Sunday, September 27, 2009
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
By M J Akbar
That inimitable 20th century intellectual and sleuth Hercule Poirot listed an unforgivable sin in his moral code: overlooking the obvious. The media dust storm over that hobgoblin, austerity, stimulated surely by low TV ratings as much as by high-mindedness, has obscured the most obvious of questions. Who got the money?
Travel is a minor percentage of government expenditure, but every little drop helps, presumably, in a drought. However, where is the money saved by humbler travel going? Has a special austerity fund been created to collect drops from the comfort-squeeze on politicians? Or is the government, which picks up most of the bill, simply retaining the money in its common fund, the bulk of which goes to pay the salaries of babus? As is well known, the biggest beneficiary of government is government.
The cost of MPs’ tickets, as well as for pricey hotels when Parliament committees go on tour, is paid by Parliament. Have the chairman of Rajya Sabha and speaker of Lok Sabha placed the unspent cash in escrow, reserved for the families of farmers still committing suicide in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh?The Congress Party pays for Rahul Gandhi’s travels, as indeed is appropriate. When he takes a private plane, the bill is in more lakhs than one can readily count. When he takes a train, the bill is zero, at least to the Congress: government pays for security. Does the Congress pass on what it has saved to rabi-wrecked farmers in south Bihar? One does not know. A little illumination would be most helpful.
Two and half ministers (Nandan Nilekani has Cabinet status but not ministerial position) were ordered out of five-star hotels and into more modest bhawans. (One of them promptly told the world that innumerable friends had offered him a place to stay. He should dine out as often as he can. The third law of Delhi’s physics says that the number of friends varies in direct proportion to your perceived level of power.)
Between the three of them they are now saving a minimum of Rs 60,000 a day. Have they adopted a village in Jharkhand with the money now denied to five-star hotels? Or is this cash further strengthening their already well-nourished personal bank accounts? Here is a subversive suggestion. Why not make them contribute an amount equal to their hotel bills to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund? If they can spend Rs 60,000 a day out of their pockets for a comfortable bed and a cup of coffee, they should be able to spare a bit of small change for the drought-afflicted. The truly outstanding irony, of course, is that when the three get their official homes, they will enter a world beyond the dreams of the most luxurious hotel in the world.
America’s cabinet members would salivate at the prospect of acres of plush lawn in the heart of Washington, around a glorious colonial bungalow fitted with contemporary amenities, as a personal playground. Chinese cabinet members would probably get jailed for fantasy, or shot for corruption. The Indian minister has a home that is the envy of avarice. Who pays for it? Actually, you. If you pay tax, that is.
Grandeur is the only definition of power in Delhi, and bitter feuds erupt over a potential address. Any successful social climber in impoverished India’s capital will ask for your address before he, and of course she, asks for your name. But it is only fair to note that if there is one man who has a right, in this system so heavily layered by hypocrisy, to raise the issue then it is the man who set off the austerity fireworks. Pranab Mukherjee has, without any doubt, the worst bungalow in Delhi. He was allotted this residence when an MP and has not changed it despite being entitled to far more glamorous acreage. That is one reason why when Pranab Mukherjee talks, his peers listen. The second reason is that he runs most parts of the government.
Now for a little, closely guarded secret. The big ticket in travel costs is not high in the sky but closer to the ground. Somebody should tot up the fuel costs of the thousands of very austere cars allotted to ministers, MPs and bureaucrats. Fuel theft is rampant. A single decision would ensure greater comfort, cheaper fuel, environment protection and less corruption: replace the lot with CNG vehicles. Will anyone do this? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is ‘no’. If you want to know the identity of a murderer in any Agatha Christie-Poirot page-turner, answer a simple question. Who got the money? If you want a way out of the complex labyrinths of Delhi, ask the same question.
Appeared in Times of India - September 20, 2009
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Shashi Tharoor has to be the only Indian who was safer last week in Liberia than in Jaipur. After all, no one in Liberia had asked for his resignation, but the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, a fellow Congressman, did suggest that the best option for Tharoor would be to resign. I cannot think of a previous occasion when a Congress Chief Minister has asked for the head of a Union Minister from his own party. This must, incidentally, also be the first time that a politician is in trouble because of a misplaced sense of humour.
We must all be familiar with the cause célèbre by now. For the few who need a reminder, it began with a newspaper report that Tharoor was waiting for his luxury ministerial home in Delhi not in the limited comfort of a state government hostel, as is the norm, but in a five star hotel. He was not alone; his senior minister in external affairs, S.M. Krishna, was waiting in an even grander suite, although not in the same hotel. Pranab Mukherjee, the guardian angel of the nation’s finances, was not amused, and publicly reprimanded both for self-indulgence at a time when large parts of the nation had been hit by drought. This must be another first in the history of politics: a foreign minister being told by the finance minister to get out of his starry abode and live it down it like the rest. Krishna moved out and on. Tharoor, who is so confident about his celebrity status that he informs his fan base about every minor detail of his life through a tweet [is twitter the plural of tweet?], was a trifle superior about his enforced downgrade, pointing out he could walk into the home of any well-heeled friend et al.
The austerity flu, defined by some cynics as an epidemic caused by the humbug, left upper class airline seats indisposed as well. Ministers were told to shift from the front of the plane to the back, where mortals sit. Tharoor, provoked by another kind of bug, a bugbear called the unremitting journalist, decided that he too would descend to “cattle class in solidarity with all our holy cows”. Ha ha ha ha and ha. Since India is the land of the holy cow, a literal translation of the term did not go down very well with either the politician or the voter. But a qualified apology by Tharoor sent on Thursday-Friday midnight through his favourite medium of public communication, the cellphone, might make things worse for him.
It may be irregular to place analysis before proposition, but it could be helpful in this case. I do not think it is Tharoor’s fault that he just cannot fathom the mindset of India. He has lived too long within the mindset of New York where holy cows are neither holy nor cows. Second, he has been a bureaucrat in the United Nations, where a tin ear comes with the salary. The first law of democracy is that what you say is less important than what the other person hears.
He clearly suffers from regional-language-deficiency syndrome as well, another symptom of those who have lived abroad for too long. He observed, for instance, that he had been told that his comments sounded worse in Malayalam than in the Queen’s English. If he had been more familiar with Malayalam he would have realised it himself. How do we know this? Tharoor said as much on his tweet. You never recognise how much you expose yourself when entranced by the spotlight. He added: “I now realize I shouldn’t assume people will appreciate humour. And you shouldn’t give those who would willfully distort your words an opportunity to do so.”
Not quite. Indians do have a sense of humour, but it is not the same sense as the humour of western sensibility. Nor is it a question of distortion. Every civilisation has its own mores, and it is not a matter of being better or worse than any other. The West lives by its own laudable values and its separate definition of sensitivities. India has a different code; China a third one. No one is better than the other, but we have to live by the code that is acceptable to a particular civilisation. There is an in-built screen that monitors, in Indian conversation, anything that might be construed to be offensive, even if you did not mean to be offensive.
Gehlot may not be able to compete in the Queen’s English, but he recognises the line over which you cannot step. You cannot rule India without understanding India. This is why the Congress has publicly distanced itself from a cultural implant on the body politic that it cannot fully comprehend.
It might be worthwhile to remember, also, that economy class on Indian commercial flights is not full of peasants and workers. Only two per cent of India travels by air, so this mode of travel has not even extended yet to the middle class. There are more movers and shakers in the back of the Indian jet than in the front, and when they are moved, they can shake anyone out of a chair.
Since Liberia is not yet a holiday destination for Indian VIPs, even for those with expansive bank accounts, the junior minister for external affairs was obviously there on work. I hope he did not have to make an austere journey in cattle class.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Vedic spirituality loses out in times of dishonesty
By M J Akbar
It is common knowledge that the best way to argue your case in Delhi is through a suitcase. The capital's punters can neither control their laughter nor restrain their envy at the news that you can find your way to 44 acres of prime land in Marxist Bengal through an ayurvedic massage. Napoleon remarked that an army marches on its stomach. Lenin's Bengali army also marches on its stomach, as long as it is prostrate.
While corruption in rising India has moved with internet speed into the 21st century, Kolkata's deals are still in the Vedic age. Land worth Rs 20 crores was, it seems, handed over to promoters of a cottage-style resort called Vedic Village on the edge of Bengal's capital for just Rs 1 crore. The process began in 1997; the promoters added to their expanse by purchasing adjoining plots from villagers through the usual means of a cheque placed in one hand while the other arm was being twisted. It took a disputed football match on August 23 this year for rural anger to explode into arson: this is Bengal. Facts began to rise from the ashes. The police discovered a cache of arms in the sylvan peace of Vedic spirituality, although 'discovery' might be too optimistic a word. There is little that the Calcutta Police does not know, even if there is little that it does about what it does know.
The acquired land included wakf property. The good news, then, is that Bengali corruption is transparently secular. The names involved - Abdur Rezzak Mollah, Manabendra Mukherjee (ministers in severe need of ayurvedic treatment), promoter Rajkishore Modi, Rashid Ali Mondal, Sibnath Banerjee, Nuruddin Gazi - are a hymn to Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. Greed is clearly the most powerful antidote to communalism: Death to capitalism! Long live greed! Greed is also non-partisan. An MLA from Mamata Banerjee's party has also been named, which might explain her silence. Trinamool and CPI(M) finally agree on something. Even Ms Banerjee, a spartan if ever there was one, cannot contest elections from the straw tower of an ashram.
Unsurprisingly, the local media, which for a decade had no time for investigations of its own, gave maximum play to ministerial ayurvedic treatment. Was the issue, then, greed or hypocrisy? In Delhi, where few claim to be paragons of personal virtue, the spa-story would have been a snigger on a news cycle. In Kolkata, it has wafted through innumerable conversations with that sardonic twitch that only a Bengali can manage to perfection.
Indian Marxists are trapped in a systemic flaw: hyper-honesty is inconsistent with ''bourgeois democracy''. The cost of a Lok Sabha election now runs into multiple millions. Political parties are not profit-earning corporations. Their overhand collections are a miniscule proportion of need; the balance is met by underhand arrangements. The CPI(M) tries a finesse through institutional collection, but even this needs middlemen. Money is a trading currency; there has to be a trade. Ministers get involved. Is it any surprise if this nexus extends to a periodic back-rub? Land is repeatedly at the centre of Bengal's controversies because traditional industry has been driven into the doldrums between stagnant management and self-centred unions. Since new arrivals like IT czars will not ladle out cash, the only value left to exploit is land. Land belongs either to institutions that can be manipulated, or insecure villagers who can be bullied into temptation.
Corruption is the preferred means of the get-rich-quick lobby (if the poor were corrupt, they would not remain poor). But is greed the only motivation? Greed is not India-specific. The extent of our venality may have a supplementary reason. We are, by temperament, a short-cut people. We do not like waiting for due process, whether in a project or towards a destination. Indian corruption could well find an explanation in Indian traffic. We instinctively seek a faster way, whether on a cow-clogged country lane or an incomplete super highway. The Indian driver does not believe in the sober limitations of take; he is a devotee of overtake. Cars do not create traffic jams; drivers with hyper libidos do.
The long cut is demeaning to the Indian ego. A Delhiwallah measures his importance by the number of short cuts he has wangled. A favour is a measure of both the benefactor's value and the beneficiary's influence. Some people wait till the last minute only to prove that time will wait for them.
The system creates hurdles since it knows that short-cutters will pay to cross them. Bribes feed the system; the system therefore knits a framework for bribes. A hundred rupees to a traffic cop climbs towards millions at the top. If you are really lucky, the ayurvedic massage comes free.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
As was once noted by a garrulous, if not very innovative, politician, India has, just now, a Hindu President, a Muslim Vice President, a Sikh Prime Minister and a Christian President of the ruling Indian National Congress. I cannot recall Mrs Pratibha Patil, or indeed any of her Hindu predecessors, inviting Hindu politicians, diplomats, and an assortment of Delhi’s Hindu A-listers to a splendid Diwali dinner financed by the Government of India. Nor has Dr Manmohan Singh gathered the capital’s elite Sikh brethren for a commemorative repast on Baisakhi, when the Khalsa was born. Mrs Sonia Gandhi does not throw Christmas parties for archbishops, bishops, Christian politicians, diplomats and educationists at state expense. Just to be clear: thank God they don’t.
So why does the Vice President of India invite the great, as well as the not-so-glorious, Muslims for an Iftar party, as he did on 7 September? It needs to be stressed that this is not the Vice President’s personal decision. His office is merely the conduit for a Government ritual, which is why the state picked up the tab for the evening at Hyderabad House.
As if this was not enough, the Ministry of External Affairs has this year muscled its way into this food-heavy tribute to tokenism. It hosted an Iftar party on 9 September. I hope the various Government VIPs, led by S.M. Krishna and Shashi Tharoor, did not turn up wearing skull caps in order to look holier than thou. It would have made a quaint picture, though.
The reason for such artless public artifice is quite simple. Delhi’s political establishment takes the Iftar guests, mainly bundled from the local chapter of the Indian Muslim elite, for fools. It treats them as saps who need no more than an annual dinner to keep them onside. Perhaps the establishment knows what it is doing. Experience has probably shown that this “elite” is packed with people who use Ramadan as an opportunity for taking something from Government, rather than giving all they can to the poor. The Indian Muslim elite gets taken for a ride because it enjoys the prospect of being an establishment jockey in the race to nowhere.
The state-sponsored syrupy Iftar drama is not unique to the present lot; every administration in memory has staged it, including that of the BJP-heavy NDA. This patronising smear has become so institutionalised on the Delhi calendar that no one dares to query its legitimacy, need or rationale.
Perhaps the most cynical patron of Iftar parties was the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, who insisted on hosting them even after presiding over the destruction of the Babri mosque. Maybe he was not the most cynical: worse surely were the Muslim acolytes who fawned around him, desperately trying to catch his eye to seek some reward for their presence. Rao was good at throwing handouts towards anyone who had the look of a beggar.
The Ministry of External Affairs, to my knowledge, has till date kept itself aloof from the politics of Iftar. But some well-lit spark seems to have finally heard what the rest of Delhi has known for many years: that ambassadors of Muslim countries in particular, and the non-aligned world in general, have been offered a very cold shoulder, tantamount to indifference, while the mandarins have been running around building strategic relations with the West. Someone got the bright idea that Muslim envoys would start smiling again the moment they received a gilt-edged invitation to an Iftar.
Indian Muslims need jobs and justice, not Iftar parties.
Ambassadors need diplomatic engagement throughout the year, not an early dinner on one evening.
But the behaviour of Muslim elites across the world invites the cynicism of others. The exploitation of Ramadan has now become a deeply-rooted practice among the well-off. If the Islamic brotherhood wants to understand why so many Muslims nations are in such a mess, they only need to examine how their elite have upended the holiest month of the faith, one in which they are meant to turn to Allah and practise the highest values of the Quran — piety, charity, self-denial, sacrifice — and turned it into a month-long tamasha. Id ul Fitr, which is the culmination of Ramadan, means the Id of Fitra, or charity. Self-centred Muslims will surely be astonished to learn that hundreds of verses in the Holy Quran urge charity and kindness towards the underprivileged. There is not a single verse that permits you to cheat your way out of Ramadan. The Quran understands the need to postpone fasting due to travel or ill-health; it does not provide any leeway for hypocrisy.
There are Muslims who escape self-denial by reversing the clock. They turn the evening Iftar into a breakfast, rather than a breaking of the fast, and while away the night till the pre-dawn Sehri, which becomes a virtual dinner. Then they sleep through most of the day, waking up in the afternoon. This is a perversion of the spirit of Ramadan. If all it took to fast was to convert day into night, then we could have fasted through the year.
My friend Arif Mohammed Khan has brought to my notice a hadith, or tradition, in which the Prophet said, “The son of Adam has basic rights on three things: a house to live in, a piece of cloth to cover his body, a loaf of bread and water”. Zakat is a Quranic principle of the faith. It is an Islamic duty to provide for the impoverished. All you have to do is count the millions who are hungry in Muslim countries and societies to understand how far contemporary Muslims have travelled from their ideal. Muslims seek great merit by reciting the Quran during Ramadan, for this is the month in which Allah’s message was sent to our world. They need to spend more time trying to understand what the Quran’s verses mean.
Sunday, September 06, 2009
When the young try to defy death
By M J Akbar
The ageing rarely die suddenly, for they do not take life for granted. The young, particularly when armoured by success, laugh away danger, until danger has the last laugh.
Youth is more than a statistic. Y S Rajasekhara Reddy was 60 years old, when the tired are supposed to retire. But he had a youthful demeanour, the energy, spirit and mind of a man who saw more horizons before the inescapable grave or pyre. Risk is built into such a mentality, for the young, by definition, dismiss death as a distant fact. Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot, like YSR, saw themselves as young, and behaved with the joie de vivre of youth. Scindia, in another fated helicopter, challenged the elements, and Pilot, driving a light car, pressed his foot too hard on the pedal. YSR must have smiled in disdain when told that the weather would be inclement. Optimism is synonymous with youth. Pessimism, or its boring cousin, realism, is for the depressed and the faint-hearted.
An election victory is an unreliable measure of a politician's value. Rajasekhara Reddy's triumph in 2004 might not have been possible without the hard work he put in, but it could be argued that it was Chandrababu Naidu's loss as much as Reddy's gain. One of the by-laws of democracy is that every good Opposition needs the full cooperation of a terrible government to succeed. The true worth of a politician is known only by his ability to manage the tedious task of administration. Victory prances on banners; there are no headlines for good governance. It is visible only after five years, during the battle for re-election. Rajasekhara Reddy was not without his share of controversy; his opponents accused him of corruption. But he won in 2009 because he understood that the key to delivery is what has been done for the poor. Fashionable economists sneer at populism. Any sensible politician prefers popularity to a certificate from the World Bank.
His death is a blow to his government, obviously, but an incalculable loss to his party, for he twice delivered the fulcrum of the Congress presence in the Lok Sabha. Factionalism was hardly the sole sin of the Andhra Congress, but it was the rampant crime. If you have any sympathy for the ruling party you don't want to know what the Reddys and Raos used to be up to. Their humiliation at the hands of N T Rama Rao intensified the civil wars, rather than calming them down; and the elevation of P V Narasimha Rao as the first prime minister from the state did nothing to improve the culture of this fractious lot. All that Rao did as prime minister was to add another faction to the Andhra Congress, this one headed by a less-than-competent son.
Rajasekhara Reddy found both ends of the solution. He won an election, without which factionalism cannot be controlled; and then he assuaged hunger on all sides. It is a stupid victor who believes in winner-take-all.
The danger before the Congress is obvious. A localized earthquake has scattered what had been built; rebuilding is so much more difficult, since moorings have been displaced. It will be virtually impossible for any successor to maintain internal peace, because we are back to a party of lesser-known equals. Irrespective of who gets the job - the suave and senior S Jaipal Reddy, the rugged veteran K Rosaiah who has served in every Congress government since 1978 and has been made caretaker leader, or the young and ambitious Reddy son Y S Jagan - there will be resentment among those who have been denied. Jagan has created a media sprawl across the state that could be particularly useful in any factional feud, and he will also consider himself beneficiary of the sympathy accruing from his father's early death. No politician considers himself an untested peer's inferior. Since only victory in an election will establish the next chief minister's credentials, and there are more than four years left for that, you can do your own political math.
Rajasekhara Reddy was a Christian; a close relative of his is a modern evangelist. He went to Jerusalem on a thanksgiving pilgrimage after his election victory. As a believer, perhaps he should have remembered that there is an angel of death. When you feel young, you never really worry if the angel leaves its visiting card behind after a close call. Three years ago Rajasekhara Reddy got into a hired helicopter at Giddalur and flew into dense cloud and incessant rain over Srisailam. His pilot dropped height, and his chief security officer studied maps he happened to be carrying to discover the nearest point at which a helicopter could land. The angel is rarely cheated twice. And the young are not invincible.
Saturday, September 05, 2009
Wisdom has a great advantage over philosophy. It is simple. Philosophy is so often tortured by the human mind that its meditations become a maze. We become so enraptured by the complexities of the maze, so fascinated by its labyrinths that we forget that we once had a destination. Wisdom is a straight line: it is the shortest distance between question and answer.
Such thoughts were prompted by an email from a friend at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, who sent a verse from the Mahabharata:
“Dharmam yo badhate dharmo na sa dharmah kudharmkah;
avirodhattu yo dharmah, sa dharmah Satyavikrama.
Any dharma [way of life, or religion], that violates another’s dharma is not true dharma. It is kudharma, or bad dharma. That dharma which flourishes without harming the interest of others is indeed the true dharma, O Satyavikrama!”
Why has this fundamental principle of Mahabharata, an essential text of Hinduism, been ignored by those organisations who seek a political philosophy for the nation in the name of Hinduism? It is possible that politicians are so busy doing their politics that they remain ignorant of the faith that they so readily profess. But that would be a kind interpretation. Most politicians ignore morality because cynicism has made them amoral.
As the swirl continues over ideological and personality clashes among the titans who were born in a colonised India divided into some six hundred pieces, and won freedom with just one division, new questions are emerging from previously silent corners of memory. Incidentally, it is important for our perspective to remember that India was not a single political entity under the British, and even the creation of a federal polity after the Government of India Act of 1935, by which the Princely States sent representatives (nominated rather than elected) to the same legislature in Delhi as British India, did not make them part of a single political unit.
An old query has crept out of the historic woodwork. Mahatma Gandhi framed his concept of freedom around the dream of a Rama Rajya. How could he expect Muslims, who did not believe in Lord Rama, to relate to a Rama Rajya? Was Gandhi communal as well?
It may seem anachronistic now but Gandhi was convinced that politics without religion was immoral. He believed that faith provided the moral compass essential for a lifetime’s journey through public service. Gandhi demanded the highest virtues from his disciples, extending not only to non-violence and financial honesty but also celibacy. There were not many takers for the last; and you might have reason to ask whether he had not confused an ashram with a freedom movement. But Gandhi’s commitment to religion did not mean commitment to a single religion. In his Rama Rajya, every faith had full freedom and complete equality. His prayer meetings were not just about his beloved Gita; there was space for the Holy Quran, the Bible and the Guru Granth Saheb as well. He could never understand why anyone should misunderstand this; and it pained him when opponents misrepresented him, sneered at his gentle idealism and challenged his pacifism with the undisguised threat of violence. Lord Rama was an ideal, an image that communicated easily with the majority of India. But there was no aggression in his concept of divinity, and there was always equal space for the other. The Mahabharata was his favourite text, from which he learnt the true meaning of dharma. Gandhi’s Rama Rajya was a realm of harmony, not a continual battlefield.
The post-Gandhi Congress abandoned “Rama Rajya” for at least three reasons: the term had become a negative with Muslims; Nehru was uncomfortable with a religious idiom; and you needed to be as morally secure as Gandhi to promise a “Rama Rajya”. But why did the RSS and the BJP, who wanted a “Hindu India”, shy away from Gandhi’s formulation? Because their ideal was different from Gandhi’s. Paradoxically, the “Hindutva” forces had modelled themselves on Pakistan: they wanted to treat Indian Muslims and Christians in precisely the same way that Pakistan was treating its Hindus and Christians, as second-class citizens.
Whether such politics gets you votes or not is beside the point. The relevant factor is that such thinking is antagonistic to the idea of India as a modern democracy. Discrimination on the basis of faith is what happens in a theocracy, not a democracy. You have to be extremely stupid to imitate any neighbour with suicidal tendencies.
What Gandhi understood in 1919, when he launched his first major political onslaught against the British Empire, is as valid nine decades later. India can flourish only in a spirit of conflict resolution, and not through conflict escalation, or conflict perpetuation. The young are far more clear-sighted about this than the middle aged or the old, for the young have learnt from the mistakes of their fathers.
A simulated debate has been whisked up about the takeover of the BJP by the RSS: the two were never apart. The issue is not whether BJP will shift gear towards a philosophy of conciliation, but whether the RSS will do so. They could not hope for a better starting point: the Mahabharata.