Sunday, February 28, 2010

How India lost the plot in talks

How India lost the plot in talks
By M J Akbar

Delhi lost its own plot one day before foreign secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir sat down at Hyderabad House to reopen the dialogue between India and Pakistan.

Salman Bashir came to Delhi for two sets of talks, not one. The Government of India was the second half of his agenda. The first, and from his perspective the more important, part was the resumption of dialogue between Islamabad and secessionist elements in Jammu and Kashmir, Hurriyat leaders and the more extreme Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Bashir did not want to talk to Omar or Farooq Abdullah, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Mehbooba Mufti or Ghulam Nabi Azad, who represent parties that have won a substantial number of seats in the assembly. He wanted to hear what Geelani said, that there was a storm brewing in the Valley. Bashir reassured Geelani that Pakistan had not abandoned its dream of altering the map of India.

These pre-arranged meetings were held with the consent of the Government of India. If the Indian government had wanted to prevent them, Hurriyat leaders and Geelani would not have been able to catch the flight from Srinagar to Delhi. Precedence — the fact that we have enabled such meetings before — is not the point.

India stopped the ongoing dialogue in unusual circumstances, after the terrorist invasion of Mumbai. Delhi offered a resumption of talks, but with one condition, that they would focus on terrorism; and issues like Kashmir (part of the composite dialogue) would be taken up only after Pakistan had provided satisfaction that it had acted against known terrorists and instigators of Mumbai, like Hafiz Saeed.

If that was going to be our focus, if that was the agenda we had set, why did we permit the meetings between Pakistan and Hurriyat-Geelani? We could have explained that Pakistan could talk to the Kashmiri leaders on the Indian soil the next time around, if there was a next time; on February 25, it would only be about terrorism.

When we did not, Pakistan inferred that it was business as usual, and that our position on terrorism was rhetoric meant for domestic consumption. Pakistan voiced such an inference when Salman Bashir briefed the media, saying that Kashmir had been discussed “extensively” and suggesting that India had returned to the negotiating table because of international pressure.

It was, he implied with that little smile on either corner of his mouth, a diplomatic triumph for Pakistan.

Perhaps, the time has come for India to demand reciprocal rights. It would be interesting if Nirupama Rao insists that during her next visit to Islamabad (she has received an invitation) on meeting insurgents from Balochistan — assuming that they are either alive or outside jail.

Let us be clear about one reality: Salman Bashir could have returned without undue damage to his professional health if talks with Rao had been sabotaged before they started, but he might have had to take a flight to some other country if he had returned without meeting Hurriyat and Geelani. Kashmir is the heart and head of Pakistan’s policy towards India.

There is insufficient recognition, certainly among Indians and possibly within the Indian government, of the fact that Pakistan’s policy has hardened after the Mumbai terrorist onslaught, rather than softened. Pervez Musharraf’s “close-to-a-solution” is now denied as mere waffle, since nothing was put in writing.

Mumbai is not cause for mea culpa, but reason for accusation: India deserves what it got because it holds Kashmir “illegally”. In such a narrative, Hafiz Saeed becomes the daring maverick who brought Kashmir back to the centrestage as the “core” issue (a term Salman Bashir used repeatedly, as was his brief).

India and Pakistan might agree, therefore, that terrorism is an evil, but they have totally divergent definitions of who constitutes a terrorist. Salman Bashir can agree on terrorism without blinking an eyelid, and moan about thousands dead in his own country — but they died from Taliban bullets and bombs, not from a Hafiz Saeed gun. India’s terrorist is Pakistan’s freedom fighter.

As Bashir coolly explained in Delhi, Hafiz Saeed was within his democratic rights when, at his Lahore rally, he told followers armed with Kalasnikovs that one Mumbai was not enough. The Pakistan army would have opened artillery fire if the Taliban had dared to hold a similar public meeting in Peshawar.

Rao, who was firm enough during the talks, made one serious mistake. She forgot a basic law of Indo-Pak diplomacy. She left the last word to Salman Bashir. Her hurry to brief the media was inexplicable; it was Bashir who had to go take a flight out of Delhi. She could have waited. We lost the plot both before and after the talks.

Appeared in Times of India - February 28, 2010

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Count the numbers when the numbers begin to count

Byline by M J Akbar: Count the numbers when the numbers begin to count

Those who began counting the number of MPs left inside the Lok Sabha when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee finished his Budget speech before empty Opposition benches have a weak memory. They forgot where Pranab Mukherjee and Dr Manmohan Singh, the two men who run this Government, learnt their ABC. Pranab Mukherjee had a headmistress called Indira Gandhi. Manmohan Singh went to the more complicated seminary presided over by P.V. Narasimha Rao.

To clear any residual confusion, the Prime Minister is a politician of the more subtle kind. He was less of a politician when he was Rao’s Finance Minister, which is why he would get exasperated and at least once sent in his resignation (which Rao ignored). He has now learnt to make the pace of power an ally rather than an adversary.

For the record, during the last phase of the Budget speech, the Government had only 274 MPs on its side, which is as bare a majority as is possible to have. Mukherjee finished his speech without a tremor, and Singh sat unperturbed on his front bench seat. They had learnt at primary school that Governments do not fall because of numbers, they fall when they become uncertain or indecisive or provocative. Mukherjee was a Cabinet minister when Indira Gandhi ran her Government for over two years without a majority in the House. Singh was Finance Minister of a minority Government for at least three Budgets; in fact, Rao began to wobble only after he purchased a majority in the House. Perhaps this was the moment when Dr Singh transited from bureaucrat to politician; survival in office became more important than the means by which he and his Prime Minister survived.

The Prime Minister and Finance Minister know that their Government is safe because while the Opposition may threaten it with a sequence of actions, it is not yet ready for the consequence, a general election. Not a single Opposition party, apart perhaps from Mayawati’s BSP or possibly Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, would gain from an election, and some will certainly be whittled further. It is not just the Government that knows this; Opposition parties do as well. And yet the walkout by all Opposition parties on Friday was neither insignificant nor meaningless.

For starters, it was not spontaneous. It could not have been premeditated since no one knew that the Finance Minister would send out a cordial invitation to a few bulls while sitting in a china shop packed with price-rise cutlery. But the joint action was indicative of an unspoken understanding that has been building among Opposition parties. This has developed out of a pragmatic assessment of predicament. The last election results were a clear signal that if the Congress is not checked, it will swallow up most of their space, and do so without even an ungainly burp. Ideology, therefore, has to make way for strategy. The Marxists cannot block the Congress in Madhya Pradesh; and the BJP cannot challenge the Congress in Bengal or Kerala. But it is in their common interest to keep the Congress down to what might be called manageable numbers in Parliament. This thought cannot have escaped some of the allies of the Congress in the Government. Much as Mamata Banerjee may want to destroy the Marxists, she will not play second fiddle to Congress in the process. Some Congressmen are whispering about a privately commissioned opinion poll that suggests Congress would win if it fought alone in Bengal. If such whispers reach Ms Banerjee, expect a circuitous response.

In politics, the surest way to break your leg is to try and win the Olympic gold in either the long jump or high jump. The only way to move forward is step by gingerly step. Paradoxically, the absence of a clear horizon might actually help such a gradualist approach; you take the journey one milestone at a time and then wait to see if anything cogent is visible on the horizon. The first bit is always floor management in Parliament. If the Opposition parties can find some issue that enables them to rise above their differences, then the very act of unity raises that concern into a national issue. Moreover, if there is no unity on prices then Opposition as a concept has collapsed beyond repair.

The second stage will be much harder, of course, because there are more contradictions in Opposition than there are in UPA. But the next round of Assembly elections will be helpful in clearing Opposition space. We will know, for instance, whether Lalu Yadav can dent Nitish Kumar, or whether the latter’s eminence will move up to pre-eminence. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh either Mayawati or Mulayam Singh Yadav will prevail. Beyond that, events and circumstances will determine who does what.

Long before the end-game, there comes a midpoint. The numbers that matter are those that count at the end, not at the start or the middle.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Talk without hope so there's hope for civility

Talk without hope so there's hope for civility
By M J Akbar

Sensible nations either go to war or negotiate peace; they don’t sulk. So it is sensible for India and Pakistan to resume talks at a formal level. The tricky part is to discover what kind of talk makes sense.

War is always much easier to start than peace. You need only a trumpet to launch hostilities. Peace requires a rather more complicated orchestra; there will be discordant notes from some insistent trombone; the bass could be playing a military march; all musicians might not read from the same sheet; and there is always the likelihood of liberal violins airing strains more relevant to heaven than to realists who live on earth. If the maestro-conductor tears his hair occasionally, you can understand why.

The heavy breathing about the February 25 talks between foreign secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir suggests that neither Indian nor Pakistani media, which sit in the front row and shape the response of the audience, have quite understood what a bilateral dialogue between hostile neighbours is all about. Each journalist is cranking up the decibel level around one question, and one question only: what will the diplomats say when they meet?

You don’t need a sting operation to find out what Ms Rao will say. Defence minister A K Antony has already informed us that infiltration has not gone down, and cordite from Pune is still in the air. She has no option except to hammer away at terrorism and the “war by other means” that Pakistan launched after its failure to seize the Kashmir valley by irregular and then regular forces in 1947-48. The strategy for subversion was initiated by the same person who planned the first war, a Colonel Akbar Khan. He adopted the rather ambitious nom de plume “Tariq”, after Tariq bin Ziad, Arab conqueror of Spain in 712. He wrote two papers after ceasefire on January 1, 1949, “What Next in Kashmir?” and “Keep the Pot Boiling in Abdullah’s Kashmir”. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan sanctioned Rs 1 million to arm a “people’s militia” in Indian Kashmir. The Abdullahs have moved into their third generation, but the blood in that pot has not stopped boiling. The outcome of the dialogue on February 25 will be determined not by what Ms Rao says but by what she hears.

No prizes for guessing what her counterpart will say: precisely the same thing that his ministry has been saying for six decades: Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir. In the old days, they were more focused and claimed that Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. These days they are a little more circumspect in letting “Azad Kashmiris” some leeway; but they are still certain that Kashmir does not belong to India. In the time left, Salman Bashir will talk about Indus waters, but that is a comparatively minor issue since India has, in principle, accepted the responsibility of an upper riparian state to share water with territory lower down. Disputes over quantum are really small potatoes.

In the absence of real answers, the practice has been to resort to platitudes. Platitudes survive because they have latitude. The problem is that the flexibility of excuses has been fully exhausted. There is a tired ring to the deadpan explanation for terrorism: “we must address core issues”, meaning Kashmir. There will be a me-too variation this time; an injured expression and the hapless suggestion that Pakistan too is a victim of terrorism. This risible argument does not bear examination. The fact that terrorists with another cause blow up Peshawar can hardly be justification for Pakistani establishment help to those who want to blow up Srinagar, or Mumbai, or Pune. As for Kashmir, Pakistan has signed two agreements, at Tashkent in 1966 and at Shimla in 1972, endorsing the ceasefire line of January 1, 1949 as the effective border: if anything, Tashkent was more specific than Shimla. A third treaty confirming this would end the dispute, but no one has suggested that this is on the agenda.

Is there anything new to say or hear? Are we going to talk for the sake of talks? That may be better than not talking at all, but it would be useful to place a marker along the way to the conference hall. This is about civilians pretending to be civil, not about finding solutions. There is no solution apart from the status quo, and if the status quo were acceptable to Pakistan we would have had warmth and cooperation after 1972 — and, by now, dozens of authors trying to make money out of books on Pindia. Pindia, after all, has a nicer ring to it than Chindia, and it makes a more dramatic story than analysis of frosty neighbours secretly delighted that the Himalayas separate them.

Let us talk without hope so that there may be hope for civility.

Appeared in Times of India - February 21, 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The PM’s high-wire politics

Byline by M J Akbar: The PM’s high-wire politics

It is perfectly understandable. Denied any flexibility in manoeuvring members of his Cabinet, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is doing the best he can by reinventing his personal Cabinet, a collection of personally chosen eminent personae given assignments from the PM’s priority list.

Dr Singh can do nothing to Cabinet colleagues because the current law of coalition politics says that once you are seated in a particular chair, only an election defeat can drag you out of it. Competence, performance or even interest in your job has nothing to do with your continuance. DMK supremo’s son Alagiri has around zero interest in his Cabinet job, and does not care who knows this. His real ambition is to succeed his father as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, a legacy currently assigned to his brother Stalin. A Cabinet member is meant to be part of a team, and implement a collective decision even if he is personally opposed to it. His politicisation of an important pre-Budget decision, to lift a key fertiliser subsidy, would have been sufficient for dismissal in any normal Cabinet system of governance. The Prime Minister could do nothing about it since the DMK functions as an autonomous ally.

Gradually, through a creep-and-collect process, the Prime Minister has used his rights of appointment to his personal office to create a parallel mini-administration that can address those aspects of the national agenda that he is most interested in. This is not quite the Kitchen Cabinet of the Indira Gandhi days, when a core group of personal favourites functioned as a super Cabinet, arguing the merits and demerits of a particular policy before it was presented to an obedient full Cabinet. The Prime Minister’s Men do not intervene, or interfere, in ministries outside their domain, as the Kitchen Cabinet would. But if the Prime Minister has made any project his own, then the relevant ministry has to understand that there is a higher authority and it is called the PMO.
The two most high-profile members of Dr Singh’s office in his first five years, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, have both lost their positions because of the Prime Minister’s increasingly evident desire for some solution to the Kashmir problem. Shyam Saran was an indirect casualty, but a casualty nevertheless. No one resigns from the PMO unless it has been made apparent that the terms of relationship have changed. Media has been fed the perception that Saran was upset because he was denied the status of a Minister of State. Ministers have become so devalued in the last decade, that this is the least of a Prime Minister’s problems. He can get any status for whoever he likes. The substantive disagreement lay in the fact that Shyam Saran was not made NSA, because the Prime Minister decided that Shivshankar Menon was, intellectually and temperamentally, closer to his line of thinking on Pakistan.
Dr Singh knows he is taking huge risks. He has deliberately underplayed hard evidence from Indian intelligence that Pak-based, anti-Indian terrorist organisations continue to get active support from the Pak military, and that they are not non-state actors. Pakistan’s Army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has reiterated, in his latest doctrine, that India remains the pre-eminent threat to Pakistan, implicitly justifying the military’s support for the second arm of his country’s response to India, the terrorist network. Elements of Pakistan’s political class have not helped Delhi by immature grandstanding, describing India’s return to the talking table as a victory for Islamabad. This obviously grates on Indians. The biggest risk is here: Dr Singh has moved far ahead of Indian public opinion in his peace gambit. This is in direct contrast to the Indo-US nuclear deal, when middle class opinion was cheering on the deal at each stage of negotiations. The middle class that wanted a closer relationship with America is not equally eager to buy the American prescription for peace on the subcontinent, of which these talks are the opening move.

It is not certain that Pakistan will buy it either, because the tail at the end of the dog is that Pakistan might have to dilute its deep friendship with China, which does not fit into the US-Pak strategic paradigm. America would be much happier with a US-Pak-India relationship built on a shared perception of regional threats. Senator John Kerry has described the resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue as “critical to the United States”, and suggested that the Indian initiative is an extension of the new India-US relationship. More specifically, the US believes that India-Pak cooperation is essential to victory against the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, Senator Kerry might have to convince General Kayani first.
Perhaps Dr Singh is depending on the United States to tweak an ear or twist an arm in Islamabad at the appropriate moment as he tries to woo Pakistan by diluting the status of Kashmir’s relationship with India. This is high-wire politics. We shall watch with some hope and greater apprehension.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sharp descent for Padma awards – and the Republic

Sharp descent for Padma awards – and the Republic
By M J Akbar

Maulana Azad has been much on my mind for a variety of melancholy reasons. The neglect of his memory is reflected in the loneliness of his shrine at Urdu Park, near Delhi’s Jama Masjid. It is utterly appalling that we romanticize a pathetic weasel, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who lost an Indian Empire, and diminish the man who, along with a dozen others, sat at the apex of a party that destroyed the British Empire.

Singular conviction was the hallmark of his politics. While his great compatriots had the support of their communities, Azad stood bereft, but resolute and heroic, against a rising tide of venom. His political courage was complemented by intellectual depth: Sarojini Naidu once said Azad was 50 on the day he was born. Find him in two lines of verse he wrote at the age of 14: Azad bekhudi ke nashebofaraz dekh Puchi zamin ki to kahi aasman ki.(Azad, see how this restless spirit soars /The question is of the earth, the answer of the skies.)

He was our first education minister, a chair he filled till his death in 1958. Nehru wanted to honour this giant with a major Padma award. Azad laughed it off. How could a government give itself an award, he asked. Azad did not measure his worth with a political tape. There are still those who turn down awards because they do not want their independence besmirched by a gift from government.

You have to be naïve to believe that the awards process is free of government interference. The obedient will always be allotted their corner a little askance of the deserving.

You have to be either extremely insecure, or be possessed by a hypocrite’s need for camouflage, to lobby and beg and wheedle for a Padma award.

It is perfectly all right if the award comes your way without your knowledge, which still happens half the time. The other half becomes an opportunity for racketeers who treat a Padma award as a certificate of exoneration after a lifetime of deceit and manipulation. This subverts the very purpose of the award.

The people have recognized the cynicism at the heart of the process, and therefore do not much care one way or the other. In any case, awards are a mutual-backscratching operation between the elite. No one is going to rush off to buy a ticket to a Saif Ali Khan movie because he has suddenly become a Padma Shri.

To be fair, Saif himself was a trifle puzzled at the sudden arrival of honour at his doorstep. He has been known to give the odd brilliant performance, and he dances almost as well as his girlfriend, but one doubts if he, or anyone else, thinks of him as a legend.

The most amusing story about awards was told to me by one of the finest human beings I have had the privilege to know, or know of, H Y Sharada Prasad. He was the most trusted member of Indira Gandhi’s inner circle, a bureaucrat of the old school. Honesty was his outstanding virtue, but his principal asset was wisdom born of a marriage between learning and experience.

Sharada Prasad treated fortune and misfortune as equally deceptive imposters, passing the days of exile from power (after Mrs Gandhi’s defeat in 1977) with as gentle a smile as he possessed when he sat in the holy of holies, the Prime Minister’s Office.

He was a friend of D G Tendulkar, whose nine-volume biography of Gandhi may be untidily written, but is one of the great classics of modern Indian history. It is lost today in some forgotten shelf of Publications Divisions, bought by libraries as part of a respectable list that no one reads. Tendulkar used to live very simply in a tenement in Mumbai, with a beloved stray dog as his best companion.

Early every morning, the dog would wake up the author and the two would go for a walk along Marine Drive. On his return home, Tendulkar would catch up on the last of his sleep. One day, the dog came rushing back after Tendulkar had dozed off, and virtually dragged the author out of his bed and on to the street. Just as they reached open air, an earthquake destroyed the flimsy tenement. But this is not the relevant story, of course.

Tendulkar was given a Padma Bhushan when Dr Rajendra Prasad was Rashtrapati. His first reaction was to send a telegram to Rajendra Prasad saying that could he please be given a watch instead — what he really needed was a watch, not a piece of paper from the Government of India. Let it be on record that Tendulkar got both the watch and the Padma.

From Tendulkar to oily businessmen is a sharp descent for the Republic.

Appeared in Times of India - February 14, 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Boys of Chidambaram

Byline by M J Akbar: The Boys of Chidambaram

The best way to manage a controversy is to initiate it. Omar Abdullah was not giving voice to some sudden inner revelation when he suggested that the “boys” who had gone across the Line of Control could be welcomed back, surely as part of some ongoing Indo-Pak deal. Ghulam Nabi Azad’s riposte stole Opposition space, another clever ploy, if it was prearranged. It might not have been. Azad could have been motivated by legitimate concerns. Home Minister Chidambaram’s support to Omar Abdullah, however, confirmed that there had been consultations between the two before Omar broached such a slippery subject.

Chidambaram, as we all, know, is a fine lawyer. A lawyer’s skill rests on the dictum that facts are malleable, and argument is infallible. This is a heady tribute to human intellect, since it makes the mind a decisive arbiter. Alas, for every forensic ploy there is another waiting on the counter. Chidambaram has introduced the rather disingenuous logic that since these “boys” (can’t call them “terrorists” anymore, can we?) merely went across to territory that India still claims as its own, they never left Indian soil. They are only being resettled at another Indian address.

Counsel for Opposition could open his arguments with a potent challenge: Why is the Home Minister so anxious to bring back those who left India to wage war against it, when it has not been able to rehabilitate those, like Kashmiri Pandits, who were driven out by militants? Is the welfare of those who wanted to destroy India more important to Delhi than the welfare of those who wanted to preserve the multi-religious, secular character of Kashmir and India?

Chidambaram’s “boys” went to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir not because they thought they were moving on to another part of Indian soil, but to launch a war through which they would snatch Kashmir from India, and were prepared to offer their lives for such a cause. They dreamt of either independence or integration into Pakistan. Perhaps our Home Minister believes that boys will be boys. Or he may have found time to delve into the Bible and ruminate over the parable of the prodigal, which explains the metaphysics of slaying the fatted calf for a prodigal.

The more intriguing question is, why would the prodigal want to come back? Are they ideologically disillusioned and have now become torchbearers of Indian secularism? Or do they want to be reunited with their families, a much more reasonable and realistic aspiration? The one question that cannot be satisfactorily answered, except over time, is this: Have Pakistan-based groups and agencies which still believe in the “Kashmir Jihad” abandoned these “boys” or will there be, among them, some who will resume an insurrection from Indian Kashmir? Is the risk worth taking for India?

Basic question: Who has identified the proposed prodigals as authentic? They did not leave their names and addresses with the Intelligence Bureau in Srinagar when they went off to prepare for their holy war. There are no special genetic traits that differentiate Kashmiris on either side of the LOC. The Pakistan Government did not control this lot directly. They were outsourced to outfits like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba, so the only people who would know a genuine cross-border warrior from a homegrown one would be Jamaat or LET. Would Delhi honour certificates handed out by LET?

Who — Delhi or Islamabad? — has placed the return of warriors into the dialogue framework? If it was not on the agenda, or going to be put there, why would Delhi inject the thought into public discourse?

An India-Pakistan dialogue is a tiptoe through minefields at the best of times, so one is curious as to why more mines should be planted on the eve of yet another resumption. There is a special excitement about the 2010 talks because they have been rescued from a trough as deep as crater resulting from the 13 December attack on Parliament; and because Dr Manmohan Singh has made it amply clear that peace with Pakistan is the principal objective of his second term. The adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions has its uses in a debating society; the road to heaven, after all, cannot be paved with bad intentions. Good intentions take you to a crossroads. After that, your destination, heaven or hell, is entirely dependent on your judgment.

Dr Singh’s good intentions are not in doubt. But he does tend to get tempted towards bylanes in his anxiety to reach heaven. Sharm-el-Sheikh was one such foray that helped no one except India-baiters in Islamabad. The “boys of Chidambaram” is another that can help no one except Pakistan-baiters in Delhi.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Danger from the New Brahmins

Danger from the New Brahmins
By M J Akbar

Indian democracy is in danger of subversion by a self-confident,aggressive, articulate, patriotic and well-meaning force, the oligarchy of the successful. It might be a mild exaggeration to suggest that its principal characteristics are aftershave and English.

Many of them possibly disdain aftershave or perfume, and would not be crass enough to be preceded by five yards of Axe effect, to name the most advertised aftershave of the moment. But they are loyal to the English language, the proven mantra to worldly success. This new class of thirty-somethings (terribly reluctant to turn 40) is a product of consistent high growth since economic liberalization began in 1991. They bring with them a fresh mindset, a happy sense of purpose, a professional approach to governance and a welcome lack of social baggage.

So why should they be considered a potential hidden danger? Their assets dominate contemporary business, media and politics; their liabilities are buried in a general reluctance to see beyond their celebrity status. Politicians have always been celebrated, and rightly so; if you are in public life, you will be under public scrutiny. But they have not been celebrities. The difference is being squeezed by a squeal culture that is another dominant trait of a substantial and growing elite.

Danger lies in the fact that this creamy layer of 20% at the top has no interest in involving the froth of 80% in decision-making. It recognizes the problem of poverty, of course, and is even concerned enough to address it at policy level. It would much prefer an India in which beggars do not stare through the window panes of its cars; unfortunately, beggars can’t be screened out by black film for reasons to do with public security. But it treats the poor as both the cause and the consequence of poverty, and therefore unworthy of more than a token presence on the table. In a sense this is the old caste system in a modern manifestation; it is a karmic view of government, propagated by the New Brahmins, wearing a tie in front instead of a tiki at the back.

Commonwealth Delhi is their true capital, designed for their comforts and convenience. Not a single bicycle lane has been constructed in the newly reconstructed city, because it is still downmarket in Delhi (unlike London, where mayors and future Prime Ministers use it). You eliminate poverty by denying it space in your environment. If you don’t see a slum it doesn’t exist. The Commonwealth Games, which will last less than a week, are an excuse to switch spending towards an infrastructure for luxury, essential for a class that has found the wherewithal to afford luxury. One is not being a killjoy, or taking the puritan view that India should not host an international event till Ram Rajya has arrived. There will always be imperfection and inequality; but it is what you do with opportunity that determines whether the social purpose is egalitarian or elitist. Capitalist London has used the 2012 Olympics to upgrade its poorer areas. Delhi has done the opposite, improving what was already good, ignoring the squalor that floats under the thin surface of glitter.

Is Delhi the development model for the coming decade? There is a huge and growing aspirational class that supports the oligarchy of success, because it is straining at the door to be let in. This emerging constituency, perhaps a maximum of about 300 million, is keen to outsource its future to an oligarchy because it has sniffed the latter’s success. It wants membership of the oligarchy. It is strong enough to shift a general election towards one political party or the other, but it is not strong enough to sustain governance.

That leaves 800 million dependent on goodwill. Democracy is not about generosity. It is about entitlement. Democracy is not about patronage. It is about equality. Democracy is about being inclusive, not exclusive. Democracy is about an equal vote in the political boardroom, not just in the ballot box.

The slick highways dotted with malls and upwardly mobile dhabas, transporting a world beyond the reach to villages they traverse, are both a tease and a frustration. Why shouldn’t the young of rural India who cannot afford the highway toll dream of magic lights in the big city? They do not want to plod while New Brahmins travel at 100 mph. They do not want to end up as labour in a busybody small town; they want a job in the new New Delhi. The poor are not fools. They know they cannot be managers. But if the nation cannot find a profitable avenue for their skills then the social structure will be vulnerable to their anger.

If the high table cannot find a seat for them, then there are other tables, some with guns.

Appeared in Times of India - February 7, 2010

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Licence to drive, everywhere

Byline by M J Akbar: Licence to drive, everywhere

An Opposition talks [when it is not dumb]. Government acts [when it is not indolent]. A Government is measured by what it does. The Government of Maharashtra says that Mumbai belongs to every Indian, but decides that its 24,000 taxi licences belong only to a language-specific group. There is the usual fudge around the decision, typical of a Government which wants to hunt with the Shiv Sena and run with the Bihari vote.

One wonders if each licensee will actually be driving the cab himself. Here is a much more likely scenario: mid-level businessmen ready to deal with the rough and ready side of Mumbai, in cahoots with politicians on both sides of the fence, will pick up the licences and then hire cab drivers at competitive wages. Since eager Biharis — that term includes people from Uttar Pradesh, signalling the cultural power of Bihar — will be ready to work for lower wages than Mumbaikars, they will be eventually hired. It is a cheaper route to the status quo for both the politician and the businessmen; the first gets cheap votes and the second gets cheap labour.

There is something odd about the controversy. Common sense suggests that it is in any taxi driver’s interest to pick up the local language: why would he want to lose business by ignorance of the passenger’s language? A taxi driver does not need to be literature doctorate; just know enough language to be cordial and communicative. The whip-up is more about politics than jobs, which is why it is riddled with inconsistency. Nationalism always falters against chauvinism, unless nationalism becomes chauvinist. Thus, the Shiv Sena or its antagonist offshoot headed by Raj Thackeray, will demand the return of an Akhand Bharat from the Khyber Pass to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, but deny an impoverished fellow-Indian marginal space in Mumbai.

The sharpest tweak to the Sena froth came not from its foes but from its friend, the BJP, which raised an interesting contradiction. How could the Sena, which opposed Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir, demand protective restrictions for Mumbai? There was no answer, of course, because there isn’t one. My regret is that the question has not been asked more often. But it was a relief to witness all national parties taking on the Senas not only on Mumbai but also on their menacing and communal threats to Shah Rukh Khan. The BJP’s support to Shah Rukh was important not only for the actor but also for the party. It was an opportunity for the BJP to move a step or two away from its image, and it did so. Is it compulsory to hate Pakistan and Pakistanis in order to live in Mumbai? Is that the new oath you have to take before Bal Thackeray? Will the Senas send squads to drive the Prime Minister out of Delhi because he has agreed to restart talks with Pakistan?

There was a time when investment in conflict offered regular returns. The Senas have not understood a basic message from a series of humiliating electoral defeats: significant sections of the Indian electorate, and increasing numbers of the urban young, have decided that this is arid yield from a low-return idea. They understand something that seems to have escaped politicians at the apex: economic growth cannot co-exist with a culture of intimidation and violence. Indians have not fallen in love with their neighbour. Emotion, in any case, is unnecessary baggage. But war has never raised the living standards of men, unless you have notions of becoming an imperial ruling class, and that doesn’t work anymore, thank heaven.

A taxi driver has an iconic status, a signature presence, in any great city — and Mumbai is one of the great urban centres of the modern world. It must sustain both aspects: it must belong to the world, and remain modern as well. A city either grows or decays; it cannot stay stagnant. Mumbai cannot grow by becoming isolationist, nor can Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore or Chennai. Kolkata gave shelter and nourishment to the Sikh taxi driver without demanding he learn Bengali; but he did learn Bengali, and today his children have passed out from schools and got jobs. That is what a great city does; it welcomes the forlorn and lifts them. Mumbai’s extraordinary film industry is the most exciting meeting place of India; its skyscrapers were built with steel from Jamshedpur; its markets are full of food and goods from India and the globe. Mumbai does belong to Maharashtra, but it is also the present and future of India.