Sunday, August 30, 2009

Needed most: A strong Opposition

Needed most: A strong Opposition
By M J Akbar
Any democracy is hobbled without an Opposition. Are we condemned to replicate Haryana at the national level — where a government wheezes, gasps and limps triumphantly to the finish line because there is no other horse in the race?

Since the BJP has not finished its debate on 1947, it will be some time before it reaches 2009. With the Left neutered, and the Middle chasing its tail around a cemetery, what options does a voter have in the meantime?

The Left, which could have been taken seriously had it taken itself seriously, reminds one of an anecdote which should be better-known. The ever-punctual Comrade Gorbachev, who huffed and puffed so hard that he brought the whole Soviet house down, was once late for a meeting with a French delegation. He explained to his guests that he had been delayed by a problem in agriculture. When did the problem begin, asked the solicitous French. ‘‘In 1917,’’ replied Gorbachev.

Any democracy is hobbled without an Opposition. Are we condemned to replicate Haryana at the national level — where a government wheezes, gasps and limps triumphantly to the finish line because there is no other horse in the race? Haryana is not a particularly reassuring template. In the turbulence between 1967 and 1972, its ‘aya ram-gaya ram’ defections strategy infected democracy so badly that it destroyed the credibility of non-Congress parties. It is remarkable that Bhajan Lal, who once defected to the Congress with all his MLAs and the office typewriter, should still be a player in state elections. Now that he has allied with Mayawati, he can legitimately claim to have seen everything, been everywhere. She must have been a child when he was chief minister. However, nostalgia does not buy votes. Votes go to those who sell a future, not those who re-brand the past.

Nature and politics have one thing in common: they both abhor a vacuum. In some states, the Congress is doing its best to create its own Opposition. It has firmly rejected another pathetic overture from Lalu Prasad Yadav. Yadav has so much egg on his face that he can breakfast continuously from now till the next assembly polls. In Maharashtra, the Congress has begun to taunt its ally Sharad Pawar as the genie who bottled the sugar and opened the cap on price rise. The Congress is relishing a stalemate in which its primary intention is to make its mate look stale. Pawar’s reaction would make a sheep look sheepish.

It is useful to remember, however, that some sheep have been known to change their clothing at the opportune moment. The Congress has, cleverly, taken out some insurance by investing in the next generation: the daughters of Pawar and P A Sangma have a much better equation with Rahul Gandhi than the fathers have with Mrs Sonia Gandhi.

Although Congress numbers are less than half of what Rajiv Gandhi carried into the Lok Sabha in 1985, the comatose inertia of Opposition parties has convinced most Congress leaders that they can replicate Rajiv Gandhi’s achievement in the general elections of 2014. Moreover, the Opposition leaders are two decades older, some having fought their last battles and others in their penultimate round, while their leader will be fresh and 44.

More important, the major Opposition parties seem trapped in either geographical or ideological limitations, with their cadre having become part-asset and part-liability. Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose political skills should not be underestimated in a crisis, and who put them on display in a feisty performance in the last Lok Sabha session, has been unable to grow outside Uttar Pradesh. The ‘Yadav’ alliance with Lalu slips continually on the quicksand of the latter’s temperament. The BJP has reinforced its image of conflict by serial civil wars that are breathtaking for their irrelevance. The Left has slipped to a point where its candidate lost her deposit in a Kolkata seat because no one in Bengal understands what Buddhadev Bhattacharya represents anymore, apart from a fibreless diet of good intentions.

The situation is akin to 1985-86. But nature, averse to a vacuum, then threw up an individual to serve as a catalyst. A V P Singh can only emerge from the centre of the spectrum. A claimant from Right or Left has to re-position himself. Atal Bihari Vajpayee became acceptable because he stepped left of the BJP on social issues, and right of the Marxists on economic policy. That is where the sweet spot of Indian politics is located.

Individual dynamics require special circumstances, not to mention the heavy propulsion of hidden political boosters. Singh succeeded because he had terribly long arms; he held the CPM by one hand, and the BJP by the other, while he reinvented himself as an honest politician, sympathetic to minority concerns. It required too much heavy engineering and the end product was so unstable that it kept Delhi politics off-balance for a decade.

History does not repeat itself, but does it imitate itself? The answer will take a while.

-Appeared in Times of India - August 30, 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Death at Harrods

Byline by M J Akbar: Death at Harrods

Can this possibly be true?

On 25 August 1909 the New York Times reported: “As a result of the death of Miss Helenora Catherine Horn-Elphinstone-Darlrymple, sister of Sir Edward Graeme Elphinstone-Darlrymple, during a dry shampoo with carbon tetrachloride at Harrods Stores, charges of manslaughter were yesterday preferred at Westminster Police court against Mr William H. Eardly, the manager of the department, and Miss Beatrice Clarke, one of the assistants. Miss Horn-Elphinstone-Darlrymple went to Harrods for a dry shampoo on July 12. She was warned she might feel faint…”

I am not doubting the fact of death [why isn’t there an Agatha Christie novel called Death at Harrods?]. Or that Sir Edward had enough clout with the local constabulary to send William and Beatrice up for trial. But could anyone really have had a surname like Horn-Elphinstone-Darlrymple? The answer must be yes. The London correspondent of New York Times might have been forgiven for getting a manslaughter mixed up with a mere tort. But no news editor would have used his copy again if he got a multi-barrelled name from the British aristocracy wrong. And if his spelling is as accurate, then William the writer of many many books has surely forgotten an “r” in his Dalrymple.

Can you rule an Empire with short names? Roman Emperors kept their names terse, but since they promoted themselves into gods, anything above three syllables became unwieldy on the common tongue. How do you worship a Fotheringay-Fotheringay Phipps? You don’t. You just throw bread rolls at him at Drone’s off Piccadilly.

The British ruling class was not alone in puling on the appendices to a Helenora [itself an affected extension of the more working class Helen, I presume]. If you wrote the full name of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, there would not be much space left over for this column. Reasons for longitude varied with culture. The Mughal dad could not stop praising his newborn prince; each additional word was an adjective. When the prince grew up, killed his siblings and plonked himself on the throne, he could not stop exalting himself and added a few pearls of admiration to the already long-winded paragraph that was his name.

The British yardstick for yardlong names was different. It was advertisement of the family tree. So Helenora was telling you that the family fortunes were established by old Darlrymple, and further fattened by Elphinstone and Horn. I don’t suppose they included the failures in-between the genealogical line. There may have been a Barrington, for example, who sold the family castle to pay off his gambling debts at White’s, but you could not keep him on par with Elphinstone, who slogged hard in the East India Company and bought back a country estate. And if Elphinstone turned out to be the chap who governed Bombay in the old days, then it was precisely the kind of family connection that would impress Scotland Yard when you wanted to file a case for manslaughter.

Logically, the lower down you go on the social order, the shorter your surname becomes. The John Carpenters, not to mention the John Smiths, must have been mere Johns until the era when labour was treated with dignity.

In India, Hindu caste names are a dead giveaway of origin. But those promoted to prominence by the British happily traded in the past for the present. “Chowdhury”, or “Malik”, are titles and thus used across the religious divide. Indian Muslims, technically, did not have caste names, but if you were an Ansari from east Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, you could be more or less sure that there was artisan blood in your veins.

Helenora’s tragic appointment with her hair-dresser took place in 1909. Five years later the First World War began. It was after this Great War, with its millions upon millions of wasted lives, that the pomposity of the British aristocracy began to dribble away, in my estimation. They had killed working class boys on an unimaginable scale in order to preserve their class-ridden societies, and a reaction was inevitable. The English lords had ruled beyond their sell-by date, just like the Mughals a century earlier. The barrels began to drop off the surnames, slowly, piecemeal, but surely. What could not be destroyed by war was surely erased by the floating notes of P.G. Wodehouse’s laughter, although Wodehouse was also in love with the class he teased out of existence. Even a Tobias prefers to call himself a Toby these days. He probably would not get a restaurant booking in the name of “Tobias”.

Harrods is still there, of course. But if parts of the great English store occasionally look like side lanes of a Cairo bazaar, there is a valid explanation. It is now owned by an Egyptian who is convinced that his son was bumped off by the British secret service because he was about to marry Diana, Princess of Wales and ruin the bloodline of the British ruling class for ever. Harrods customers are now more likely to be Asian tourists than the British gentry. The only institutions with long names now are law firms. [There is much anguish in Yale at this moment because the American law firms, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, and McCloy are not hiring. I would have used an ampersand in the law firm names, but I can’t find one on my keyboard.]

The old order giveth way to the new.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jaswant's Jinnah: Dividing India to save it

Jaswant's Jinnah: Dividing India to save it
By M J Akbar

Two questions frame the Jaswant-Jinnah controversy. Was Jinnah secular? Do Nehru and Patel share the “guilt” for Partition?

Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah has certainly provoked much ado about something, but what is that something? Would this biography have made news if the author had not been a senior leader of the BJP? The world of books requires some chintan, but fortunately no chintan baithak. Who or what, then, is the story: Jinnah or the BJP? The two are not entirely unrelated, for the BJP was formed as a direct consequence of the creation of Pakistan. The umbilical cord still sends spasms up its central nerve.

Two questions frame the Jaswant-Jinnah controversy. Was Jinnah secular? Do Nehru and Patel share the “guilt” for Partition?

Neither question is new, but both have an amazing capacity for reinvention. Jawaharlal’s great socialist contemporary, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, fired the first broadside in “The Guilty Men of Partition”: the title implied that responsibility extended beyond Jinnah. But since his purpose was polemical, the frisson was lost in forgotten corners of libraries. Jaswant Singh had little to gain from searching for some good interred with Jinnah’s bones, and a bit to lose.

For most of his life, Jinnah was the epitome of European secularism, in contrast to Gandhi’s Indian secularism. Jinnah admired Kemal Ataturk, who separated religion from state. Gandhi believed that politics without religion was immoral; advocated equality of all religions, and even pandered to the Indian’s need for a religious identity. He never publicly disavowed the ‘Mahatma’ attached to his name, even when privately critical, and understood the importance of ‘Pandit’ before Nehru, although Jawaharlal was not particularly religious. Azad had a legitimate right to call himself a Maulana, for he was a scholar of the Holy Book.

Jinnah was not an agnostic. He was born an Ismaili Khoja, and consciously decided to shift, under the influence of an early mentor, Badruddin Tyabji, from the “Sevener” sect, which required obedience to the Aga Khan, to the Twelvers, who recognized no leader. But his faith did not include ritual. He might have posed in a sherwani to demand Pakistan, but he would have considered ‘Maulana Jinnah’ an absurdity. In the end, Jinnah and Gandhi were not as far apart as the record might suggest. Jinnah wanted a secular nation with a Muslim majority; Gandhi desired a secular nation with a Hindu majority. The difference was the geographical arc. Gandhi had an inclusive dream, Jinnah an exclusive one.

The Indian elite tends to measure secularism in pegs: Hindus who do not drink are abstemious, and Muslims who do not are puritan. Jinnah was content with a British lifestyle. He anglicized his name from Jinnahbhai to Jinnah, and dropped an extra ‘l’ from Alli. His monocle was styled on Joseph Chamberlain’s, and he even had a PG Wodehouse moment during a visit to Oxford, when he was arrested for frolics on boat race day (he was let off with a caution; he would never spend a day in jail). His secret student dream was to play Romeo at Old Vic, and only an anguished letter from his father (“Do not be a traitor to your family”) stopped him from becoming a professional actor. He relaxed after a tiring day by reading Shakespeare in a loud resonant voice.

His politics was nationalist and liberal. His early heroes were Phirozeshah Mehta and Dadabhai Naoroji (known as “Mr Narrow-Majority” because he was elected to the House of Commons in 1892 by only three votes). After he met Gopal Krishna Gokhale at his first Congress session in 1904, his “fond ambition”, in Sarojini Naidu’s words, was to become “the Muslim Gokhale”. No one could have hoped for higher praise than what Jinnah received from Ms Naidu: “...the obvious sanity and serenity of his worldly wisdom effectually disguise a shy and splendid idealism which is of the very essence of the man”. Jinnah was only 28.

He scoffed at Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s two-nation theory, and wrote an angry letter to The Times of India challenging the legitimacy of the famous Muslim delegation to Lord Minto on October 1, 1906, which built the separatist Muslim platform. (The Times did not print it.) He ignored the convention in Dhaka on December 30, 1906 where the Muslim League was born. Perhaps the best glimpse of Jinnah’s idealism, in my view, is from the memoirs of his friends. The cool Jinnah broke down and cried thrice in public: after sitting, frozen, for five hours at the Khoja cemetery on the day his young wife, Ruttie, was buried; when he was taking the train back from Calcutta in 1928 after the failure of the talks on the (Motilal) Nehru Report; and when he visited a Hindu refugee camp in Karachi in January 1948.

In 1928, he thought he had lost the last chance for Hindu-Muslim unity; and as he watched the stricken Hindus twenty years later, he whispered, “They used to call me Quaid-e-Azam; now they call me Qatil-e-Azam.”

Since Jaswant Singh has written a thematic biography, rather than a comprehensive one, the book skims over personality and addresses the politics of partition. Jinnah’s life is a window through which the author sees the larger landscape of Pakistan, and the heavily mined road towards this green horizon. One of the best sections of the book is the detailed examination of the great debates of 1927 and 1928, although it does underplay the influence of the Hindu Mahasabha on the Congress at the time. What is evident is that Jinnah walked away from 1928 with a deep sense of grievance, and when he returned to politics in 1934, it was with a firm sense of entitlement. From this, emerged, propelled by steely commitment and brilliant leadership, Pakistan in 1947.

The alleged “guilt” of Nehru and Patel is the story of 1946 and 1947, since there were no disputes in the Congress on the unity of India before that. A point needs to be stressed for those who find Nehru-baiting irresistible. Nehru was not the predominant power in the Congress at that time. Not only was Gandhi alive, and deeply involved, but Patel was an equal. He could not impose his personal views upon the Congress, without support, and decisions were made through long and even tortured discussions. The Congress was democratic in spirit and practice. Even after Gandhi’s assassination Nehru faced a strong challenge to his leadership, from Purushottam Das Tandon.

The “guilt” centres around Nehru’s response to the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946 and the Congress Working Committee resolution on March 8, 1947 accepting “a division of the Punjab into two provinces, so that the predominantly Muslim part may be separated from the predominantly non-Muslim part”. (Nehru had earlier voiced the idea of a trifurcation of Punjab; eventually, that is what happened.)

The Cabinet Mission Plan is now of academic interest since it was overtaken by Partition, but it is true that on June 25, 1946 Congress accepted it in the hope of establishing a “united democratic Indian Federation with a Central authority, which would command respect from the nations of the world, maximum provincial autonomy and equal rights for all men and women in the country”. And on July 10, Nehru, newly elected Congress President, rejected “Grouping”, one of the key (if still opaque) aspects of the Plan. Azad described this, politely, as one of those “unfortunate events which changed the course of history”.

But Nehru was not the dictator of the Congress. Gandhi could have intervened and declared him out of order. The working committee could have convened and reaffirmed its resolution to satisfy Muslim League doubts. The fact that the rest of the Congress was largely (but not completely) silent indicates rethinking. The provisions of the Plan could have left the political map of India an utter horror story, enmeshed by potentially rebellious Princely States, and “Groupings” with their own executives and Constituent Assemblies, buttressed by the right to secede in 10 years. Jinnah might have been content with a “moth-eaten” Pakistan. Nehru would not accept a “moth-eaten” India.

The Punjab resolution of March 1947 was passed in the absence of Gandhi and Azad. Patel and Nehru were its stewards. When Gandhi asked for an explanation, he got an excuse. Patel was disingenuous: “That you had expressed your views against it, we learnt only from the papers. But you are of course entitled to say what you feel right.” Nehru was even more evasive: “About our proposal to divide Punjab, this flows naturally from our previous discussions.” Gandhi and Azad were still adamant that they would not accept Partition: had Nehru and Patel surrendered behind the back of the man who led the independence movement?

The Punjab resolution was prefaced by a conditional phrase: “faced with the killing and brutality that are going on”. By March 1947, Nehru and Patel were more concerned about saving India from the consequences of Pakistan-inspired violence. The experiment in joint Congress-League had begun against the backdrop of the great Calcutta killings, which began with Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946 and never stopped for a year, when Gandhi went on his heroic fast for peace in Calcutta: Gandhi’s supreme courage and conviction have few parallels. This was followed by the gruesome Bihar riots. There was administrative gridlock in Delhi and a drift towards anarchy across the breadth of India. Gandhi did not intervene to revise this CWC resolution either, despite his public reservations. Elsewhere, Azad and Rajendra Prasad have explained what happened. Patel persuaded the Mahatma that the option was either Partition or open war with the Muslim League, which meant a nation-wide civil war. Perhaps only Gandhi believed that Indian unity could have survived the Calcutta riots, and he too wavered.

On April 21, 1947 Nehru said openly that those “who demanded Pakistan could have it”. He entered a caveat: provided they did not coerce others to join such a Pakistan, or indeed to set up separate Stans. Jinnah did his best to partition India further. Nehru and Patel saved India from anarchy by isolating a wound that would have infected the whole of India if it had not been cauterized and sutured. For this they deserve our deepest gratitude. By early May, Nehru was able, in private conversations with Mountbatten in Shimla, to defuse what he saw as nothing short of Balkanization of the subcontinent, the details of which are in my biography of Nehru.

The anarchy that is Pakistan today would have visited India six decades ago. What ironic stupidity that a self-styled admirer of Patel should ban a book that describes how Patel and Nehru overcame, groping through complex imponderables and unimaginable horror, the greatest challenge in modern Indian history.

-Appeared in Times of India - August 26, 2009

A contribution on the same subject, slightly differently worded, was carried in ‘Covert’, a fortnightly launched by M. J. Akbar in its issue ‘ 15 May – 31 May 2008

Monday, August 24, 2009

What SRK should learn from Kalam

What SRK should learn from Kalam
By M J Akbar Sunday

A celebrity is blessed with good fortune in many ways. A reporter, for instance, has to search for news. A celebrity merely has to look into the mirror. Such self-obsession requires sensational amorality and phenomenal lack of judgment. Ordinary, guilt-obsessed mortals do not possess these virtues.

A celebrity must have talent, of course, but brains are useless without gall. It requires courage to fall irrevocably in love with your image. It must be dreadfully tense to watch each step you take with such missionary commitment, but the rewards are probably worth the effort. The tiniest twitch now resides beside perceived, or stolen, wisdom, on Twitter, the miracle technology of celebdom. Pseudo-gods seek the pseudo-faithful as fervently as the reverse.

You have to be sure-footed to walk on air. The smallest ethereal miscalculation can bring you painfully down to earth. Shah Rukh Khan mobilized the resources of the Government of India when American customs and border security authorities treated him as just another human being.

This is not his first visit to the States, so there must have been some reason for the fact that this was the first time he was detained. As it turns out, the US government did have some reasonable questions about Shah Rukh’s hosts.

Old royalty used to treat an insult as high treason. What is fit punishment for the humiliation of modern divinity? A finger-wagging press conference by a mere cabinet minister seems inadequate for a mobile genius who charges crores of rupees for dancing at a wedding. Frenzy across content-starved TV channels is more like it, but we must not fetter our imagination. Perhaps India should recall its ambassador from Washington and abandon the nuclear deal unless the American secretary for homeland security is sacked?

No one likes racial profiling, even when done by an arbitrary computer. The incomparable computer seems to have not only altered the dimensions of time and space in our lives, but is now beginning to create a classless society of victims as well. Karl Marx would have been delighted by this communist child of capitalism. Shah Rukh has no complaint against the computer, however. He was furious at the inflexibility of the customs officer. Indian celebrities have created such a self-mesmerizing caste system of egos that they find any challenge difficult to comprehend.

Every celebrity is famous, but everyone famous is not a celebrity. Former president Abdul Kalam did not turn his cellphone into an advertising agency when confronted with an overzealous American security drill while boarding a commercial aircraft in Delhi, although he may have been within his rights to do so. President Kalam lived in the real world even when he was in Rashtrapati Bhawan. He knows that life is cluttered with glitches and inconsistencies. He shrugged in silence and boarded his flight.

Nor is racial profiling unique to the US. Every marital advertisements page in an Indian newspaper throws up multiple instances of colour-profiling. On the darker side, to stretch a metaphor, there is the unadvertised community-profiling in housing. People who are otherwise perfectly reasonable dread the possibility of conflict, micro or macro, with a neighbour who is not ‘One Of Us’.

Shah Rukh Khan was quick to deliver a slightly pompous sermon when his colleague in the film industry, Emraan Hashmi, complained recently that he was being denied a flat in an exclusive part of Mumbai because of his religious identity. Shah Rukh could have kept quiet, of course. But there are no brownie points for silence. You cannot be a celebrity if you do not celebrate your own importance at every opportunity. The superstar told the star to stop crying, grow up and so on. Why did Shah Rukh forget to give himself such advice when his imperial procession to Chicago was marginally interrupted? Instead, he wailed loud enough to be heard in Delhi.

Celebrities, who need a course in a National School of Drama, do need to be reminded that it helps to appreciate the limits of drama, particularly when you have arrived on the national stage. Acting becomes the only reality for some superstars, and their mind turns into an assembly line production house for scripted sentences. The dazzle of arc lamps blinds the star to the slippery ooze from the ego. You can slip so easily on it.

There will surely be more than one view on Emraan Hashmi’s search for upward mobility, and all sides will argue their case with perhaps more vigour than rigour. Hashmi is not yet capable of buying an independent bungalow, so all he can dream of is a better flat. But he is only pleading for a home. Shah Rukh Khan was demanding homage from the world. The difference is more than one of degree.

A Welcome Release from Politics

Byline by M J Akbar: A Welcome Release from Politics

Has the BJP lost the plot or has a plot lost the BJP? Curiously, both might have happened, though successively, rather than simultaneously.

The BJP missed the central point of this year’s general elections. Its miscalculations began after the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November last year, when it misread the impact the carnage had upon people. Every section of India may have wanted Pakistan punished for that outrage, but that did not translate into an excuse for confrontations within India. A decisive section of the electorate did not want Indian Muslims punished for what some Pakistani Muslims had done. Obviously, the Indian Muslim voter did not want to be tried for a crime he had not committed and so mobilised against a BJP which began to get more strident by the month. But a decisive section of youth had no appetite for the politics of conflict creation; it wants conflict elimination, or at least conflict resolution.

The BJP, judging by the promotion of Narendra Modi as a future Prime Minister and Varun Gandhi as a rising superstar, was still investing in conflict, not resolution. That switched enough seats to leave the BJP far short of its intended tally. The Congress, abetted by some amazing foolishness on the part of the Third Front, went far ahead of its expected numbers.

It is a rare leader, and an even rarer party, that can avoid rebellion in decline and defeat. This of course is only true of parliamentary democracy. In a presidential system the leader swims until he sinks; there are no real midterm gasps for breath. Britain’s Gordon Brown was showered with adulation in his first three months; got carried away; turned too clever by half; and has faced nothing but rebellion and disdain ever since. Indian party politics is far more stable than its British mother-version.

Rebels come in three categories after a defeat. There are those who believe that their political careers are over, and therefore there is nothing much to lose. Age could be a reason, or simply the accident of personal proximity to the defeated leader. Who remembers a Congress politician called Bhubanesh Chaturvedi? The political class barely knew who he was when P.V. Narasimha Rao made him one of the most powerful men in Delhi. The meteor disappeared into a black hole the instant Narasimha Rao was defeated. But the BJP is also passing through a generational transition. It is not just Mr Advani who will not contest the next general elections; his peers will be too old as well. Since he has not been able to ensure that his peers spend their last years in politics in ministerial offices, they can risk the frisson of some controversy. I imagine Dr Murli Manohar Joshi might discover he has a few things to say if all the temptations that could keep him silent and patient get exhausted by December.

The second reason is less subtle. There are rebels who are, in effect, cheerleaders of an alternative leader. This is normal politics, and you can hardly grudge such activity. Those who feel they have been sidelined by any leadership will exploit the opportunity offered by change. It is obvious that some of those who were unhappy with loss, vented their spleen on Advani.
Jaswant Singh’s detractors [whose numbers must have multiplied since his expulsion; that is the culture of Delhi] will put both reasons in the charge-sheet against him, but they will be wrong. Obviously, he would have preferred to spend this term as MP in high office, rather than in a publisher’s office. But the reason he published his book on Jinnah was passion, not ideology. He is a liberal of the old school, and proud of both, liberalism and the old school. Values and honour mean much more to him than a mere dictionary can convey.

Pakistan is both physically and emotionally close to him, and the many contradictions of partition have affected him deeply, as they have so many others. He has relatives in Pakistan. The ruling clan of Umarkot, in whose custody the Emperor Akbar was born, is his kin. He has spent many years, in the silence of his impressive library, examining the depth, trajectory and implications of his roots. He may not have admitted it, but in his personal scheme of things books overtook politics as his principal priority. The evolution may even have been unconscious, for one does not measure change on a periodic basis.

Jinnah was an obvious attraction, for he wanted to know how myth had overtaken facts in Pakistan, and demonology had diminished Jinnah in India. It is not possible to invest many years of one’s life in a biography without being fascinated by the subject. On a few occasions, this fascination is akin to being entranced by the venomous power of a snake, as Hitler’s biographers were. But Jaswant Singh discovered, as many others have done, that Jinnah was in the hero-mould, and deserved admiration despite his mistakes, no matter how awesomely expensive those mistakes proved to be.

In his personal preferences, Jinnah was a liberal-intellectual that a fellow liberal-intellectual could empathize with. It may not be entirely accidental that Jinnah’s Indian grandson is a friend of Jaswant Singh. Any biographer fond of his subject will give him the benefit of any doubt, and the road to freedom in 1947 was cluttered with doubt, misdirection, accidents and betrayal as much as it was resplendent with vision, courage and sacrifice.

Jaswant Singh did not set out to change his party through his book. Neither did he expect his party to change him because of this book. He thought he had served his party with honesty and commitment; and the party would show the grace to give him his space as an author. It did not.

Perhaps it could not. You could not survive in the Shiv Sena after claiming that Shivaji had any flaw. And life would not be happy in the Congress if you carped against Nehru. Politics needs its certainties even when those certainties are historically uncertain. Politicians are wary of books, because they are aware that knowledge can be injurious to their health.

The world of books welcomes Jaswant Singh’s release from politics.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Will it take a war to focus on Swat’s problems?

Will it take a war to focus on Swat’s problems?
M J Akbar


There is a foolproof way of gauging mainstream America’s interest in the rest of the world: through the New York Times crossword puzzle. On August 11, the clue for 17-Across (three letters) was “Islamabad’s land: Abbr.” The discovery of Pakistan has begun. India is an older, but static and occasional story, glimpsed occasionally through “Agra”, routed either via the Taj Mahal or Slumdog Millionaire. Wondrously, Nehru still remains on the iconic shortlist, but the presence is fading.

Credit must go to the military obstinacy of the Taliban and the linguistic dexterity of Richard Holbrooke for widening American consciousness, in perhaps the same way that Saddam Hussein and George Bush made ‘Eyeraq’ part of the American language. It seems a bit odd that you need a war to become famous but that is the way with superpowers. Britain became a household word in Roma only after Julius Caesar dropped by to say hello. Swat will probably be the next name to worm its way into puzzles, and very useful it would be for anagrams as well.

What are the odds that in 10 years the Swat valley, often called the “Kashmir of Pakistan”, will be the favoured American destination in “Incredible Pakistan”? Perhaps, realism demands a reframing of that question. In 2019, will Swat be Kashmir or will Kashmir be Swat? God knows, of course, but He is strangely uncommunicative these days.

The Pakistan army will prevail in this year’s battle for Swat, but we are discussing the war. The Pak army is motivated by the most effective impulse in war, self-interest. A Taliban victory would destabilise the institutions that share power in Islamabad, and radically alter the character, objectives and strategy of the Pak armed forces. Its officers are content with the status quo. They want to use the mullahs when they need them; they have no intention of being used.

But it is already evident that Islamabad has not understood a fundamental fact of its civil war. Irrespective of the outcome of the conflict this year or the next, the ground, and therefore the battleground, has shifted. The Taliban revolt has not emerged merely out of sentiment for religion. It is also a struggle for a reorientation of the oppressive economic relations in Pakistan, the worst of which is the land-peasant equation. Muhammad Sufi and Baitullah Mehsud found support because they challenged the landlords who have enslaved the Swat valley and so much else of Pakistan. After over six decades of independence, Pakistan still has not had land reforms. Independence has not translated into freedom for the peasant. Islamabad, like the Bourbons, seems to have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing. Now that the Army has taken control of many parts of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Islamabad is inviting back the landlords who were driven out by the Taliban.

In October 1949, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, founder-leader of the National Conference, called a special session of his party to confirm the provisional accession of the state to the Union of India. At the top of his agenda for a “New Kashmir” was land reforms. The twomillion-plus acres of cultivable land in the state was mainly in the possession of elitist Dogras and their jagirdars. A land ceiling of 22.75 acres was established. Farmers’ debt was brought down from over Rs 11 million to around Rs 2.5 million. Peasants who had been forced to mortgage their property because of high usury rates regained their rights; sharecroppers saw their share increase from half to two-thirds, while productions costs were now shared.

Jawaharlal Nehru, a Kashmiri Hindu, gave fulsome support to Sheikh Abdullah because, for him, poverty had no religion. Poverty alleviation and economic equity were the fulcrum of his secular, modern, dynamic “New India”. Nehru knew better than anyone else in Delhi that Hindus were the landlords of Kashmir. But for him the Hindu rich were no different from the Muslim rich, and the Hindu poor as deserving of positive discrimination as the Muslim poor. This is why he could force through land reform in large parts of India — although vested interests, and the inevitable compromises inbuilt into electoral democracy, sabotaged him at every step. The Nehrus and Abdullahs have been partners four times: in 1949, in 1975, 1987 and in 2009. The political relationship has veered from exhilarating promise to unmitigated disaster, although the personal equation has sustained itself well enough. Omar Abdullah and Rahul Gandhi are the fourth set in a chain. They might consider a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of October 1949, not to recall the poisons that seeped into their politics, but the purity that gave us land reforms.

The mood of the moment is governed by self-satisfied establishments that have for gotten a basic pillar of nation-building, economic equity. Today’s talent hunt throws up those who have cleared crores of rupees, not created crores of jobs. This week, Delhi and Islamabad celebrated their 62nd birthday with salvos and speeches, while a different kind of gunfire echoes in Balochistan, Swat, and the Naxalite highway that began as a corridor. Enjoy the first, but learn from the second.
Appeared in Times of India - August 17, 2009

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tying the knot in Tamil Nadu

Byline by M J Akbar: Tying the knot in Tamil Nadu

The South is another country, in just about every country. No one associates the north of France with holiday, cuisine or luxury. The north of Italy wastes its time in production, profits, brand-building, grumbling and fantasies of secession; the south goes to church, forgets to collect the garbage, remembers to collect tourists and has fun: would Berlusconi ever build a private palace improved with Putin beds and exotic weekend guests in north Italy? The south of America tried its hardest to secede in the 19th century. Today it is so convinced that Barack Obama was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii that it has launched a movement called “Birthers” whose principal purpose is to delegitimize the first African-American President of the United States. The more north Britain gets, the more dour becomes its public image, although the Scots are far nicer than their reputation would suggest. But they have to live with the burden of being the closest British neighbours to the North Pole. Pakistanis of the Frontier could not be more different than Sindhis, although they could give each other competition in their eagerness to be hospitable to a stranger. Anything is possible in Pakistan, but it is difficult to envisage a Taliban in the deserts of Sindh.

I suppose a nation has to be vertical to claim a north and south. Russia is horizontal. It stretches through the extremities of east and west, through nine time zones. You never think of a south Russia; you just slip from Russia into Central Asia, as if Russia extended breast upwards. If the east and west of Russia are radically different it is because they exist in different continents, with powerful and distinct cultures. Even the bland single dimension of Communism could not merge Europe and Asia into a Soviet continent, despite seven decades of strenuous effort. Central Asians rediscovered their Turkish-Islamic roots with gusto when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the Pacific east had always retained its own flavour. China is too round, and Han, to permit a political sense of north and south, although the cuisine, China’s finest cultural achievement, is gloriously divergent. Perhaps our contemporary sense of China as a seamless geography is a reflection of the political success of the Communist Party. But if you push Tibet into the category of south China, then the metaphor becomes poignant: the south is a different country.

India is rare, but not unique; it has north, south, east, west and a middle. Middle is the railway track that runs from Mumbai to Kolkata. The overlaps do not deny the reality. There are so many definitions of difference: language, aesthetics, cultural morality, aspiration, dress, forms of prayer, music. It is not just the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic strains; you do not hear the lilt of Bengali Baul in the west, while the sinuous sway of Rabindrasangeet is lost in the north. One would have thought that electoral politics, measured by the same Election Commission yardstick of numbers, would at least be similar if not the same. But democracy is resplendent in its own colours in the south.

You leave Coimbatore airport for barely a minute, and you are staring at the next election: the posters of the general election have not faded yet and the contest for the Assembly elections has begun. There is no confusion about who will lead the DMK. Karunanidhi, the Marlon Brando of this political epic, will remain the patriarch, but executive authority is being passed to his son, Stalin. Stalin will seek the legitimacy of popular endorsement in the contest against Jayalalithaa in a year and a half. Karunanidhi still sets the dialectic pace in the confrontation against his bĂȘte noire, but the next Assembly is Stalin’s to win or lose. His face is on every poster: lots of frizzy black hair climbing from the scalp, a filmstar smile, and very modern in a tie. Purists might pick holes. The hair is suspiciously luxuriant, its colour is a bit too uniformly dark perhaps, and the tie might certainly have been knotted better. But the voter sees a pleasant man who can still claim a working relationship with youth. Image is not all, but pretty good fuel for early momentum. The Jayalalithaa response has not begun. She is keeping her powder dry, perhaps literally. In any case, she is not blessed with the resources available to a ruling party. However, the Assembly elections, still many months and dozens of intermediate events away, are not our immediate worry. Our concern is the knot.

The father of the Indian tie is surely the Bengali western-oriented gentleman. The tie was not part of any Indian’s dress code before the Permanent Settlement in Bengal, and then took its time before becoming a fashion item. It begins to emerge, via a scarf after 1834, when the British made English the language of government and created a new British-centric establishment into which a slow dribble of Indians was permitted, particularly through the law courts. The walls along the staircase of Calcutta Club are decorated with portraits of past presidents, each attired in a handsome striped tie put together by a majestic knot, Windsor or its single-cousin. Would a potential Bengal Chief Minister campaign in a tie? Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has not even been seen in a jacket. Mamata Banerjee pursues an image of poverty with a vengeance. She does not possess anything but plain cotton saris. She made her male ministers wear a dhoti while taking the oath of office; among them were those who had never worn a dhoti.

In Tamil Nadu, Stalin wears imported ties and Jayalalithaa the most fabulous silks. Voters might once have demanded Kamaraj’s simple handspun; today, they do not particularly care either way. They have enough poverty in their own lives. Why would they want to impose it on their leaders, when they know that their leaders are not poor?

But, Thiru Stalin, do get someone to knot a better knot.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Time to play fair, Mr Deora

Time to play fair, Mr Deora
M J Akbar Sunday


Is live coverage of Parliament very kind to democracy? A friendly exchange of obscure questions and obtuse answers in the morning, and exclusive footage of MPs in mortal combat against sleep in the afternoon, does not make for high TRPs. The periodic slogan-and-walkout routine has become just that: routine. When the Lok Sabha debated steepling prices of essential commodities on Thursday afternoon, kind cameramen did their best to avoid empty spaces and vacant faces.

Compare this to the sui generis turbulence within the political class over the price of one reasonably essential commodity, gas. There has to be a good reason. The merchants of tur dal have cash in their pockets. The merchants of gas have both cash and MPs in their pockets.

The metaphor is not original. Murli Deora, minister for oil and gas, who tends to get communicative under stress, used it in Parliament. He lamented that alleging "this fellow is in his pocket, this fellow is in another's pocket" did no service to anyone.

It certainly does no service to Mr Deora. An independent MP, Parimal Nathwani, was candid about his personal pocket of residence. He was an advocate for Mukesh Ambani. The Marx in Ms Brinda Karat leapt to the fore and she became instantly cross. She demanded review of the candour clause in House rules, arguing that it had come into conflict with the "dignity of the House". She may have missed her mark by a few notches. She should have been discussing the dignity of the Union cabinet.

An Australian journalist, Hamish McDonald, has written an unauthorized, but semicollaborative (Reliance executives are thanked in the forward), biography of a great, but occasionally errant, genius, titled The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani. There are five references to Dhirubhai's first ally in politics, an alliance that began when Dhirubhai's vision was buffeted on all sides by cynicism. The first reference, on page 36, is sufficient: "After getting on his feet back in Bombay, Dhirubhai used to make frequent trips to New Delhi. He frequently went in the company of Murli Deora, a fellow yarn trader who was then working his way up the Congress party machine in Bombay... Dhirubhai and Deora used to catch an early flight up to Delhi, and park their bags with a sympathetic clerk at the Ashoka Hotel while they did their rounds of politicians and bureaucrats to speed up decisions on import licences."

The past cannot be held against Murli Deora's present. He might, in fact, justifiably feel that he should have been cabinet minister much before he was finally sworn in. He is certainly one of the more competent ministers. The question is about his portfolio, which he has held since he joined the cabinet. He takes decisions that affect the most substantive part of Dhirubhai's inheritance. Dr Manmohan Singh believes in the Caesar's Wife principle: in public life, you must be above suspicion. Would Caesar's Wife have accepted the oil portfolio if she had been a fellow yarn trader of Dhirubhai?

There is too much that is odd about Murli Deora's insistence on raising the price of a national asset that is in the private possession of Mukesh Ambani. This must be the first government that is determined to raise the price of an essential commodity, rather than bring it down, or indeed keep it at a level that a private company offered and accepted as part of a contractual agreement. On Friday, Sharad Pawar, replying to the debate on essential commodities in the Lok Sabha, blamed the higher price of energy as one of the reasons for rising food prices. Attendance on Friday was higher than on Thursday, with heavyweights present, possibly because it was the last sitting of the session, but was anyone listening?

The fight between the brothers, Mukesh and Anil, is a bit of a red herring. Mukesh Ambani is not going to sell his gas at nearly twice a contracted price only to his brother. NTPC, a nationalized Navaratna company will have to pay at least Rs 20,000 crores more to Reliance. Anil Ambani is a big boy. He can look after himself. If Mukesh Ambani needed a hundred million mobile telephones, Anil Ambani would have tried to double the price of his phones.

But public concern is legitimate when a public sector company cannot defend its interests because its nominated guardian, its cabinet minister, is supporting the opposition. NTPC is in litigation against RIL in the Mumbai high court to protect its interests, while its parent ministry takes a contradictory view in the SC.

Murli Deora's logic for raising the price of gas shifts from odd to downright curious. Gas, he says, is a national asset. The government therefore should fix the price. But who gets the money? Not the nation, but a private company. Finance ministers squirm even when forced to raise energy prices in order to bump up government revenues. But one cannot see a single squirm in this controversy. Patriotism has clearly become the last refuge of Murli Deora.

Appeared in Times of India - July 09, 2009

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A thin hope

Byline by M J Akbar: A thin hope

How does one reconcile these news stories appearing on the same day? In Islamabad, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik tells Parliament that the Jamat-ud-Dawa [latest name of the Lashkhar-e-Tayaba] is among the 25 groups banned under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act. In Srinagar, the Indian Army says it has killed at least eight terrorists trying to sneak across the Line of Control, seven in Kupwara and one in Poonch. Back in Islamabad foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit clarified that there had been no change in Pakistan’s stand and it still wanted an independent Kashmir.

On the face of it, the last is most easily understood. Just as Dr Manmohan Singh has been busy trying to reassure India that he had given nothing away at Sharm El Sheikh, Yousaf Raza Gilani probably had to make his own clarifications. In any case, Pakistan is not going to abandon a core element of its India, or Indian subcontinent policy, just because Dr Singh included Balochistan in the joint statement. And yet, there is a delicate blur in a long-held position that might not be noticed at first glance.

What is Pakistan’s long-held position on Jammu and Kashmir? Not independence; of this you can be certain. Pakistan sent troops in 1947 and 1965 to absorb Kashmir into the Muslim country, not to create a separate Kashmir state. It set up “Azad Kashmir” as an interim arrangement, pending the amalgamation of the whole of the Kashmir valley into Pakistan. This region has been treated as “azad” [free] from India, but not “azad” per se.

In practical terms, Pakistan gave up on the plebiscite as the route to absorption, partly because there was no way of forcing India to agree; but not on the idea that the Muslim regions of Kashmir were a rightful part of Pakistan. This was reiterated as recently as during the autocracy of Pervez Musharraf. The concept of independence was never shouted out of the room because it kept Kashmiri groups fighting for “Azaadi” onside, and amenable to support from Islamabad. Most often this ticklish dilemma was addressed with silence, or a nebulous “let the Kashmiri people decide”. It helped keep pressure on India through both pro-Pakistan elements and pro-independence parties.

If the Pak foreign office spokesman was fending off a reporter’s question with the traditional mix of all-options-open phrasing, then there is not much to pursue. It was a casual combination of sentences, all in a day’s work. But if this is calculated policy line then it represents an important shift. The statement would have to be repeated, and at a higher level, to represent a significant change. In the meantime, we can only speculate whether Islamabad is edging, cautiously, towards an alternative negotiating stance. Once it abandons the Pakistani claim on Kashmir, then options open in which compromise can be reached with Delhi on a new nebulous status for Kashmir, one which can be interpreted by Delhi, Islamabad and Srinagar in whichever way it chose to. The domestic constituency, in each case, has to be persuaded through a grand fudge since that is what it will amount to given how hard past positions have been.

The problems of terrorism fall into a different category. It is possible that the Pakistan Government is just too weak and helpless to do anything more than make appropriate noises.

Musharraf’s administration had authority; Asif Ali Zardari seems merely to be in office. If the Jamat-ud-Dawa was genuinely banned as a terrorist outfit, then Hafeez Saeed could not be giving sermons at leisure in Lahore. Saeed is not in custody because Islamabad told the Lahore High Court that the Jamat was not on the list of terrorist organisations. In fact, it has only been removed from the list of welfare charities. Western correspondents who have interviewed senior officials of the Jamat have quoted them as saying that nothing had changed, and that the “liberation of Kashmir from Hindu rule” was still their primary objective. And so, irrespective of what Islamabad might desire, the infiltrators continue their steady progress across the Line of Control. The Indian Army knows the number apprehended, or killed; it cannot know how many got away.

The New York Times published a revealing story by Sabrina Tavernise and Waqar Gilani, datelined Multan, on Friday, about Fida Hussein Ghalvi, who testified against Malik Ishaq, founder of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. “In Pakistan, the weakness of the state is matched only by the strength of its criminals. When Mr Ishaq was arrested in 1997, he unleashed his broad network against his opponents, killing witnesses, threatening judges and intimidating the police, leading nearly all of the prosecutions to collapse eventually.” The report, noting that Ishaq could be out on bail this month, describes him as founder of “Pakistan’s most vicious sectarian group, whose police record has a dizzying tally of at least 70 killings — and has never had a conviction stick”.

This was the situation under Musharraf; things have only deteriorated in the last two years.

This, perhaps, is what impelled Dr Manmohan Singh to suggest that this is a time when a democratic Government in Pakistan needs all the help it can get, including from Delhi. But it is a fallacy to believe that any other country, particularly India, can be helpful beyond a very limited degree. The nuances and compromises essential to any solution would be heavy enough on a leader with broad and strong shoulders. It is too much to believe that a Government that has already lost the trust of the street, and the confidence of its administration, can pull off something as dramatic as an agreement with Delhi. If Islamabad can neither stop cross-border infiltration nor go forward on a deal, the peace process will splutter out completely.

Could a deal come precisely because Islamabad realises that conflict with India has strengthened forces that are now the biggest danger to Pakistan’s civil society, democracy and evolution towards a modern nation? That is a thin hope, but one which we should preserve.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Kashmir needs a stronger CM

Kashmir needs a stronger CM
M J Akbar


There are few juicy scandals in our public life, not because politicians are abstemious but because the public does not necessarily equate sex with scandal. Curiously politicians, the big beneficiaries, still think a prurient accusation is worth the effort. When you are a good-looking chap like Omar Abdullah, such hazards probably come with the territory.

So, what explains Omar's hasty resignation? When you wade into the rocky waters of Kashmir, you are bound to injure a toe occasionally on underwater reef. There was an unwarranted primness in Omar's haste. His father Farooq, who has been known to race a motorcycle or two around the Dal Lake in his younger days, would have found a nuanced means to reassure the people and laugh at the opposition. But in order to laugh you must know how to laugh and, more important, when to laugh.

Omar offered to resign because he could not work, he said, till proved innocent. Why not work harder till proved innocent? One assumes he is innocent. Voters elected him to work, not to go into a sulk when the jeering began in the legislature.

Indians, by temperament, are not interested in what politicians do in the private. The real scandal, surely, is what politicians do in the open. Corruption is no longer a shady business. It is all eyes-wideopen, media-couldn't-care-less deals. It works both ways: being a saint does not win you an election. Nor can anyone get very far by casting stones at bedroom windows.

Jawaharlal Nehru is the most honoured name after Mahatma Gandhi in our recent history. He was slandered with abandon even in the more discreet culture of his lifetime. His trusted private secretary, M O Mathai, waited for him to die before placing a few salacious suggestions into the public domain. This did not disturb Nehru's composure when alive, and did not dent his reputation after death. Gandhi did not need the investigatory skills of any hack to expose his private life. He did it himself, with breathtaking honesty and exemplary courage in the astonishing confessional that is his autobiography. The book was published 18 years before freedom, not as a post-retirement benefit fund: it is, by the way, much more than a route-map to celibacy or an unabashed defiance of temptation. The lords of the British empire who considered him, correctly, an existentialist threat, could do nothing with the material Gandhi placed at their command. Why?

Indians love gossip as much as anyone else, but when it comes to judgment, they become gossip-neutral. They might expect a faultless character from gods; they are far more understanding of human beings. Indian common sense is both sensible and common. Politicians, who would not have passed the first of a puritan scrutiny, have reached the highest reaches of public office; puritans have seen their ambitions aborted because they failed a political scrutiny.

What Kashmiris expect is not excessive rectitude from Omar Abdullah, but a far better daily existence for themselves. This adds up to life security, infrastructure and the zealous protection of self-respect. Omar's youth, sincerity and transparent lack of cynicism have raised hopes, which is dangerous since great expectations can also cause a great crash. A caveat is probably necessary at this point. Cynicism is the swine flu of politics. One sharp sneeze and it may hit young Omar any time.

Did Omar lose his nerve? Steel nerves are overrated in a democracy. Silver nerves work better, for they are flexible. He has been in office only since January and you can detect signs of uncertainty in his grasp of power. In public life, an administration transfers a leader's confusion instantly to the people. Experts in rousing rabble can checkmate any government unsure of the needed levels of response. There is no algebra that can be consulted, no theory that can be practiced. Experience, with its attendant baggage of precedent, helps, but only up to a point. It is fashionable among the younger lot to display the self-importance implicit in the adage made famous by US president Harry Truman: "The buck stops here." Let me suggest a wiser option. If you flip too often, you end up as a flop.

The politics of Kashmir is sharply contextual. Pakistan analyses each step and misstep. The generational change represented by Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, who could be the next chief minister, begs a collateral question. Are they going to lead their generation towards the emotional and psychological integration with secular, democratic and increasingly prosperous India, or will they preside over a drift to nowhere land? There is a great deal riding on their abilities, language and convictions. This is their tryst with an inherited destiny; they cannot afford to wilt before the first hurdle of democratic politicking. Resignation in the hope of martyrdom is for saints. Martyrs find their moment in death. Kashmir needs chief ministers who can offer life.

Appeared in Times of India - July 02, 2009

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A will without a way

Byline by M J Akbar: A will without a way

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is juggling with a hydra-headed question that is both philosophical and practical. Worse, it is also immediate.

How much benefit should one give to doubt?

Doubt is theoretically equidistant from right and wrong, but in real life, there is evidence, evidence creates weightage, and the weight of evidence demands judgement. Doubt is the classic weapon of both spies and diplomats. They might as effectively sow it with violence, or plant it with a smile. Doubt is the one fully certain component of the Indo-Pak equation. Call this the first of many a paradox.

On his part, Dr Singh is committed to finding peace with Pakistan during his second term. He also knows that if he cannot find it soon, it will elude him later. That is yet another paradox. He was ready with a formula for such an excruciating dilemma in his speech in the Lok Sabha on 29 July, bravely defending the joint statement with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

He recalled Ronald Reagan’s useful corrective: trust, but verify. An American President, alas for the rest of us, has options that others cannot claim. Reagan would not trust Muammar Gaddafi with a toy duck in a bathtub. When American intelligence satisfied the President with verification of Libya’s role in a terrorist incident, Reagan ordered up the air force, roused the ever-willing Margaret Thatcher, and bombed the capital of Libya back to the sand dunes. Gaddafi, living in a tent (a practice he has not given up), escaped but lost a daughter in that aerial bombardment. Reagan’s trust-verify relationship had a third dimension: act. This is not readily available to Dr Singh.

A more relevant analogy may be Reagan’s arms talks with Leonid Brezhnev, where trust could be fused with verification. But here too we enter unique territory defined by a unique moment in history. The objective situation had changed. USA and USSR were no longer military equals. The Soviets might have had the nuclear capability to destroy the world, but nuclear arms are a deterrent, not a means of offense. The Vietnam syndrome had already been overtaken by the Afghanistan syndrome. One empire was cranking up. The other empire was winding down.

There are few practical means of verifying good or bad intentions on our jinxed subcontinent. There are so many wheels behind wheels in the terror juggernaut — we saw only the front end in Mumbai last November. Dr Singh might be generous enough to give Islamabad benefit of the doubt on the evidence of a dossier presented to him two days before he left for Egypt, but this dossier does not explain the non-arguments by the government lawyer in the Lahore High Court that permitted Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Jamaat ud Dawah (the new name, a thin camouflage, which the Lashkar e Tayaba has acquired upon being placed on the list of terrorist organisations by the United Nations). The Lahore High Court released Saeed because, while the official accusation linked him to Al Qaeda, “The security laws and anti-terrorism laws of Pakistan are silent on Al Qaeda being a terrorist organisation”. The dossier does list the few who have been arrested, but hundreds and thousands remain at liberty to plan and implement the next Mumbai. The India-baiters in Islamabad now have a tool as well — the Balochistan clause in the joint statement.

The Jamaat ud Dawah tells any visiting journalist that there has been no change in its objective: to ‘liberate’ the Kashmir valley from ‘Hindu rule’. They have not promised any concessions to a Sikh Prime Minister. To what extent is this still the policy of the Pakistan government and its key military-intelligence wings? A clear and written answer to this question is the only thing that will eliminate doubts.

Are we likely to get an answer from Islamabad? First, we must ask the question.
Are there are any options in-between?

There is one option, which no one seems to have investigated, possibly because it sounds too boring. But it can re-energise the impetus towards a visit by Dr Singh to Pakistan next year and a possible agreement. There are two distinct advantages to this option. It is relatively painless. And it can be done under a sort of cover since Islamabad might be reluctant to move into the limelight, carrying a perceived concession behind its back. Since the Indian reaction to the joint statement has created some strains upon the process of bilateral dialogue, this could be a useful methodology for India as well.

India and Pakistan should seek to solve some of their intermediary bilateral problems under the disguise of multilateral negotiations. This does not mean that Kashmir can be sorted out through a multilateral mechanism. There will be only two nations at the table when Kashmir is discussed. Nor is this an invitation to America to join the discussion party: the multilateral forum available to both is SAARC.

Pakistan has been holding up implementation of the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) on one pretext or the other. Dr Singh’s first verification of trust could be Pakistani concurrence to SAFTA at the next Saarc summit, which he should hasten. In fact, he could even make it a priority, or even a precondition. Trade is a vital ingredient of peace-construction, because it creates masons on either side who are propelled into partnership by the common need for profit. Profit is a solid vested interest in conflict-resolution.

Saarc could also be a convenient medium for taking a few quantum leaps on terrorism protocol. When Pervez Musharraf suggested that India and Pakistan should think out of the box he meant jumping out of the Kashmir box. Saarc creates an entirely new box completely. Gilani can take cover from any local flak by explaining that the pressure of Saarc nations made it impossible for him to leave Pakistan in isolation. The public opinion created by Saarc decisions will reinforce the momentum that has been injected into the peace process by Dr Singh.

Dr Singh has made it clear to Parliament that he has the will. But without a way, his will will flounder.