business group which claims a Rs 1,800 crore turnover in steel. It has only one small problem. It has no steel plant. A second company has got contracts for irrigation projects from the Andhra government worth Rs 15,000 crores, but has a working capital of only Rs 55 crores. Do the math, and you know that there are ghost projects hovering all over the state. Another company in the same racket (co-owned by a ruling politician's son) has Rs 12,000 crores worth of projects on its order books and a working capital limit of only Rs 50 crores from a nationalised bank.

You might ask, legitimately, why newspapers do not expose this odious stink. The price of independence is high. When the chairman of the Eenadu group, Ramoji Rao, refused to be Andhra chief minister Rajashekhar Reddy's lackey, the state government went after his businesses with vicious ferocity. Every instrument of coercion in the state government, the union finance ministry, the registrar of companies, the income tax department and even the Reserve Bank of India, was used against Ramoji Rao's Margadarsi Financiers. When this did not break Rao, bulldozers were sent to demolish permanent structures in his Ramoji Film City on the excuse that they were built on land assigned to weaker sections. Quite clever, that: not only does Rajashekhar Reddy bludgeon the media, but he tries and milks it for votes as well!
The currency of political discourse has also been devalued. Confronted with a billboard today, the politician would have issued a press statement claiming that he had been misquoted.

Misquoted in his own book? Yes, of course; the printer did it. What he had actually written was, "The lower classes, though mostly never liars, are always ashamed of lying." It was obvious that the printer was in the pay of the Opposition.

But there is some hope. Corruption is the most venal sin in the checklist of the voter. Politicians might think that they have hidden the evidence by muffling or strangling the media. But you can fool all the voters only some of the time. Word travels, if not through print and audiovisual, then through the air, borne by the tongue. There is some evidence that no politician can erase: when there is theft, something has to be stolen, and in the case of irrigation projects it is the fact that there is no water where there should have been water for the farmer. Equally, the message is going out that those chief ministers who are clean will get re-elected.

Our saving grace may be simply this: greed for power will trump greed for money.

Indian politics is full of characters without character. The voter with a billboard is checking them out.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Blood does not sleep, stays awake as nightmare

Blood does not sleep, stays awake as nightmare
By M J Akbar

Saladin, the greatest of Muslim warriors, died of fever and old age on the morning of March 4, 1124. He was the iconic believer. Malcolm Lyons and D E P Jackson write in Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War, ''The imam Abu Jafar and al-Fadil were with him on the morning of March 4. The imam was reciting from the Quran. 'It is said that when he reached the words — There is no god but God and in Him I put my trust — Saladin smiled; his face cleared and he surrendered his soul to God'.''

On his last visit to Jerusalem, the holy city he had restored to Arab rule, in September 1123, he gave his fourth son, Abu Mansur al-Zahir, some immortal advice. As his son was about to leave, on October 6, Saladin kissed him, rubbed his hair fondly and said: be chary of shedding blood, ''for blood does not sleep''. He added, addressing his attendant emirs, ''I have only reached my present position by conciliation''.

Nine centuries later, blood has still not slept in that land. It keeps awake as a nightmare. No region in modern times has refused conciliation and invested as heavily in a nightmare.

Blood neither sleeps nor ceases; most cruelly, it does not discriminate between child and man. There is nothing new about war. But there is something new about the war raging on the sands of Israel and Palestine. Once, blood was lost on a battlefield, with honour. Blood is now spilt on the street. Civilians are no longer exempt from the havoc of war. Both sides target them, relentlessly. The difference is this: the Qassam rockets fired by Palestinians are crackers, pinpricks, compared to the overwhelming, bellicose firepower of Israel. Of all the images shivering into our consciousness from Gaza, none is more searing than the faces of children who have lost their laughter. Israel is building the foundations for war in 2025: children who are five today will be adults then. Blood will not sleep.

Israel has every right to protect its citizens, but there are grave dangers in a disproportionate action that punishes a population for the actions of a government. It is only the insecure who over-react, but why would Israel, with its overwhelming military superiority, feel vulnerable? Perhaps, after throwing a chain around Gaza and delivering maximum punishment, time after time, it is unable to deal with the persistence of defiance.

Defiance is courage, and courage is admirable, but courage is not victory. Victory too needs a definition, and it cannot be imposition. It must be justice, and equity demands that Palestine and Israel accept that neither will disappear. Both are nations. Facts demand peace, but fear engineers an essentially unequal war, its story told in cold statistics of dead, dying and destruction.

There is more than one reason why Palestinians are still in refugee camps and Israel is a regional superpower.

Gaza is imprisoned in two concentric circles. Only one is the blockade by Israel. The larger circle is a noose placed by cynical Arab ruling cliques who feed off Palestine's despair to perpetuate their own survival, using the alibi of conflict. When there is rage on the Arab street, as now, there is silence and wordplay in the Arab secretariat. Organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah have filled a vacuum created by military incompetence and pathetic governance. That is their appeal to Muslims beyond their borders.

Poor governance has created a knowledge deficit; and knowledge is the key to strength. An Arab friend sent me some startling statistics; the email was captioned 'A time for introspection'. Here are just a few: there are only 500 odd universities in the Muslim world. The United States has 5,758 and India has nearly 8,500. Literacy in the developed world is 90% against 40% in the Muslim world. If you removed Turkey from the list, the comparison would look grimmer. High tech goods and services constitute only 0.9% of the exports from Pakistan, and 0.3% from Algeria. They add up to 68% of Singapore's exports.

Men die for two diametrically opposed reasons: when they value what they seek to defend, and when there is nothing worth living for. Israel has created a state worth defending. The Palestinians must be given something to live for.

Appeared in Times of India - January 11, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Old Trotsky had a point

Byline by M J Akbar: Old Trotsky had a point

The best thing to have happened to Home Minister P. Chidambaram's proposed trip to Washington, in the dying days of a disappearing administration, is that it has been postponed. We all know that Chidambaram is a good lawyer when not engaged in politics, but what precisely did he hope to achieve in the last week of George Bush's unlamented rule?

He was ostensibly going to present evidence on the role of Pakistanis in the terrorist attack on Mumbai. Is there any paper in his travelling files that is so secret that it could not have been handed over to the FBI in Delhi? Chidambaram was going to talk, and therein lay a minor opportunity and a major danger.

Chidambaram might be justified in believing he has a persuasive tongue, but he might have returned with a problem, instead of solving the one he went to pursue. To start with, Washington does not need to be convinced that there are terrorist outfits in Pakistan that have India in their gun sights. They know this already. They deal with these groups, and have the most extensive intelligence on them, information built up not just during the current war in Afghanistan-Pakistan, but over at least two decades. According to one American assessment, Osama bin Laden has placed India at the top of the list of the world's soft targets, now that America has hardened its security regime. Washington has already accepted Delhi's line as credible. So the only subject for real discussion is follow-up action. This is where the dangers lie.

Chidambaram would have been the last foreign politician to do business with the Bush administration. Was this fortuitous or deliberate? Deliberate, I reckon. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is still bathing in the glow of a special relationship he manufactured with George Bush, and believes that Bush will be as loyal to him as he has been loyal to Bush. After all, in that unique opinion poll taken by Dr Singh, every Indian loves Bush. But Bush has no real authority to take any serious decisions, apart from whom to invite for a picture opportunity. Every strategic matter now awaits the arrival of Barack Obama on 20 January. There is no foreign policy issue more important on Obama's table than the Afghan war. His views are known: a big stick in one hand, and lots of carrots in the other. The "surge" has already begun, and by the middle of this year America will have 63,000 troops in Afghanistan. While the Taliban is being "tamed" on the battlefield, bribes will be liberally distributed to tribal chiefs to wean them towards the side of American civilisation. Pakistan is an invaluable ally in both operations. Its forces will be asked to sanitise those regions in Pakistan, which are a base for Taliban, while its famous Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (popularly known as ISI) will be invaluable in identifying the recipients of carrots. Obama will need Pakistan far more than Bush did.

No deal with Delhi, nuclear or strategic, can change a basic fact. As long as America is in Afghanistan, India is a friend and Pakistan is an ally.

This alliance has been integrated into firm institutional relationships, beginning with the Cold War when Pakistan bought into Pentagon goodwill by offering Peshawar as a base for spy reconnaissance missions across the Soviet Union on U2 planes. This was further honed during two Afghan wars, against the Soviet Union and now the Taliban, into an intimate interaction between intelligence services. The CIA and the ISI are sister agencies. The ISI first flourished when it became the major conduit for funds and arms to the Mujahideen against the Soviets. It now has some 10,000 regular employees on its payroll. Washington will not jettison this equation because of a terrorist attack in Mumbai. Organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toyeba have emerged from the murk in which a war with parallel, and occasionally shifting, loyalties is being fought.

The head of the ISI is clearly the second most powerful general in the Pak Army. Former ISI chief Ashfaq Kayani was fortunate enough to be in the right place when Pervez Musharraf first fell from grace and then fell from power. When the present chief General Ahmed Shuja gives an interview it is front-page news.

Washington gives the ISI and Pakistan a great deal of leeway in deference to ground realities. It understands that the political structure in Islamabad is wobbly at best, and it will do nothing to weaken it further by backing such Indian demands as may be unpopular in Pakistan. The FBI has already said that it is not interested in picking up suspects from the Lashkar-e-Toyeba, noting that Pakistan is quite capable of trying them in its own courts.

Washington could also place linkage on the table in any talks with Delhi on Pak-sourced terrorism. We have, with great difficulty and greater diplomatic consistency, finally managed to convince America and Europe to treat Kashmir as a bipartisan issue after the disastrous reference we made to the United Nations in the winter of 1947-1948.

Pakistan has responded to our diplomatic offensive after the Mumbai attack by seeking to once again internationalise Kashmir through the "root causes" argument. Islamabad's line is not very complicated: terrorism is fuelled by despair over Kashmir, so if you want to end terrorism, you have to solve the Kashmir dispute.

Washington would, in all likelihood, have raised this during talks with Chidambaram since it has accepted Pakistan's argument that if the war in Afghanistan deserves the full attention of Pak armed forces, then its security concerns on the eastern front must be neutralised by a settlement of the Kashmir problem. Ergo, settle.

There is a signature petition being circulated in the Kashmir valley at this moment seeking Obama's intervention, amid expectations that the new President will be receptive. He comes to office riding on a promise ("Yes we can"), but without that optimism pinned to any delivery system. It might take him 18 months or two years to realise that in Kashmir, "No we can't". It would be naïve to offer Washington an inroad into the Kashmir dispute before experience in office has taught Obama that intellect is not necessarily synonymous with wisdom.

The Soviet Union's first foreign minister and Marxist ideologue Leon Trotsky had a message that is still relevant to new leaders bubbling with hope and audacity: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Israel and Palestine have already started a war that is interested in Obama. He would be wise to limit Afghanistan's battlefields to either side of the Durand Line. Even good intentions can engender a slip into the treacherous quicksands of South Asia that would send us all into a toxic swamp.

I never thought I would write this so soon, but one is already turning nostalgic for General Musharraf: he understood the healing powers of the status quo.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Forget others, can we find peace with ourselves?

Forget others, can we find peace with ourselves?
By M J Akbar

The only good thing about 2008 is that it is over. What remains intriguing is the optimism with which we wish peace in a new year when there is none within view. We lost peace in the China war of 1962 and have not found it again. Since then blood has been shed in conventional war, domestic strife, communal bitterness, secessionist mayhem, Maoist insurrection and, worst of all, terrorism. If it was not the enemy without, battering at our integrity, it was the spoilt child within, ripping up stability with violent belligerence. Powerful politicians often nurtured this child in search of votes, and screamed like hypocrites when it turned into a monster.

In the fond hope that music is an antidote to depression, I have been searching for a theme song for 2008. How about this old Mukesh-Raj Kapoor number?

Aasman mein hai Khuda, aur zamin pe hum/ Aaj kal wo is taraf dekhta hai kum (God is in His Heaven, we're here on earth/ These days, alas, He gives us a wide berth).

The poet does not make facile accusations against the Almighty; he provides evidence: Chal rahi hain goliyan, phat rahe hain bomb.

If Raj Kapoor found the bullets and bombs of the Fifties troublesome, he might have given up singing in 2008. The first decade of free India was also the last decade of peace. We got so excited that we named Nehru the world's Messenger of Peace. Even Pakistan, after going to war in Kashmir within ten weeks of freedom, opted for the calm of the status quo.

It is axiomatic that the enemy will not attack unless he perceives vulnerability within us. China was encouraged by Nehru's complacent defence minister Krishna Menon, who thought oratory was a substitute for firepower. Gen Ayub Khan's hallucinations in 1965 were surely prompted by our military failure in 1962. Gen Zia ul Haq realized that India could no longer be defeated in conventional war, and so shifted his attention to the soft underbelly, the weak ring around a civilian India groping through complex socio-political challenges and aspirations. He exploited Punjab with malign dexterity; but it was our political class that let Punjab happen.

That is a quarter century ago. We have developed, since then, a fine military, become a nuclear power and, within the last decade, turned into a story for the business pages. Why does a terrorist organization sitting in Pakistan still consider us vulnerable enough to mount an audacious invasion, weaving its way through the corruption of our systems and the chaos of our cities?

Corruption and chaos are symptoms. The true fault lines lie elsewhere. In 60 years, we should have become a rich country with poor people. Instead we remain a poor country with rich people. Equality is a chimera; we recognize that. But a nation cannot abandon equity as the operative principle of economic growth.

Philip Larkin, the bitter-sweet English poet, once semi-joked that sex began in 1963. Ideology died in 1991. Britain discovered sex in social liberation. Ideology was killed when a laissez faire philosophy, fattened on the corpse of the Soviet Union, took over. I am no admirer of Soviet socialism; it was a dreary concept, fettered in bureaucratic aridity, and pumped up by pseudo-imperialism. But when the fetid bathwater was thrown away, some vital babies disappeared as well. Among them was the responsibility of government as arbitrator between wealth and justice. Delhi abandoned past policy with good reason, but forgot that the poor must be part of any rising story if that rise has to be sustained. Our upper world is the stuff of television, advertising and government claims, but there is a nether world of poverty, indifference and crime. It will not remain quiescent forever.

Time is not infinite. We measure history by the length of our lifetimes, even if our lives might merit no more than a sentence in future tomes. 2009 will be the last year of another decade. Can we look forward to a new decade of comparative peace? We may or may not find peace with our enemies. Can we find peace with ourselves?

Not until there is a political leadership as committed to India as it is committed to office.
Perhaps another line of poetry is needed: Nazaron mein lagi hai pabandi, deedar ki baatein karte hain! There is a blindfold across their eyes, and they talk of vision!

Appeared in Times of India - January 04, 2009

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Small boys, big game

Byline by M J Akbar: Small boys, big game

There is only one relevant question in an election year: who will win? The pundits have begun to get themselves into the usual tangle, most of the tangle created by the spin of bias. The right thing to do would be to admit that no one really knows, but that would reduce a column to just one sentence. Since pundits get their money from columns rather than sentences, this is an inadequate solution to their dilemma.

If they must stretch their wisdom to a thousand words, may I offer a suggestion? They are making a mistake by looking at the big boys. The elections of 2009 might well be a game whose result is determined by the small boys.

Allies, rather than principals, could be the key to the formation of the next coalition in Delhi. It will also depend on how many seats the Third Front gets, and on which side its partners fall if they have to choose between the UPA and the NDA.

The three major allies of the Congress are Lalu Yadav in Bihar, M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. There is bad news for the Congress in all three states. The Chennai street is buzzing with talk about a triumphant return for Jayalalithaa. Between the pain of family feuds and the disgust of unprecedented corruption, the DMK seems to have lost it. It is often forgotten that the DMK has been in power in Delhi for two terms, first as an NDA partner and then in the UPA. That is a lot of temptation for DMK ministers in Delhi to handle, and they handled it by succumbing totally. They may have begun life from the usual humble origins, and they could be out of office soon, but trust me, they will never be poor again — for many generations.

In Maharashtra the Congress is facing a double-whammy. There is a dip in both voter-support as well as in the cadre. The voters have shifted to the Opposition after two nearly-full terms of a best-forgotten chief minister, who has had, uniquely, to be dropped twice. A good section of the Congress cadre has moved to Sharad Pawar, who has been building his party as a regional force for the state, on the lines of Telegu Desam and DMK/AIADMK. He has nominated an heir, his daughter, and the next general election may see her shift into the Lok Sabha from the Rajya Sabha. His best legacy is not a victory in 2009, but a strong party structure that can survive the ephemeral phases of democracy. Pawar is sharp enough to see the future clearly. For 2009 is a transition, not a horizon.

The UPA bastion in the east is crumbling. Nitish Kumar, with the simple offer of good governance, has made substantial inroads into Lalu territory. Muslims are moving towards him in substantial numbers, and Lalu Yadav's traditional vote-bank rhetoric about the BJP will not stop the drift, since the voter has made good governance his pre-eminent priority. The Congress has the difficult task of not only preventing erosion in its own numbers, but also compensating for the losses that will be suffered by its allies.

Since 1991, allies have gained far more from alliances with the Congress than the other way around. Lalu Yadav has boxed the Congress into just four seats out of 40 in Bihar. When a party does not contest seats, it withers at the roots, which is what has happened to the Congress. Mulayam Singh Yadav will not concede more than 15 seats out of 80 in UP; Mamata Banerjee will keep the Congress down to 10 out of 42 in Bengal. Congress will gain in states like Kerala and Punjab, and could improve its numbers slightly in Rajasthan, but that will not easily offset losses in big states like Maharashtra, Andhra and Tamil Nadu.

One assumes that Congress believes it can use the BJP bogey to bring in the Left and Third Front parties into its coalition after the results. This will not be easy. The Left believes it has been betrayed, and abused, by Dr Manmohan Singh, inside and outside Parliament, over the strategic alliance with the United States. It is not likely to hand over leadership of any alliance it supports to the Congress. Congress might offer to prop up a minority government from outside, but other parties will recall what happened to I.K. Gujral and Deve Gowda. They might prefer stability to a temporary triumph.

The balance will, in any case, swing towards the alliance with the larger numbers. To be in play, the BJP-led NDA must deliver over 220 seats. Will that happen?

Why don't we let the electorate tell us in April and May? The pundit pontificates. The citizen votes.

Before we bury another year (this one with great glee) it is only appropriate to write an epitaph for 2008.

A word coined by the growing tribe of wordsmiths, and an email doing the rounds (both gleaned from the special Christmas issue of the Spectator) seem to be the perfect epitaph for the dreadful year just behind us. The word is quite a good one, not the least because it resembles an expletive: "funt", meaning "financially untouchable". But the email is more fun:

Socialism: You have two cows. State nationalises one and gives it to your neighbour.
Communism: State takes both and gives you some milk.
Fascism: State takes both and sells you some milk.
Capitalism: You sell one of your cows and buy a bull; herd multiplies, economy grows. Sell them, and retire on income.

Lehman Brothers Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at Bear Stearns, execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with tax exemption for five. The milk rights of six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights of all seven cows to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option for one more. You sell one cow to buy the President of the United States, leaving you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the press release. The public then buys your bull.