Sunday, January 31, 2010

We need private firms in defence

We need private firms in defence
By M J Akbar

In theory the Republic Day parade is an exposition of our military strength. In practice it might have become an exposure of military fragility. If it were merely a question of poor display, it would not have mattered. The crisis lies in the degradation of our armed capability, arising from years of political indifference, bureaucratic ego and military frustration.

Defence, appropriately, is a word with a double-edge. Its obverse, offense, is a complementary necessity. An army does not have to be offensive in order to maintain the capacity to offend. A purely defensive force will always be in psychological retreat during peacetime, and physical retreat in war. You don’t have to be Clausewitz to understand that; common sense should be sufficient. A few years ago a Chinese general famously told the world that his country had the capability to put a nuclear missile into California. This did not lead to a collapse of Sino-American relations; China’s ambassador to Washington was not summoned for a dressing down. Nor was the general cashiered by Beijing. It is useful to remind even friends of the strength of the arm at the other end of a handshake. And it is essential to tell an actual or potential enemy the weight of the iron beneath the glove.

The dilemma is compounded by the fact that the concept of peacetime has been blurred beyond recognition by terrorism. The formality of conflict – official declaration, set-piece battles on fields, truce, peace treaty – has been overtaken by continual, sudden havoc. The unpredictability of violence has become a crucial nerve-test for defence services, which include, obviously, the police. If terrorists realize that the paramount armed institution of a nation is a guard dog that has lost its teeth, then it will increase levels of infiltration and assault.

The state of night-vision devices, essential to border-watch, is, to stretch a pun into irony, illuminating. We have 3,000 tanks, enough to overwhelm the western front. The trouble is that 75% of the tanks are daytime warriors; they go blind at night, while Pakistan has just received the latest, third generation devices from the US as an ally in the “war on terror”. Night sights on infantry light machine guns have batteries that drain in two hours. Everyone knows what to do, but not how to get it done. Government wants the Army to buy India-made devices from a particular public sector undertaking. This undertaking cannot find a foreign supplier that will transfer technology. Foreign companies are reluctant to part with knowledge that could affect their business; and if they had to collaborate, they would prefer to do so with private companies. Indian private sector companies are not allowed to manufacture weapons.

This is inexplicable and unforgivable, but, paradoxically, comprehensible. The official reason is that defence is “sensitive”. In other words, India’s government does not trust Indian businessmen. The same government trusts Russians, Europeans, Israelis and is eager to trust Americans to supply the most critical weapons, but finds Indians untrustworthy. This is the inexplicable part. Why is this comprehensible? An interlocked system of demand-supply-lubrication has been set up in defence. The international arms industry supplies quality goods, but at hugely inflated prices. It is loathe to permit any domestic competitor in one of the world’s largest markets, and the Indian political-bureaucrat class listens to this lobby because a safe system of percentages and lifestyle protection keeps it satisfied.

In 1947 India had a defence production capability, inherited from the British, that was infinitely superior to China’s. It would take many pages, rather than a mere column, to report the pinnacles that China has scaled in six decades while we cannot even produce enough Ichapur rifles. Where necessary, China adapted foreign technology to create superior products, including warplanes. The difference is not in human ability, but in commitment to a term that was a hallmark of the Nehru era but has been abandoned in the last two decades: self-sufficiency. Nehru, alas, is a poor example for self-sufficiency in defence, because his minister, V Krishna Menon, thought politics could protect the nation. But this Nehruvian principle would have served us best in the sector he and his successors ignored.

Our model was a mixed economy, but we refused to mix the economics of defence production. If Indian entrepreneurs had been permitted space in weaponry they would have been supplying the world by now, enriching themselves and the nation in the process. China believed in, and delivered, self-sufficiency. We chose the easy, and buttered, road to a dead-end.

If it is any consolation, Pakistan is an even worse situation. Maybe that is why doves are cooing in Delhi and Islamabad, while terrorists check their options and opportunities in both countries.

We need Private firms in Defence

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Peace means the summer of 1965

Byline by M J Akbar: Peace means the summer of 1965

There is a duality but not a contradiction running through the complexities of the India-Pakistan relationship. Friday’s newspapers, for instance, reported a confrontation between Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani: the former is convinced that Islamabad is protecting the widely-acknowledged principal architect of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, Hafiz Saeed, chief of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Gilani thinks India has not supplied sufficient evidence against Saeed. Chidambaram counters this with, “What can I do if a Government closes its eyes to the evidence?”

Outside the squat offices of power, a virtual festival of Indo-Pak peace is being celebrated in major Indian cities, with full participation by Pakistani writers, musicians and its cultural elite. Why isn’t this a contradiction?

There has always been a peace constituency in both India and Pakistan, but it consisted of idealists, regional-romantics and do-gooders. It used to be drowned out by a coalition of viewpoints and ideologies ranging from indifference to hostility to blood-thirst. Change has come in most categories of opinion, on both sides of the border, though not on a mirror-track. The bloodthirsty lobby in India began to lose its appetite after Bangladesh, an outcome beyond its imagination. For a while it compensated by continuing to target Indian Muslims as a surrogate enemy, but that too has waned since there is no longer any electoral reward in domestic conflict, an important consideration in a democracy.

Pakistan’s fanatics flourish because they have lifted elements of their multi-level agenda above the compulsions of domestic power. We should not waste newsprint on their fantasies, except to note that their terrorism remains the single greatest provocation for a fourth, and potentially devastating, war between India and Pakistan.

Perhaps it is just such a prospect that has driven the most useful lobby on the subcontinent, that of realists, towards peace. Realists have clearly strengthened Pakistan’s variable and possibly fragile peace constituency immeasurably. You don’t have to fall in love to be a good neighbour; in fact romance can have harmful side-effects. But good neighbours do not pelt each other with stones [through media] or test nerves with sniper fire during their waking hours.

Peace has to be defined, or it will remain elusive. It has to be a specific, objective, negotiated condition, neither too ambitious nor too insignificant. If it is mere absence of formal war, then we have found it already. The search continues because we know that the present uncertainty is inherently volatile, prone to exploitation by anarchists and terrorists. If we want a mutually fruitful peace, we need to diagnose the causes of war.

There are two defining dates in the Indo-Pak relationship, only one of which is recognised for its spawn of consequences. There have been, in effect, two partitions of India: the one in 1947 is in every child’s history book; the one in 1965 has not been adequately understood. 1947 divided the land; 1965 divided the people. Till Pakistan launched, in 1965, its second effort to seize our part of Jammu and Kashmir through a formal military offensive, people travelled freely on easily-available documents, the rail border at Wagah bustled with business even if the occasional customs officer bristled with pompousness in an effort to disguise harassment and petty corruption, the border on both wings was so porous that humans and goods were easily smuggled in both directions, businessmen retained cross-border investments, media was freely available and conflict was the prerogative of politicians and military brass. In 1965, we built a wall between neighbours that the Cold War architects of the Berlin rampart could have envied.

Those who want to reverse the reality of 1947 are either fanatics or fools. [Terrible as they are, the former could be less troublesome than the latter.] India and Pakistan are separate nations, and may they retain their present borders for eternity. Those Pakistanis dreaming of breaking India should be sent to a mental asylum, where they can befriend those Indians who want to capture Islamabad.

Sanity demands a return to the summer of 1965 [war began in September] and not a return to the summer of 1947 [partition came in August]. This objective has the merit of being possible. If we link Indo-Pak harmony to a solution of the Kashmir problem, we will remain frozen in a subcontinent-wide Siachen. Harmony will induce steps towards a solution; not the other way around, because there are impenetrable barriers on the way around.

A road with dual carriageways is logical; a road with contradictions is an invitation to deathly accidents.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Save earth from human nature

Save earth from human nature
By M J Akbar

The ever evolving definition of hell needs a Delhi update. Hell is being trapped in a steel tube ensnared in the evil fog of an airport tarmac. Hell is helplessness as deceptive nature winks through the seeming window in a darkness flecked by swirling waves of heavy, oppressive air and then shuts it with an impenetrable, dense, grey screen as your aeroplane begins to taxi optimistically towards opportunity. Where the hell has global warming gone?

Should it be considered entirely appropriate, or wickedly fortuitous, that the world has witnessed its coldest winter in a long while just after the much-vaunted gathering of the high, low, mighty and weak at the Copenhagen conference on global warming? The conference itself produced a molehill of unimplementable phrases out of a mountain of hype; the charter could not tie China to Togo or America to Tonga despite the presence of an extraordinary collection of worthies who tried their level best to disguise their failure behind the fanfare of promotion. The dramatics started much before the meet: the Maldives held a Cabinet meeting on its ocean-bed and Nepal on Mount Everest.

Not to be outdone, our own acrobatic and hirsute minister for environment, Jairam Ramesh, flipped a breathtaking triple somersault. But no resolution was actually adopted by the 192 nations present and five countries would not even deign to pretend they agreed. No one gave any commitment on reduction of carbon emissions that could be held to account because it was not required. Big boys sniffed at the kids, who hollered for more pocket money. China would not even permit nations like Germany, who had come with commitments, to record their percentages lest it become a precedent that it would be compelled to follow. In the classic manner of those who have little to offer, it sought, and got, agreement to talk another time, as if a conference in Delhi was going to ever be the success that Copenhagen had been unable to deliver. The reason was never stated, but is now becoming apparent: there is a growing suspicion that climate theology has been constructed out of shaky testament.

Hypocrisy might be the least of our travails by the time details fully unravel. We might be staring at a PR process over the last few years during which bombast and academic fraud with multiple epicentres, one of them Delhi, has been richly rewarded with grants, respectability and what used to be the highest of accolades, the Nobel Prize for Peace.

What is the difference between a band and a bandwagon? The first turns into the second when the trumpets begin to play false notes, and the world applauds it as revolutionary music.

The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was won jointly by Al Gore, father of climate change, and a United Nations body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The latter created a worldwide brouhaha by announcing that it was ‘most likely’ that Himalayan glaciers were in retreat and would disappear by 2035. It was the perfect horizon: too far for anyone making the prediction to be alive in that year, and close enough to frighten the wits out of alarmists. ‘Most likely’ means, in such parlance, a 95% probability. The evidence for such a dramatic conclusion came, it now transpires, from a single interview given by an Indian glacier specialist (a former vice chancellor of universities now working for the government of Sikkim) 10 years ago to the New Scientist. TERI gave him a reasonably comfortable retirement benefit at its comfortable Delhi premises and its director, now in his avatar as Cardinal Green of Pope Gore, went on to share the limelight in Oslo. The scientist was comforted by a Padma Shri — not bad, but not quite a Nobel Prize. The New York Times has now reported that this scientist (let us leave him nameless) claims he was ‘misquoted’ in that original interview. As misquotes go, this must surely be the most glistening jewel in the baggage train of a bandwagon.

No one stops a roll on its way to reward, so we should not be too surprised that this particular scientist did not notice he had been misquoted while the Nobel was being doled out. What is astonishing is the absence of any due diligence by the Nobel committee. Sceptics have suggested that the Peace award to US President Barack Obama was egg on Oslo’s face; well, this was a whole hatchery. Maybe Nobel has simply run out of candidates for the Peace Prize. Peace is not the favourite pastime of our times, and is too relative. Nobel should rename the award: Sanctimonious Prize? Brand Value Prize? Holy Cow Prize?

The dark fog of nature can never compete with the oily smog of human nature.

- Save Earth from human nature

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Price of Power

Byline by M J Akbar: Price of Power

As they say, it’s a no-brainer. Trust and loyalty rank much higher on Delhi’s power graph than integrity. The working definition of loyalty is discretion. The system works on silence. This holds true for both politician and bureaucrat, although the public image of the former is synonymous with a gabfest and the bureaucrat is increasingly becoming prey to the siren call of the camera. In any case, it is extremely rare when a veteran with a career stretching across five decades achieves an indisputable reputation for discretion and integrity.

M.K. Narayanan did not set out to win any popularity contest when he joined the Intelligence Bureau in 1961, although his understated sense of humour won him more friends than you might imagine. From virtually the start he occupied a room in the sanctum sanctorum of India’s power pyramid, the South Block on Delhi’s Raisina Hill.

MK’s career coincides, almost exactly, with the maturing of the Indian state through a series of existential crises. Till 1961, the worst problem was communal riots, interspersed with troubles over state formation: difficult, certainly, but hardly formidable. Within a year of joining IB, MK was working with his legendary boss B.N. Mullick to find out how the Chinese had blown massive holes in our security across the Himalayas. Communists were part of his brief and he sent the topmost leaders to jail because their ideology took precedence over their nationalism. It is ironic that he should now be sent as governor to a state run by Marxists.

He might equally easily have been sent as governor of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, it would have been more relevant to do so, for this state began to blip loudly on his professional radar in 1963, with the disappearance of the Mo-e-Muqaddas, the holy hair from the Prophet’s beard preserved in Srinagar. Mullick was the first IB chief to write a memoir, so we know that the recovery of the holy relic was an IB triumph. But we have not been told how precisely this happened. MK knows. And he has kept quiet.

Move from 1963 to 1965: The war launched by Pakistan to seize the Kashmir valley was a major challenge to IB. Kashmir, Punjab, Bluestar, Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the conflagration in the Northeast, the Lanka catastrophe, Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic death: MK’s experiences constitute what might be called a covert history of India. He was extremely close to Rajiv Gandhi and maintained the relationship with the family. Every Prime Minister after Rajiv sought and got his advice. His appointment to PMO on the return of Congress was inevitable.

What was certainly not inevitable was his sudden departure from PMO to the senior citizens’ rest home, a Raj Bhavan. No one has offered an explanation. A year ago there was a reason. There was a demand for his resignation after the terrorist onslaught on Mumbai. But neither Mrs Sonia Gandhi nor Dr Manmohan Singh would even consider this. MK had, more than anyone else, shepherded the nuclear deal through domestic and international minefields. There was visible harmony between the PM and him. How and why has this harmony been suddenly ruptured?

Home Minister Chidambaram’s discomfort with him is not an explanation. Power equations are not a love affair. A high table always needs different voices, and MK would always add high value to any discourse. In any case, this was a Prime Minister’s decision, not a Home Minister’s. Nor do seasoned Prime Ministers suffer from mercurial likes and dislikes.

The last five years have shown a pattern. While Dr Singh keeps an eye on the wide spectrum of governance, to the extent that is humanly possible, he reserves his core energy for a single policy focus. In his first term this was the nuclear deal. MK was an eminently suitable partner in that enterprise. The second term is clearly going to survive on a separate heartbeat. The PM seems to have put peace with Pakistan at the heart of his new agenda. The nuclear deal will seem a picnic compared to a Pakistan and it requires courage to even attempt it. MK has spent five decades protecting his nation from the intricacies and duplicity of an often-hostile neighbour. Perhaps the PM wants someone with less memory. That is a mistake. Vision without a reality check is an incomplete construct.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What if Pakistanis land at our border?

What if Pakistanis land at our border?
By M J Akbar

A good friend from Lahore, an activist deeply committed to people's rights and the integrity of Pakistan's legal structures, asked me a question so startling that it took a while to sink in. What would India do if a million Pakistanis reached the Wagah border, demanding safety in India from the Taliban and its ancilliary ideological warriors?

The prospect is only as unthinkable as an analyst suggesting, over coffee on College Street in Calcutta in 1969, that three million refugees from East Pakistan would descend on the city's maidan within two years, forcing a war that would lead to an independent Bangladesh. Pakistan lost the trust of half its population within a quarter century of its birth. Within another four decades, half of what was left is in mortal fear of the other half.

Just as 1971 could not be contained within the geography of Pakistan, a second existential upheaval will also spill over into India. It cannot seep westwards into Afghanistan, because this is, in a sense, another east-west confrontation: the east is under siege from the frontier west, and the east can only move further east for asylum.

How would India, and, more important, Indians, react? In various ways, surely: shock, smugness, gloating, concern — both for those trying to stream in and for the volatile consequences of their arrival. But at some point, sooner rather than later, this range would have to coalesce into one broad sentiment that could then be translated into official policy. Would that be sympathy or cynicism? Would the human heart prevail as children, women and the young sought the comfort of India, or would antipathy make us dismiss them with a sneer: "You made your bed in 1947, now sleep on its thorns."

Punjab would have the decisive voice. I believe that most of Punjab, though not all, would speak from its heart, perhaps with tears in its eyes, even if a colder Delhi thought it a good idea to consign the refugees to thorns. Is this being sentimental? Perhaps, but it would be a cold life without sentiment. In 1971, West Bengal did not check the religion of refugees. Most of them were Muslims, but that was less important than the fact they were three million frightened and hungry Bengalis.

But there are also significant differences, both in time and space. India had never felt threatened by East Pakistan. Bengali Muslims did not forsake their language or script although there was pressure from Karachi "nationalists", in the early years, to write Bengali in the Urdu alphabet (just as, for instance, Kemal Ataturk made Turks abandon the Arabic script and switch to Roman). The reaction was so severe that such ideas were quickly forgotten. There were riots in Bengal, as bitter if not as widespread as those in Punjab, but links were more firmly maintained. There were riots, and there was discrimination against Bengali Hindus; but East Pakistan was not emptied of Hindus, as happened to Hindus in Pakistani Punjab and Sind. Any anger against Indian "repression" was soon overtaken by the reality of West Pakistani oppression against Bengalis for reasons that can only be described as racist.

Time offers its own angularities. In 1971 Indians were angry at the aggression of 1965. War is a tragedy, but one which is acceptable as part of human experience; there is no lifetime in history that can claim it has not undergone the tension and cleavage of war. The dominant experience of the last four decades has been of terrorism. Terrorism is a sly, surreptitious, contemptible evil that makes no distinction between innocent and enemy. How much will the horror of remembered terrorism faze eyes and ice up veins if, God forbid, there is clamour at the gates of Wagah? War will inevitably follow refugees into India; it is possible that a fifth column might camouflage itself in the misery of a human exodus. When citizens have made borders irrelevant why should armies, state or non-state, uniformed or shadowy, respect lines drawn on water? Who will be where in that war? Will the Pakistani armed forces be as divided as the country, split by ideology? Will half the Pakistanis fight alongside Indian forces? The imponderables chase the unthinkable.

One of the defining images of Pakistan's sense of itself is etched on the walls of its side of Wagah: a depiction of wrecked refugees streaming into the new country after Partition. The calamity was not one-sided; there were traumatized millions entering India as well. But India has not frozen that moment in stone, to remind everyone that this was once the brutal battlefield of a civil war. Perhaps Lahoris will erase that image, wherever it is, before they reach the gates of Wagah.

Appeared in Times of India - December 17, 2010

Smoke and Smokescreens

Byline by M J Akbar: Smoke and Smokescreens

One of the more curious episodes in recent weeks is the indignation with which Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor’s statement that India’s forces were ready to face war on two fronts simultaneously, against China and Pakistan, was received. The Islamabad establishment has treated this as a virtual declaration of war. It is possible that the politicians of Pakistan have begun to confuse Islamabad with Delhi.

Generals in Delhi do not declare war. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet do that. Generals have only one duty. They have to reassure the government and the nation that they will be able to protect the country even in the worst possible circumstances, and deliver on the assurance. The nightmare scenario for India is a concerted, coordinated offensive by China across the main Himalayas, and by Pakistan on its Kashmir wedge. This is, conversely, the dream scenario of General Headquarters in Pakistan. General Kapoor was doing his job when he made that statement.

There was a time when, to put it in the language of the Fifties, war-war was the business of generals and jaw-jaw was the responsibility of politicians. The taciturn warrior began to disappear with the British Empire and Soviet Union; and as American military power began to fill the strategic vacuum the greater individual freedoms of America began to permeate the Pentagon and its equivalents. American officers took their final orders from the White House, but they had plenty to say in-between. The most recent case was last year’s debate on a troop surge in Afghanistan. The Pentagon not only told the White House, which was dithering, what it wanted, but made sure the American voter and the citizens of Pakistan and Afghanistan got the message as well. The infection has reached the stiff upper lips of Britain: generals there make demands for equipment through the media. Discipline cannot completely sanitize the military brass from the influences of the democratic spirit, and its institutions.

China did not react sharply to General Kapoor’s comment, although it can hold its own in any sparring match. It may be argued that it did not need to do anything but laugh. A little after General Kapoor’s claim, the Government of India admitted, formally, that China had eaten away vast amounts of [presumably unpatrolled, or sparsely visited] border territory. Even more interesting than the government’s admission was the fact that Indians seemed beyond caring. The Opposition parties shrugged and concentrated on screaming at one another; television, which gets hysterical when a leaf flutters, had other things to do. Clearly, media reserves its visceral reactions only for its western rather than its northern border. This is maybe because the occupation of distant, barren land cannot compare, in televisual terms, with the throbbing drama of the heights and valleys of Kashmir.

Islamabad’s reaction has nothing to do with any threat from India, because there is no threat from India. India does not desire an inch of land beyond the Ceasefire Line or the international border. Equally, it will not surrender an inch of what is under its control. Pakistan, however, has built a layered case before America which boils down to this: it cannot fight all of America’s enemies on the Frontier, or those who treat the Frontier as sanctuary for the conflict in Afghanistan, as long as Indian guns are pointed at its back. It needs relief in the east to fight in the west. Washington has bought this argument, and Delhi has obliged as unobtrusively as possible. Our two-front General Kapoor has quietly presided over the withdrawal of over 40,000 troops from the Kashmir valley, and their transfer to the eastern Himalayas under the cover of rising worry about China. It’s very neat actually: we use China, possibly with Beijing’s knowledge, to help out America in its Pakistan war.

As long as there is no change in ground realities, this game can be played to triangular, or even quadrangular, satisfaction. Alas, everyone is not playing the same game. The spurt in terrorist violence in Srinagar during the last fortnight could be aimed at disturbing this dainty strategic daisy chain. Specialists are warning of an impending attack on the Indian mainland.

The delicate diplomatic balance could crumble if Pakistan and America push too hard, and believe that they can manoeuvre Delhi into a final settlement on Kashmir. There is very little space for negotiations on Kashmir itself, given that Pakistan is searching a major dilution of the status quo and India, at least at the moment, will agree on only the Ceasefire Line as the solution. Is the sudden talk of National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan being shifted to a powerless Governor’s bungalow indicative of a major change in Delhi’s Kashmir policy? He was a status quoist. Dr Manmohan Singh thinks, perhaps, that he can remobilize the constituency that cheered the nuclear deal with the United States. That may be easier in theory than practice. Pakistan, after all, is far more explosive than any number of nuclear plants.

Was General Deepak Kapoor’s two-front statement part of the smoke or the smokescreen?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why Jyoti Basu could not be PM

Why Jyoti Basu could not be PM
By M J Akbar

Why did Jyoti Basu describe the decision to deny him the prime minister’s office in 1997 as Indian Marxism’s “historic blunder”? He was not in love with status. He had more power in Bengal than most prime ministers have in India. He was content in Kolkata and capable of mounting an offensive from the Red Fortress that could shake the parameters of the Red Fort. V P Singh could never have become prime minister without his muscle. The decisive word in “historic blunder” is “historic”, not “blunder”. Basu realized that his party, CPI(M), had taken a wrong turn at a swivel moment in history.

A surface view might suggest that the most significant political change since 1997 has been the decline and fall of the Left, a process disguised by accidents of electoral mathematics until the slide became an avalanche three years ago. We are so hypnotized by party politics that we are unable to recognize the politics of people. The more startling fact is that the last decade has seen unprecedented growth of the Left, now a substantive presence in about 200 districts rather than in the 50-odd that used to deliver its MPs.

The difference is that Naxalites are not in the organized sector of Indian democracy. A look at their spread is to define what the CPI(M) could have been if it had not been blinded in Bengal and cockeyed in Kerala. Basu saw what his comrades did not. The Left needed a quantum leap from regional satrapies by offering leadership to the underprivileged and marginalized through the colossal power of a prime minister. A prime minister’s language, perhaps even more than his policies, sets the agenda of the nation. Basu had been weaned in the Nehru era and matured during the Indira Gandhi years. He was flexible enough to mix the high idealism of Nehru with the pragmatic diction of Indira Gandhi and the edge of Communist activism to establish a national constituency that the Left forsook in the 50s. Nor could Congress have withdrawn support to him on a flimsy excuse, as it did with Inder Gujral, without paying a heavy price in the ensuing general election. Basu had street-and-state credibility.

The CPI(M) was impelled into the “historic blunder” because of its hypocritical approach towards Delhi. It has always sought influence without responsibility. Its very junior brother, CPI, had no qualms about joining Deve Gowda’s coalition government. The CPI(M) forgets that heavy flirting does not beget babies; nor, logically, can atheists pray for immaculate conception. An analogy from the history of Marxism is irresistible: the Basu blunder was akin to Lenin telling Kerensky he had no time for the Kremlin, but pointing out that he be consulted each time Kerensky wanted to name a provisional governor. It is, perhaps, all too appropriate that the CPI(M) is Marxist and the CPI(M-L) is Marxist-Leninist.

The CPI(M) has never fully understood its own potential. When, after the split from the CPI in 1964 it rejected the Maoist-extremists of Naxalbari, and decided to work within the framework of nationalism, democracy and a bourgeoisie-capitalist economy, it became the first instance of what should be called the New Left.

The Old Left was already mired in stifling party dictatorships, and unable to recognize the temper of a world shifting towards the accountability of elections and the freedom of individual choice. As an increasingly stable democracy, but with enormous social and economic disparities, India provided the perfect environment for the creation of a New Left template. The CPI(M) was meant to use the system to whittle away its imbalances and shape a society that would never have been perfect but would certainly have been more egalitarian. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CPI(M) could have provided an example, if not leadership, to the Left in Africa, Latin America and Asia, filling a huge vacuum that is still empty.

The fall of the Left does not mean that the world does not need a leftist voice or agenda; perhaps it has rarely needed one more urgently. As a Communist prime minister of democratic India just half a decade after the implosion of the Soviet Union, Basu would have influenced not just his own country but the world. He would have conducted a foreign policy that understood independence without being a silly, ranting, anti-American caricature.

There are substantive reasons why the epic struggle between Right and Left seems to have tipped in favour of the former. The Right has displayed the ability to compromise, in theory and practice, on the rim in order to protect the core. The Left has surrendered to demands of its core constituencies, like trade unions, even when they had become unsustainable and counter-productive.

Basu was the Cromwell that the modern Left abandoned in a fog of uncertainty.

Appeared in Times of India - December 10, 2010

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Peace is where the media is

Byline by M J Akbar : Peace is where the media is

The advertising is smart enough to be effective, although how long its effect will last could well depend on what appears on the front page of the Times of India rather than the page carrying this ad. The campaign is unique: a joint public service venture by the Times, India’s most powerful media group by a distance, and Jang, Pakistan’s most influential newspaper. The theme is unquestionably laudable: Aman ki Asha [Hope for Peace]. No region could possibly want peace more urgently than a subcontinent addled with angst and saddled with two nuclear powers.

This could not have happened without a quiet nod from governments in Delhi and Islamabad; and possibly three, if you want to add Washington. The purpose is surely to soften up the street for a deal brewing somewhere within the innards of government. Citizens, so far addicted to conflict at any cost, must slowly be retuned to the wavelength of peace at any cost. It is axiomatic that both countries will have to compromise on some elements of deeply-held positions to create the “give” that will get the solution. The process of selling the “give” to their own publics has begun, albeit through indirect methods. The choice of Jang is relevant. The true equivalent of the Times would be the Dawn group, but readers of Dawn are probably already amenable to the idea of a rational rapport with India. It is the Jang reader who needs to be turned.

The first advertisement had the kind of headline that makes copywriters give each other awards: Occasionally, peace deserves a war. The amplification in body copy was neo-Buddhist: peace is passive, serene, good; war is active, violent, destructive. It is obvious that we would not appreciate the value of peace if we did not know the price of war — just, I suppose, as Adam and Eve did not understand the worth of Paradise before they were banished to earth. One wonders, however, if anyone caught the double entendre. Jang means war, unlike, say, the Times of India, which created a newspaper to report on the times of India.

The official explanation is that Jang was launched in 1944, when the world was at war. I doubt if anyone wanted to start an Urdu paper on the subcontinent in order to support the liberation of France from Nazi Germany. 1944 was also the year of a Muslim League slogan: “Ladh ke lenge Pakistan! [We will win Pakistan with war!]” But this is good news. If Jang can reinvent itself as a warrior for peace, then something important and beneficial is happening, or has already happened, among opinion-builders in Pakistan.

The problem is with the front page. On 8 January, while its inner pages were pushing peace, the Times carried a front page story saying “700 Jihadis” had been let loose to spread mayhem in Jammu and Kashmir. On the morning of 9 January all papers published taped extracts of conversations between two terrorists who had entered a hotel in Srinagar and their handlers in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. When one of the terrorists said they were surrounded and trapped by Indian police, the reply was “Shahadat se pehle zyada se zyada policewalon ko maro, zyada se zyada nuksaan pahunchao [Before martyrdom kill as many policemen as possible, destroy as much as possible]”. After one terrorist was killed, the other sent a desperate message, “Khel khatm hone wala hai [The game is about to be over]”. The reply he got was “Daro mat, tumhe jaldi Rab mil jaayega [Do not be afraid, you will soon find God]”.

I do not know how Jang reported the incident; in the old days the terrorists would have been extolled as “freedom-fighters” and “martyrs”. The incident underlines the enormous difficulties in building a peace constituency. But this much is certain, if peace has to come then it will emerge from page one and not from pages carrying advertisements. One is not suggesting the false equation used all too often by those who have no interest in peace, that a solution can only be crafted after violence ends. A terrorist organisation, or even a maverick individual, can always sabotage such a counter-productive condition. But we need news that the government is not a silent agent provocateur, that it has been able to identify and imprison the masterminds of terrorism operating from Pakistan. This is not a specific Indian demand; it is the basic minimum that the international community expects in the global fight against terrorism. Islamabad’s compliance is a must.

We should not succumb to hopelessness when terrorists get through our defenses and inflict violence, as they did in Srinagar this week. There may not be unanimity in the Pak establishment on peace, but, as noted, the participation of Jang represents an important reappraisal and it would be extremely foolish to ignore any glimmer. The initiative taken by media groups also means that they must create a new culture of reporting in which honesty is not undermined by hysteria. The street listens to media in the hope that it is more credible than governments, a hope that is often belied.

Peace, like charity, begins at home, and peace is where media is.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Path to peace runs through Kashmir

Path to peace runs through Kashmir
By M J Akbar

When was the last time you read the front of a Christmas card? This seasonal benevolence begs an intriguing question: Which comes first? Peace on earth or goodwill towards men?

Any Indian visitor to Pakistan will vouch for the genuine goodwill he finds. We are an emotional people; cricket is the perfect pitch for hostility since all its crises can be sorted out over a sumptuous dinner afterwards. But all the warmth between Indians and Pakistanis has not translated into peace between India and Pakistan. The relationship began with war over Kashmir within six weeks of birth because the two nations are founded on antagonistic concepts of nationalism.

Pakistan is a child of the two-nation theory. This is not a matter of geography. Its premise is that Hindus and Muslims belong to separate nations. Jinnah reiterated a million times that living with Hindus was submission to Hindu tyranny and sneered at Maulana Azad when the latter insisted that a secular multi-faith state was not only possible, but desirable. This is the basis for every Pakistani’s conviction that the Kashmir valley is rightfully a part of Pakistan, and Indian rule in Srinagar is ruthless colonization.

India has accepted the fact of Pakistan. It supported Pakistan’s membership of the United Nations even when Afghanistan opposed it. But India’s ideology cannot accept that there should be two nations because there are two faiths. Its Constitution and six decades of democratic experience say so. India’s ideology makes Kashmir as inviolable a part of India as Pakistan’s ideology makes it a part of Pakistan. Pakistan would not want Hindu-majority Jammu even if anyone offered it, since Pakistan is a Muslims-only state. Its Constitution forbids non-Muslims from becoming president or prime minister.

Kashmiris have added a singular twist to this existential dilemma, with a three-nation theory. The progenitor of the concept of Kashmiri independence was not a Muslim: in 1947 Maharaja Hari Singh delayed accession to either state in the hope of acquiring a unique and separate status. Over time, and particularly after the marginalization of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley, independence has become a Kashmiri Muslim, rather than a Kashmiri, demand.

Where is the median point at which such conflicting aspirations meet or merge? The difficulty should be apparent to even the most optimistic goodwill-salesman. One of the three has to abandon a fiercely-held ideology, with attendant consequences.

Delhi seems to believe that the easiest negotiating space lies in the three-nation theory. It has set in motion, through the familiar ruse of committees, a virtual-nation option for Kashmir in the guise of autonomy. Islamabad would match Delhi’s rearrangement after a pre-arranged signal, and Kashmiris would be offered the substance of independence without the reality. Such a solution would be illusory without legal and Constitutional permanence. It would be vulnerable on disparate counts. Many Pakistanis would not see it as a solution, only as partial victory in the long haul to the full acquisition of Kashmir.

This is certainly the declared objective of terrorist networks and their allies in government, who would be tempted towards greater violence. The Lashkar-e-Taiba and its friends are unlikely to sign any peace-on-earth deal with India. There could also be a change of mood, or change of government, in Delhi. Nehru withdrew many of the commitments made in the Delhi Agreement with Sheikh Abdullah because they were incompatible with the federal structure and a potential threat to Indian unity. Fudge is inedible.

The idea of Pakistan is being battered each day on the streets by guns and suicide bombers. A common faith could not prevent a revolution in Bangladesh, a revolt in Baluchistan, or, last week, the massacre of Shias. It would be interesting to find out through a poll whether Shias today feel more secure in Lucknow or Karachi. Pakistan’s Muslims created a separate country because they could not live with Hindus and Sikhs; today they are discovering that they cannot live with one another. The evidence is in front of us; the inference is too inflammatory to be uttered.

The solution to Kashmir cannot lie in a failed theory. And Kashmiris surely appreciate that independence is not possible. Perhaps this subcontinent needs one last touch of surgery. The price of Partition in Punjab and Bengal was horrific, but it brought peace. Six decades later, West Bengal has the highest density of Muslims among all states in India, and the strength of secularism has persuaded Bihari Muslims to migrate to Punjab. Kashmir was divided along the ceasefire line because Pakistan, in 1947, chose war over talks. If Pakistan insists on an ideological claim over the valley, there will be no peace. If it can find space for pragmatism, Islamabad and Delhi can shake hands on a Happy New Year without needing to count their fingers afterwards.

Times of India Column

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sense and absence

Byline by M J Akbar: Sense and absence

Does it matter that there was no tribal or Muslim on the dais when the Congress celebrated its 125th anniversary? Or that the history of the party has now been co-opted into the history of the Nehru-Gandhi family, with token homage to Mahatma Gandhi and throwaway references to titans of the first two decades of our nation-building process?

The second has become, in truth, an irritation to commentators rather than voters. Those who support the Congress have already conflated the party with the family, a process that began during Mrs Indira Gandhi’s time and has matured during Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. So has the party structure. The Congress voter believes that the two Mrs Gandhis do the best that they can for the poor, which is at least better than the rest. And the party identifies the family with something other leaders have not been able to provide: electoral success. Lal Bahadur Shastri did not live long enough to translate his sturdy promise into Lok Sabha seats. And while Narasimha Rao may have, in his own estimation, saved the nation from economic ruin he could not save the Congress from political ruin. The family is safe anchor for those Congressmen who want to be in power for twenty years or the end of their lives, whichever comes quicker.

But the first has to be a problem. There is of course always an element of tokenism in any high-table seating arrangement, but those tokens have value, which is why they are preserved. Sonia Gandhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Mrs Sheila Dikshit and Motilal Vora were natural claimants, although it did not go without notice that there are three Brahmins in the group. The presence of A.K. Antony had nothing to do with either Kerala or his Christian faith; it was proof that Mrs Gandhi holds him in high esteem. J.P. Aggarwal sat there as host, but Mukul Wasnik was given space because of his community, marking this pleasant and decent person as the Dalit face of the future. Rahul Gandhi did not sit on the dais, presumably because he was away on holiday. It was a politically sensible holiday, for he still has a slightly nebulous status, party-wise: he is certainly not a member of the audience, but not quite the equal of Manmohan-Pranab-Dikshit-Antony group. Absence can have its uses.

But not every time. The absence of a tribal or a Muslim was not out of choice. The ranking Muslim Cabinet minister is Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Kashmiri. Muslims of the Gangetic belt, from Hardwar and Saharanpur to Kolkata via Patna do not identify with him; and this is where the bulk of the faithful live. The absence of tribals is an even bigger problem, for one of the main reasons for the growth of Naxalites in the tribal belt is their conviction that they have been marginalized by the larger political formations. Unable to offer a face of its own, the Congress was forced to co-opt Babulal Marandi in the Jharkhand elections. It did well, but would have done better if it had built its indigenous tribal leadership.

While the home ministry might launch its armed offensive against Naxalites, sensible politics demands a parallel dialogue with the communities that constitute the strength of this opposition. There are no Congress leaders who can play this role. Muslims are quiet now, but if passions do rise over job quotas Congress will face the same difficulty with its strongest vote base.

Complacency is never a good idea, and the BJP has sent a signal that it just might be getting its act together. Its new leader Nitin Gadkari has sent two interesting signals. He invoked Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s concern for the last man in the queue, a reversal of the impression that the party could not look beyond the first man in the queue. The second is a collage: he served chicken at a reception at party headquarters; he used a line from a Hindi film song at a press conference; and, in his individual capacity, he is a bit overweight. While weight and temperament are not necessarily correlated, it is generally true that men who eat more than they should are also tolerant of human indulgence. Think the laughing Buddha. Think Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who wanted men about him who were fat and was wary of yon Cassius with his lean and hungry look. A chap who can chow down with the best, and listens to film music is unlikely to be rigid, although the jury must remain out on this question till the end of this year.

There will be many battles in the decade ahead, some fierce, others lukewarm. But while we are engrossed in the high drama of the Naxalite revolt, economic upturn-downturn, minority-poverty definitions, watch out for the subliminal conflict between Rahul Gandhi’s fashionable stubble and Gadkari’s film song quotations. Chorhon kal ki baatein [forget yesterday], said Gadkari at the press conference, which was fine: but does he have a nai kahani [new story] for the naya daur [new age]?