Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mayhem on the Orient Sexpress

Mayhem on the Orient Sexpress
By M J Akbar

Those who are still in a state of puzzled excitement over the denouement of the most exhilarating melange of soap opera and crime thriller to appear in the Indian media, have clearly never read Agatha Christie’s classic 'Murder on the Orient Express'.

Or seen Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot in the film and TV versions. Poirot’s priceless grey cells went into overdrive and overtime seeking the murderer, who had to be one of the dozen passengers on this fabled train. But those grey cells never failed: they hit upon the startling truth. Everyone was guilty.

As is everyone in the IPL mystery. Everyone knew what was going on, from Mauritius-funding to insider-betting to coke-and-company parties. Silence was purchased by the allotment of some direct or indirect slice of the expanding pie. Omerta, the silence of the wolves, is not imposed by the capo di capo’s dictatorship. It is induced by a variation of the Marxist dictum: from each according to ability, to each according to greed.

The fictional Poirot was looking for facts; Delhi is looking for scapegoats. Neither process is easy, but the second is harder. Scapegoats have this unnerving tendency to breed an heir just before sacrifice; you’ve barely got through one, and another is required for the chopping block. Some of them might squeal sharply on the way to the butcher’s block, or, if their voice has been gagged, send an email technically disguised by anonymity. A know-it-all like Lalit Modi is always more likely to use his knowledge to destabilize than to trot off obediently towards oblivion. He will not drown alone. If he takes Cabinet ministers down with him, he threatens the stability of the Union government, although not its existence.

Governments do not commit suicide deliberately, although they may do so accidentally. Nor do you break your second leg in revenge if the first one is hobbling. Politicians, therefore, will make every effort to shift investigation from clarity to obfuscation through a smokescreen of brazen half-truths, thin justifications and, in some case, in-your-face lies. The wobble in the ruling alliance is larger than Sharad Pawar's NCP. There are southern franchise holders with persuasive powers, and no group is more easily persuaded than the DMK.

The most useful weapon in the politician’s armoury is public amnesia about yesterday's news, replaced by fresh reports that emerge from the baking oven of information, accusation and speculation. An early exclusive revealed that an unnamed Cabinet minister had summoned Kochi franchisees and offered them the choiceless choice: fall in line, or else. Where is that once earth-shattering story now? Ask not — or else.

The merit of finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's decision to order financial sleuths into the fray will be tested by the next step. Mukherjee’s handling of the crisis has been mature and exemplary, but how much can he do with the facts in his files? So many roads lead to colour-neutral havens of alchemy, where black money turns into white at the nod of an accountant's pencil. Mukherjee has an opportunity to clean up more than the IPL, and challenge corruption in the private sector. But that cannot be his decision alone.

The political-comprador alliance atop IPL is hoping fervently for the onset of information-fatigue, when the story fades from screen, print and public consciousness. But that may take time, for there hasn't been a story like this in six decades, so utterly rich in sex, sleaze and superstars. There is money, nepotism, ministers, molls, models, alcohol and parties where big boys play at night, as the Pakistan cricket hero Imran Khan once reminded us through a famous T-shirt. You have inside-dealers, high-rollers, back-stabbers, whistle-blowers, gambling rings and international betting rackets. In the camera lights, histrionic celebrities chase one another with snide remarks or hurt feelings; in the shadows, there are whispers about underhand pay-offs to the holiest names in the litany of cricket. There is some genuinely innovative cricket thrown in as well. How could the media resist turning such explosive ingredients into the most volatile Molotov cocktails in memory? On the evening of the first IPL semi-final, the news reports were arguably far more interesting than the match. It is only a matter of time before movies come tumbling out of such masala. Look forward to 'Lagaan’ on hormones and 'Sholay’ in designer suits. Kitney paise thhey, Kaalia?

Cynics have called IPL a circus. When you buy a ticket to the circus you get clowns along with lion-tamers, while trapeze artistes inspire the cheerleaders. But it does become a curious extravaganza when you can't tell the difference between who is who.

This much is certain: Shashi Tharoor was not the end of the story. He was the beginning of a serial.

Appeared in Times of India - April 24, 2010

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A fairy tale, minus happy ending

Byline by M J Akbar: A fairy tale, minus happy ending

The secret mantra of The Greatest Circus in the World was quite simple: keep everyone happy and pass the loot to a cosy club. This brilliant formula deserves all the credit possible in an age where profit is the sole morality and mass entertainment the highest art form. This was entertainment on a spectacular level, with a ticket-pricing policy designed to serve the most important psychological weakness of acquisitive Indians, the ego. The astonishingly exorbitant ticket to the rather tardy lounge at the top of the crest quickly became the perfect gift to anyone with even a modicum of influence. Those who purchased a more moderate ticket became surrogate members of this cosy club, permitted a few thrills from the fringe while club owners laughed all the way to the bank — or, in many cases, tax havens like Mauritius and the British Virgin Islands where the colour of cash is a permanent black.

If the owners had one fear, it was the thought of an intrusive Government that might begin to investigate their financial shenanigans. They bought into Government by sharing the loot with politicians in return for protection. And so, even when tax authorities did put together a note on Lalit Modi, action was aborted. Paradoxically, this encouraged Modi’s self-delusion to the point of self-destruction.

There were institutional rewards as well. It seems unbelievable, but this circus was exempt from entertainment tax. Maharashtra alone could have earned Rs 500 crores so far. Such exemptions are given for mass media with some noble message. If anyone has discovered anything noble in a show whose most exciting attraction is a bunch of imported, under-dressed cheerleaders, then it would be good to know.

The script was superb, and the finest actors were contracted for all the roles, but there is nothing, alas, called a perfect movie. You can square a bunch of ministers, but how do you woo a belligerent Opposition? It was silly to believe that the Opposition — or indeed media — could be silenced with a few throwaway tickets in the front row. When a silly altercation between primary stakeholders and nouveau riche gatecrashers opened, as it were, the floodgates, the power of media and Parliament became suddenly apparent. It was too late. Opposition parties have already introduced two slogans that are going to reverberate across the country: the Government belongs to IPL, while Opposition is concerned with BPL (that is, those below the poverty line). If this sounds a trifle ponderous, the second one is tangy and spicy in Hindi: Dal mein kaala zaroor hai,/Aur kitney Tharoor hain? Shashi Tharoor is a prawn compared to the big fish in the net. As for the proportions of dirt in the daal, it might be more accurate to reverse the equation. There is just some lentil in the dirt, rather than the other way around.

We do not have a full idea of the level of muck. The private betting done by some franchise owners is still a story waiting to be told. When owners bet, it is axiomatic that matches are fixed. More money can be made, privately, when a good team loses than when it wins. As is well known, bribing players is not impossible. The older players get, the more they thrash around for retirement benefits. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has been exemplary in ordering raids, and there is already talk that data and emails reveal an owner-betting underbelly of significant proportions. So far, Government has been resisting the appointment of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate this scam, but for how long? A JPC would be entitled to all the information collected by Government in these raids, which would put it in the public domain.

IPL honchos still believe they can get away without much damage, because destruction of IPL could fracture the Government. The sacrifice of a couple of scapegoats would be a peanuts price compared to the bloodshed that awaits a proper accountability. That jaded crutch known as the “necessary evil” is being trotted out to justify some of the excesses, along with a solemn promise that everything will be cleaned up if the show is permitted to continue. As someone more wise than famous said, once you assuage your conscience, this begins to look more and more necessary and less and less evil.

The damage in cash terms can be calculated, but who will do the accounting of the damage to IPL’s credibility? There is cynical response: why should a circus need any credibility? Who believes a Hindi movie to be the essence of truth, and if it is the essence of truth, who watches it? But Cabinet ministers do not use their power to preside over the Hindi movie industry, or divert Air India aircraft to pick up cast and crew. The story has reached where it has because the credibility of the Union Government is also at stake. Try being cynical about this.

When the scriptwriters of IPL promised to make everyone happy, they forgot an essential requirement. They needed a happy ending for themselves.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hullo Shashi Modi, Meet Lalit Tharoor

Hullo Shashi Modi, Meet Lalit Tharoor
By M J Akbar

There is something oddly dysfunctional about Shashi Tharoor's career graph. Four years ago he was Dr Manmohan Singh's candidate for the most high-profile job in the world, that of secretary general of the United Nations, despite professional advice from the foreign ministry that he had little chance of victory. But when last year Dr Singh got an opportunity to give Tharoor a job, he decided that the Man Who Would Be King in New York was fit only for minister of state, reporting to a Cabinet minister who generally cannot find much for his junior to do.

As events have proved, Dr Singh was right in 2009. But the first person to twig on Tharoor was Dr Singh's friend George Bush. In 2006, Washington made it clear that despite the warmth of the Singh-Bush era, Tharoor was too immature. Incidentally, Tharoor did not leave his "high-paid" UN assignment, as he repeats a bit too often, in order to do Indian politics a personal favour. He resigned to try and move to the top of the UN food chain.

The more interesting question, surely, is why Tharoor accepted a demotion in Delhi. He is not, after all, famous for underestimating himself. There had to be another reason. The obvious answer is that the limelight is more important to him than the job. Half the limelight was better than no limelight at all. Many politicians display an inordinate affection for the mirror. The problem, as ever, lies in the degree. The swivel moment comes when you go searching for a place in the story, instead of the story searching for you.

The IPL is, logically, the brainchild of a party animal, for it is the most ingenious private party organized in the history of independent India. Each limited-entry guest is welcomed into the fiesta with a winning lottery ticket. As in all lotteries, the money comes from the public and payment goes to a handful, in this case a pre-selected network. All guests are not equal, but all are equally happy.

There are many forms of payoff, including phenomenal salaries, and we are not talking merely of what players take home. The most lucrative core of this less-than-virtuous circle constitutes a club of promoters and their friends, the franchise owners who are permitted a double benefit: promotion of their brands through surrogate advertising, and the promise of huge escalation in share values, since there is no immediate prospect of profitability through regular business models. The owners of the now extra-famous Kochi franchise have said that they will have to lose more than Rs 100 crore a year for the foreseeable future. Details of ownership have been kept opaque to transfer value to individuals while funding comes from companies.

Tharoor is writhing between a mistake and a misfortune. His mistake was to gatecrash a party without an invitation. He thought he could buy entry with Dubai and Gujarat money and spin out collateral political benefits by name-association with Kochi. He leapt to take the political credit when Kochi won the franchise. He is alleged to have taken financial rewards more surreptitiously. His friend Sunanda Pushkar's feeble claim that she is not a proxy is silly. You do not get sweat equity in perpetuity, which means free and forever, with a starting value of Rs 70 crore, for being an unknown executive of a Dubai company. There hasn't been a case of "cheque-payment culpability" of this order since the transactions that ended the chief ministership of A R Antulay in 1981. Nearly 30 years ago, Congress inexplicably tried to defend the indefensible before dumping Antulay so hard it virtually broke the warhorse's back. Mystery repeats itself.

Tharoor's misfortune was to encounter an adversary who could out-Twitter him at high noon in the gunfight at IPL corral. Tharoor and Lalit Modi have more in common than sharp suits, sharp wits and a dogged commitment to the television cameras. Having achieved so much through effective use of the media, they were convinced their favourite weapon remained the best option. They went to war through the media. A veteran like Sharad Pawar would have told them, had they but asked that children in glasshouse nurseries shouldn't throw stones

Modi has one advantage over Tharoor; he is in the private sector. His accountability is to fiscal laws. Tharoor affects the image of the Congress at a time when the party cannot afford a greasy controversy. Tharoor is the first Congress minister in the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh government to be publicly pilloried for alleged corruption.

He has left Mrs Gandhi and Dr Singh with a complicated problem: how do you rearrange spaghetti into straight lines?

Appeared in Times of India - April 18, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

100 years after Gokhale, Jinnah

Byline by M J Akbar: 100 years after Gokhale, Jinnah

As anniversaries go, this does not quite compete with the birth of demigods or emperors, but it does demand something more than indifference. 2010 has a legitimate claim to being the 100th anniversary of Indian democracy. In January 1910, following the Minto-Morley reforms, 27 members, elected on the basis of limited franchise and separate electorates, took their seats in the 60-member Imperial Legislative Council, housed in Calcutta. The elective principle had to be reformed and refined periodically but was never, in India, abandoned.

On 25 January 1910 Muhammad Ali Jinnah was sworn in as the Muslim member from Mumbai. The other victor from the great metropolis was Gopal Krishna Gokhale, from the “general”, or Hindu seat. The young Jinnah had been fortunate: two elderly bearded frontrunners hated each other so much that they let the candidature go to the young Anglophile lawyer. Jinnah held that seat till 1946. Jinnah was not enthused by the system that brought him to the Council. Separate electorates, in which only Muslims could vote for Muslims, were the consequence of a collaborative demand placed before Lord Minto in 1906 by a group of Muslim notables who went on to create the Muslim League in December that year. Jinnah refused to join the Muslim League and, at the Allahabad Congress in 1910, seconded a resolution deprecating the “principle of Separate Communal Electorates”. He warned that this would divide the nation, supremely oblivious of a future in which he would become the architect of partition.

Odd, despite the bad odour sprinkled upon the idea by Congress, the shadow of separate electorates has always hovered over Indian democracy, thinly disguised by an alias, reservation. This alias was conceptualised in September 1932, when Gandhi made a pact with Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was in favour of separate electorates for Dalits. Instead of separating voters, Gandhi separated candidates, and promised Ambedkar more reserved seats than the British had awarded to Dalits.

In practice, this did not amount to a huge difference. The purpose of separate electorates and reservations was the same: to ensure that a certain number of MPs from a particular community entered Parliament. In 1928 Jinnah had offered to abandon separate electorates for Muslims in exchange for reserved seats, as the formula for an all-party Constitution being drafted by Motilal Nehru. If Congress had accepted, the idea of Pakistan might never have been born. But Congress would not grant to Muslims what it was prepared to give to Ambedkar.

Reservations entered the Indian Constitution as a temporary measure, but have become a permanent reality, expanding with a slow but relentless tenacity. Think about it: if the Women’s Reservation Bill goes through, some 60% of Indian voters (women, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes) will enjoy reservations, even after adjusting for overlap. It is unsurprising that the question that was never answered in 1928 and 1932 has returned to the top of the Indian Muslim agenda: why not us?

The focus has shifted from political space to economic and educational entitlement, but at the core remains the grievance of injustice. If reservations are good for virtually everyone else, why do they become such a terrible idea when it comes to Muslims? True, the Constitution does not permit reservations for religious groups; but the Constitution does not envisage reservations for women either. If you can change the Constitution to accommodate women, why not alter it for Muslims? In any case, the religion argument was made irrelevant when “backward” Sikhs and Buddhists were included within reservation quotas. Why did Congress then, and more so today, consider caste and gender a perfectly reasonable basis for empowerment, but religion such a threat? Was it because caste is Hindu, and Muslims are, well, Muslim? The Muslim League divided India on the basis of religion in 1947, but how long are Muslims expected to pay for mistakes of history, particularly when guilt is never unilateral. Delhi is no longer controlled by the decisive third force in the equations of 1947, the British, and democratic India has displayed the strength and resilience to crush any secessionist threat. Why does this confidence dip when impoverished Muslims demand economic empowerment? The watershed impact of the statistics gathered by Justice Rajinder Sachar in his defining report cannot be underestimated. Such questions are addressed to Congress because the Left, and parties led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav, have accepted the justice of the Muslim claim for job reservations.

The merits of each question may not be equally valid, but doubts are rising through the second tier of political discourse. Democracy is a system of valves that finds solutions through debate and protest. But democracy is ineffective if the right of protest does not interconnect with the duty to hear. The first is a privilege of the citizen; the second a compulsion of authority. A deaf Government breaks the circuit. The only known cure of frustration is an election. When frustration lingers across elections it becomes bitter and exaggerated. We have not reached that point, which means that the moment to answer questions is now.

The Gokhale of 1910 would have understood the Jinnah of 1928, although he would never have forgiven the Jinnah of 1947.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

You can't pass the buck, PC

You can't pass the buck, PC
By M J Akbar

Most mistakes begin in the mind. It is hardly a state secret that home minister P Chidambaram is an avid fan of the American security doctrine summed up succinctly in "clear, hold, build". No one saw the fault lines. This was a formula for overseas operations, not domestic soil. America faces both an internal and external security challenge.

It does not use the same doctrine for both. The CRPF, or its offshoots, are not an occupation force. Moreover, the Maoists have not seized territory; they have turned the natural habitat of the poor, with local support, into their strongholds; they are, right or wrong, of the people. Their fighters are not in uniform; their officers do not wear cravat and beret; their foot soldiers do not change into civvies to go home.

America understands the need to 'build' in Iraq or Afghanistan, but this is the third priority, which is why it either does not happen, or gets too diluted. The maximum energy is exhausted by 'clear' and 'hold'. In practice, this means that the security force is largely occupied in providing security for itself. Chidambaram has argued that development is impossible until his personal armies can clear the 'infected' areas of Maoists. The Cobra Force was developed for this purpose. It has been renamed the Special Action Force presumably because someone thought the world's most famous poisonous snake might be inappropriate nomenclature for the striking arm of an 'aam-aadmi' government. You can change the name, but what about the mentality?

Uncertainty has turned the home ministry's advertisement campaign into an exercise in confusion. The copy says: "I was poor and had no job. So, I joined the Maoists. The gun became my identity. I killed, I maimed, I blew up schools and bridges. But, I still have no job. My children can't go to school. My wife can't live with me. I can't till my land." Then follows the message: "Abjure violence, support development." Ignore the fact that Maoists are hardly reading upmarket English newspapers with their morning cuppa; it does rather sound like an invitation to join Maoists, rather than abjure them.

If "I was poor" etc etc, and the state had done little except ensure that the rich were getting richer at a rate of 8%, maybe the gun would seem the only wake-up call left. One can join development if there is development. Dantewada is not quite Marine Drive. The poor are not fools; they do not expect a genie to suddenly offer them a magical palace — but neither will they accept indifference as their destiny.

Poverty is the sustenance of Maoism. If we want to destroy Maoists, we need to end poverty. There is an alternative to "clear, hold, build": empower, educate, eliminate. The gun is a weapon of last resort in a democracy, not the first. Equally, a sensible government must reduce the attraction of the gun among the poor by restoring their faith, not by multiplying cemeteries and graveyards. There is nothing particularly radical in this suggestion. If Pranab Mukherjee or A K Antony had been home minister, they would have understood. Such a strategy has been used successfully in Andhra Pradesh by governments across the party divide, led by N T Rama Rao, Chandrababu Naidu and Y Rajasekhara Reddy. They built police units – called Greyhounds, not Cobras — which spoke the people's language, and earned their trust by behaving as protectors rather than conquerors. Experienced police officers advised the home ministry to base the Cobra Force in Hyderabad so that it could imbibe an operational culture that had proved successful, but Chidambaram disagreed. He made it personal. Delhi remained the headquarters of Cobra-SAF.

The Greyhounds had few intelligence failures because they were intelligent. Simultaneously, positive discrimination became the theme of economic development. It was, inevitably, a slow process; there were no grandiose claims that Naxalites would be finished in two years, or three. More important, no Andhra politician tried to use a crisis to become a pseudo-Napoleon through verbal explosions.

Good politicians know that a single pompous phrase can reverse trajectory and turn a thundering cannonball into an ominous boomerang. Chidambaram loftily informed the mild Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee during a visit to Maoist-hit Bengal that the Naxalite buck stopped at the Bengal chief minister's desk. He could not have imagined that within days the taunt would return to haunt him.

Where does the Dantewada buck stop? Chidambaram has been chasing alibis, claiming this was a joint operation. Not quite correct. The CRPF in Chhattisgarh — whether wearing its Cobra face or Special Action Force hat — took its orders from Delhi. American President Harry Truman made the phrase famous with a "desk gadget" bearing the legend "The Buck Stops Here". (This plaque, incidentally, was a gift from the Federal Reformatory at El Reno.) Another President, Calvin Coolidge, made a more relevant promise: "I won't pass the buck."
To pass the buck is to fail the nation.

Appeared in Times of India - April 11, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Senapati’s route to heroism

Byline by M J Akbar: Senapati’s route to heroism

P. Chidambaram first tried out the resignation route to heroism when he was in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet. Rao, a bit like his protégé Dr Manmohan Singh, was a Prime Minister wrought by fate; he had, in fact, retired because of a heart condition and sent his impressive library to Hyderabad, where he intended to spend his time. He did not contest the elections for the 1991 Parliament that made him Prime Minister. The younger Congress leaders, consequently, tended to underestimate him. Rao surprised the political class, and shocked the victim, by accepting Chidambaram’s resignation. The scar never quite healed; Chidambaram eventually started his own party, and was brought back into the Congress mainstream only by Mrs Sonia Gandhi.

Chidambaram, despite the consistent colour of his dark hair, is older and wiser now. He knew there was no chance that Dr Manmohan Singh would accept his pro forma offer to resign over the Dantewada bungle, largely because the Prime Minister believes in what his Home Minister is doing. The resignation gesture was not an immediate response. His first reaction was to test whether an alibi — that this was a “joint” operation, meaning that the state Government was equally culpable — would work. It did not, because there are too many retired and respected police officers and security experts ready to explain and reveal precisely what happened.

The surprise of the week was surely not the endorsement Chidambaram received from his Prime Minister, but the warm support he got from the BJP. There have been some cross-party surprises of late. Publicly, the Congress made a colossal fuss when Amitabh Bachchan was condemned as evil because he was seen with Narendra Modi. Away from the limelight, the Prime Minister endorsed Modi as head of the working group on consumer affairs at a Chief Ministers’ meeting. Then Goa’s Congress Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, after this CMs’ conference, told the world that Narendra Modi was his best friend and he would happily visit Gujarat if invited. Kamat could not have been unaware that his counterpart in Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, was castigated, at the instigation of Delhi, for what might be called “third-degree contact” with Modi, because he had been civil to Amitabh who had been civil to Modi. Such “first-degree” proximity should be sufficient reason, by publicly declared standards, to remove Kamat, but he is clearly unconcerned. Does he know something that we do not? Politicians do not risk their gaddi very easily. Is Congress trying to finesse the new, emerging Opposition unity in Parliament, which threatens the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha, by being nice to the pre-eminent lightning rod in the BJP? In the absence of answers, we can at least ask questions.

The BJP’s support for Chidambaram, however, is based on ideological strategy rather than tactical requirements. The BJP has never been dubious about its aversion to democratic Marxists, and complete hostility to violent Maoists. The BJP considers Chidambaram the perfect “senapati” in the war against Maoists, because the Home Minister shares its uncomplicated view of Maoists as nothing but cowards and criminals who deserve complete elimination. This is a conviction shared by the Prime Minister, who has described Naxalites as the greatest threat to India.

Other politicians might hedge: Nitish Kumar believes that Maoists cannot be defeated only by force, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is certain that this cannot be treated as just a law and order matter, and Mani Shankar Aiyar, who heads the committee organising the Congress’ 125th anniversary, is certain that a one-eye policy focusing only on security will be counterproductive. But Chidambaram is a one-eyed man when it comes to Maoists; after all, you cannot take aim with a gun if both your eyes are open.

The Congress has, for the moment, officially rallied around Chidambaram, but there is very clearly a major internal debate that is seeping out of the confines of inner-party curtains. Dantewada might, paradoxically, strengthen a hawkish Home Minister, but it is not going to extinguish the two-eyed view of an admittedly difficult problem.

There is as much uncertainty in the Congress about the contours and consequences of a caste war as there is about a class war. The Congress was splintered during the heated arguments over the Mandal Commission in 1990, and its confusion lost the party UP and Bihar. There is always a price to be paid for irresolution. A strong section of the party is in harmony with the BJP over Maoists, just as many Congressmen agreed with V.P. Singh on Mandal. The left has been weakened within the Congress by the domination of Rao and Dr Singh in the last two Congress Governments, but it has not disappeared. Scratch Pranab Mukherjee and A.K. Antony and you will find Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in their blood. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has already indicated that she is not going to abandon the Congress left, but remains palpably unsure about the extent to which she can rehabilitate it.

A general purpose warning to Congress Cabinet Ministers: think thrice before offering to resign. You never know when it might be accepted.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

UPA2 has a bad case of teen acne

UPA2 has a bad case of teen acne
By M J Akbar

2010 is still in its adolescent phase: is that the reason for a sudden rash of acne on the government’s face? Nothing serious, nothing incurable; just a sense that life would be so much better without the itch and cream-resistant spots. In January, the government looked invulnerable. March became a month of stumbles and at least one spill on a banana skin.

Stepping carefully into April, Dr Manmohan Singh spoke to the nation on the undeniable virtues of compulsory education, a commitment that is possibly six decades overdue but welcome nevertheless. His sincerity was apparent (he is a professor, after all) but one wonders why his speechwriters are chained to trite phrases, impervious to the magic of change, possibility and new ideas. Think about it: the mobile phone can become the latest driver of literacy. Aspiration as much as need is taking the mobile to villages. Its functions include SMS, which requires literacy. Technology and its relationship to the market can be so easily harnessed into a vision of upliftment.

Did this speech also have something to do with the sudden reassertion of Mrs Sonia Gandhi into governance space?

Mrs Gandhi has been the architect of two general election victories; her role as party chief and silent front-bench MP was incompatible with her real status. During UPA1, she used the National Advisory Council (NAC) as the parent of social policy, with government as its nurse. Implicit was the unmentioned recognition of Dr Singh as an apolitical Prime Minister who needed support systems from the political class. Egos can get easily ruffled in such a balance of power, but one of Dr Singh’s remarkable characteristics is the ability to keep his ego so effectively disguised that no one is totally sure if he has one.

Dr Singh’s ego is still heavily veiled, despite the fact that the lottery winner of UPA1 has evolved into the unquestioned Prime Minister of UPA2. But his government has been prone to problems and drift. Oddly, while Dr Singh is more assertive with bureaucrats, he has become meeker towards politicians. Hands-on and hands-off are calibrated very carefully in the capital. NAC2 does not strengthen Mrs Gandhi because no one questioned her power before she revived it. It does, however, weaken the UPA2 Prime Minister, who should not need support systems after six years in office. Perception is an important element of power, since reality is opaque. Delhi reads body language far more astutely than any script. The Prime Minister has complained about empty chairs at Cabinet meetings. This is not because missing Cabinet ministers are busy serving the nation with their last drop of blood. They simply do not care.

Would they have been absent from a Sonia Gandhi Cabinet meeting?

Dr Singh has been bled by the fact that three initiatives identified with him -- Indo-US relations, peace with Pakistan, and economic reform -- have stalled. Pakistan has snubbed India on terrorism and laughed its way to American and Chinese banks and arsenals. Obama gave dinner to Dr Singh and strategic partnership to General Kayani. China has offered advice to Delhi and two nuclear plants, with 82% financing, to Islamabad, even as it tries to pick up the Iranian gas project and turns it north via Pakistan with a $2.5 billion investment. Dr Singh stalled the Iran-Pak-India gas pipeline to appease Washington; Pakistan has no such fears.

For five years Dr Singh accused the Left of sabotaging economic reforms. Well, the Left has sabotaged itself; where are the reforms?

The Congress, necessarily sensitive to public opinion, has launched a guerrilla war against the government’s civilian nuclear liability bill, currently trapped between a rock called Parliament and a hard place called the American nuclear industry. A resurrected NAC confirms the distance between party, which has to win elections, and government, which has to run the country. Its members, personally chosen by Mrs Gandhi, will function as a virtual politburo, setting a populist agenda and challenging the executive to find the resources, management skills and delivery systems for implementation.

Is it too early for Mrs Gandhi to worry about an election scheduled for 2014? She is clearly trying to bridge the gap between confidence and overconfidence. The women’s bill strengthened the party but weakened the government. Lalu Prasad, expert at mordant similes, notes that it takes only four people to carry a corpse to the burning ghat and he has four MPs. The government is not in danger, merely hobbled by an uncertainty that will be exploited by the Opposition during every Parliament session. It is never too early to worry.

The banana skin was the spat with Amitabh Bachchan. The Congress pontificated while people were laughing. When you have acne, you do tend to get cross when a smile may be all that is necessary.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Beware a Comedy of Mirrors

Byline by M J Akbar: Beware a Comedy of Mirrors

A comedy of errors is a minor fracas. We have all been there. But beware the comedy of mirrors, when you don’t get what you see — or, worse, you don’t see what you get.

Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik have known “true love”, or one of its many transitory manifestations, before, otherwise the first would not have got engaged and the second would not have got married earlier. There is another lady in Hyderabad, Ayesha, who is displaying a nikahnama as proof of an earlier Malik marriage. The Malik family is careful in its response, describing the document as invalid rather than a forgery. But they are safe, since there is no legal hitch to the Shoaib-Sania wedding: Muslim men can marry four times in Pakistan (or, indeed, in India). Sania recently celebrated her engagement to a childhood friend who turned out, on closer inspection, to be maritally challenged.

Shakespeare took care, when writing Romeo and Juliet, to make them about 15 years of age, in the middle of their teens. You have to be gloriously naïve to die for love. Adults live for love, and hope for sustainable compatibility in marriage. It is ironic that the term “Romeo” has acquired connotations of promiscuity when the actual chap was the very model of high romance and fidelity.

Shoaib is 30, and certainly not a Shakespearean Romeo, either in age or temperament. At 30 the original Romeo would have had a son looking around for his own Juliet. Sania has surely factored in the possibility that her soon-to-be-husband might have been a modern rather than an old-fashioned Romeo. But that is a meaningless quibble. She is perfectly aware of the implications of her decision, including the fact that she is marrying a Pakistani. She has every right to make a personal choice that transcends nationality, but she must indulge in the luxury of illusions.

There are other issues, etched in the sexual subconscious of the subcontinent, some of which can barely be mentioned in print but resonate through a mass psychology created by subsets of false arrogance. Signals will be read into television images once the drama is given its visuals.

Sania and Shoaib are stellar magnets for the media, and their marriage will be a public event with repercussions and interpretations beyond their mutual relationship. Pakistani tennis authorities have already made a claim on her; although we have not been told whether Pakistan’s morality monitors have endorsed the short skirts and T-shirts Sania wears on tennis courts. Her mother-in-law, apparently, has already said that such sartorial minimalism is not her preferred taste. India has no problems with skirts, but it might have one with such mothers-in-law.

Love is about wives and husbands; marriage is about mothers-in-law. Fed with the adrenalin of illusion, it is easy to rush in where angels dare to tread. In your happy delirium you do not notice that the honeymoon has been named after a moon, and a moon wanes after it waxes — and if you are not careful, disappears behind a cloud. Sania’s first serious lunar probe should be to find out whether she has become a wife or a trophy wife. This would apply on both the individual and collective level.

Shoaib Malik’s track record is not very encouraging, if his “alleged” first wife Ayesha is to be believed. It was a marriage, apparently, made in a telephone bhavan, since the nikah was solemnised over long-distance phone on 3 June 2002. Ayesha’s photographs in which she seemed slim, it seems, entranced Shoaib. According to Ayesha, she was dumped when he discovered that she was fat. Shoaib contests this. But it would be unusual for a conventional Indian woman to invent a high-profile accusation of such a sensitive nature. In any case, the relevant point for Sania is not the weight of an allegation that may or may not be true, but the weight of the reason. If Ayesha’s problem was the difference between pose and adipose, I hope, for her sake, that Sania is immune to rising fat levels in her body.

Equally, for her sake, I hope Sania has not become a trophy wife for her husband’s country.

Sania still believes that she can continue to be a citizen of India. This is correct in theory; the practice might be another story. India and Pakistan do not permit dual citizenship. Pakistan law demands that if a citizen’s spouse wants to live in the country, he or she must become a Pakistani citizen. A subcontinent mother-in-law might wonder why her son’s wife can only meet her with permission from the Government. And Sania would need a separate passport booklet only for Pak visas. For the couple, Dubai will be a residence, not a home. Sania and Shoaib are sports professionals. Their flutter with the limelight is lucrative, but brief. Their children will need a nationality, and, unless they shift to London or America, they will be Pakistani. Sania is welcome to whatever future she has fashioned for herself, but she should not fool herself into believing that she can marry a Pakistani and retain the rights and privileges of an Indian. On 11 April Sania Mirza will acquire the right to become a citizen of Pakistan, with its mother-in-law’s dress codes. She should grasp the opportunity. Why the reluctance?