Sunday, June 27, 2010

Now, politics is all about posturing

Now, politics is all about posturing
By M J Akbar

Power is the glue of politics. That is why a government is expected to be in array and opposition generally in disarray. Ideology is a fickle custodian of unity in an age of convenience. Its absence has eliminated the difference between single-party rule and coalition government. Both are held together by individual or sectarian self-interest, which is why they last. Ideology is a differentiator; it makes a partnership untenable even if the partners consider it sustainable. Sentiment is irrelevant to any political marriage. This is true of all democracies where coalitions become necessary. Politicians live for power; why would they invite a premature death?

Indian politics, reduced to minimalist, notional ideology, devoid of individual or party accountability, is peculiarly suited to coalitions. If there were accountability, the DMK's A Raja would not remain in Manmohan Singh's Cabinet. Because there is none, the current coalition will survive without either condemnation or confession. An occasional spot of PR-driven tinkering is all that is needed.

Sometimes alliance parties find it convenient to simulate conflict, but this is public posturing to satisfy populist opinion before an election. Bengal and Bihar are the new templates of posture-politics.

Mamata Banerjee would, ideally, like to marginalize Congress and usurp the Congress vote. But as long as Congress has some vote she cannot afford to destroy the alliance. There will be variations in the mathematics of the equation, which is perfectly reasonable, since even a municipal election jerks the kaleidoscope to induce new patterns. The entrails of Bengal's May municipal results must have been fully read by now, but a glaring fact was obvious very early: the Left Front did far better against Congress than against Trinamool. Mamata will consequently squabble for additional space, but she has not lost her political marbles. She knows the tensile strength of her alliance with Congress and will not stretch it to breaking point. Nor does Congress care if her nickname in Delhi has become Derailways Minister. The game is political. A new game may or may not begin after the Bengal Assembly elections next year.

In Bihar, Nitish Kumar and the BJP are equipped with multi-megabyte calculators, which work on long-lasting batteries powered by mutually-beneficial ground reality. The photograph of a Nitish-Narendra Modi armshake was not exactly news to the Bihar voter. It made the front page much before the last general election. A substantial number of Muslims voted for Nitish Kumar in 2009 despite that photo because they wanted to thank him for keeping the peace as well as giving them jobs. They knew they were voting for the NDA. Since then, however, there has been some slippage in minority support for Nitish. Nitish's political gasp at the reappearance of the photo was an attempt to buy a few brownie points at easy rates, a familiar tactic of electoral politics. Similarly, the BJP's gruff huff and puff was intended to energize its own core vote. Neither party will win in Bihar if they split their support, and their leaders have tasted the comforts of office.

The real conflicts in the UPA2 era are not inter-party but intra-party. The BJP has done signal service to news media over the past year, feeding it with a constant supply of stories about personal bickering such as the one over Jaswant Singh's Jinnah book. The author-MP's return to the party marks a partial restoration of sense but much more reparation is needed on the long road ahead to credibility. Congress, as the main ruling party, should have been happily becalmed.

But it has been restive, pushing unpopular policy decisions such as deregulation of petrol prices while its spokespersons shoot themselves in both feet with gold-medal accuracy. For the first time in years they seem to be happier abroad than in domestic TV studios. Congress is complacent because it believes that it has time to recover before the 2014 general election. The states have dropped off the radar because most of them are in a mess.

Congress is suffering from insurrection in Andhra Pradesh, abdication in Karnataka, uncertainty in Maharashtra, indifference in central India, bondage in Bengal, futility in Bihar and drift in Punjab. Its spirits are concentrated around a single hope, that Rahul Gandhi will engineer a miraculous rebirth by offering himself as candidate for UP chief minister in a diamond-versus-dimple election.

Regional parties need their share of headlines and so Mulayam Singh Yadav discovers ways in which to expel Amar Singh, while no soap opera could ever have the courage to script any serial akin to the inheritance wars of the DMK. It is perfectly logical that a feudal culture should breed feuds. There is calm in the one-woman party because its leaders cannot expel themselves. The glue of power melts only in the heat of public anger. Corruption, prices and Bhopal have induced a simmer, but it will need more heat to reach boiling point.

(Times of India column : June 27, 2010)

Stretch of Imagination is not a description of Peace!

Byline by M J Akbar: Stretch of Imagination is not a description of Peace!

The pessimistic definition of India-Pakistan relations is succinct. The two nations are walking on different pavements on either side of a street that has caved in and become an abyss. The two are always in each other’s sights, but there is no meeting point; neither has the psychological or emotional resources to mark out a zebra crossing since the traffic lights cannot be trusted. Nor does the distant horizon bend towards a common focal point. Over the last six decades, a narrow dividing pathway has become an eight-lane highway. The best you can do now, if you are bursting with the spirit of peace, is exchange pleasantries through officials; the worst is apparent in terrorist violence.

Dr Manmohan Singh is attempting something audacious in an attempt to sweeten an arsenic-laced history. Aware of such lethal road rage, he is, inch by imperceptible inch, trying to build a bridge above the traffic. It is one of those Japanese projects, in which a skyscraper hotel is built behind the walls of secure and hidden space, and then, when the moment is right, airlifted and planted from above on a clearing, an empty space that has served so far as a symbol of hope. The people are permitted some vague knowledge about the grime and sweat that is going on behind the scenes, but the effort will mean something only if and when the finished product is visible.

A bridge, however commendable, must be more than it seems to be. It may float through the air, but it must be anchored in rock. The question is as old as 1947: how firm is the ground beneath your feet? Can it deal with sappers and saboteurs nursed by differing ideals of nationalism? A sense of injustice and denial is so deeply embedded in the consciousness of Pakistani nationalism — after all, the “K” in the acronym stands for Kashmir — that it is difficult to see how Islamabad can reach a final settlement without taking that which Delhi cannot give, some part of the Muslim-majority valley. This is a classic impasse between an irresistible object and immoveable force.

Since there are, wisely, no secrets anymore, India’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has publicly outlined the contours of an interim arrangement, a crucial part of a longer process, around the Singh-Musharraf formula of soft borders, trade and travel. Two questions arise. Is an interim agreement better than no agreement? Will it be a stage en route to a common destination, or will the two nations remain on separate pavements until either the immoveable shifts in Delhi or resistance collapses in Islamabad? The soft border options were, after all, in place when Mumbai was attacked; and organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba continue to receive patronage and encouragement from wide swathes of the Pak establishment.

During her visit to Islamabad, Nirupama Rao was far more considerate to her hosts than her counterpart was when he came to Delhi. She called terrorism unacceptable, but expanded it to a general principle, rather than specifically demanding that Pakistan do something about those who use the Kashmir dispute as an excuse for surrogate war. Nor did she compare the manner in which Pakistan sentences terrorists accused of war against the United States within six months, with those facing far more serious charges vis-à-vis India. On the day of Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s visit to Islamabad for a Saarc meeting, IB intercepts picked up conversations between terrorists operating in the Kashmir valley and their handlers across the border. If this is what happens when the border is officially hard, we need to worry a little about what will happen if the LOC goes soft.

Perhaps Delhi’s tactic is to keep the left hand of foreign office as distant from the right hand of the home ministry as possible. This is a palliative, not a cure.

Maybe the mistake being made is not in the level of dialogue, but in the level of expectations. Neighbours must talk; that is a no-brainer. But it takes more than words to convert a conversation into a love affair.

The objective environment for peace will not emerge until there is a fundamental change in objectives. The fundamental flaw is easily identified. Before you can sign off on a soft or hard border, you have to first agree on a border. India has made up its mind. If the Line of Control were turned into the international border, India would celebrate. Pakistan, for obvious reasons, would not. But as long as this basic question is not resolved, the only thing that Delhi and Islamabad can do is agree to disagree.

That, by any stretch of imagination, is not a description of peace.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Anderson laughed at Indian law and State

Anderson laughed at Indian law and State
By M J Akbar

A nation that cannot uphold its law cannot preserve its order. When Anderson was smuggled out to safety, the authority of state abandoned the responsibility of state. Excuses, evasions and lies have shifted over 26 years; this central truth has not.

It is odd that the government should have chosen law and order as its final alibi after some exhausting self-laceration in its search for a credible explanation for the escape of Union Carbide’s Warren Anderson on December 7, 1984.

Why do we say “law and order” rather than “order and law”? Simple. Law comes before order. Law defines the nature of order. Law is the difference between civilization and chaos. Law is evolutionary: the edicts of tribes, chiefs and dynasties lifted human societies from scattered peril to structured coexistence. The laws of democracy have vaulted us to the acme of social cohesion, for they eliminated arbitrary diktat and introduced collective will. The divine right of kings is dead; it has been reborn as the secular right of an elected Parliament.

A nation that cannot uphold its law cannot preserve its order. When Anderson was smuggled out to safety, the authority of state abandoned the responsibility of state. Excuses, evasions and lies have shifted over 26 years; this central truth has not.

Unsurprisingly, Anderson sneered at the establishment that knelt before him; contempt is the umbilical chord of the colonial, or neo-colonial, relationship. The crux of the Bhopal tragedy is summed up in a few sentences uttered by Anderson as he was escorted out of India on December 7, 1984: “House arrest or no house arrest, or bail or no bail, I am free to go home…There is a law of the United States… India, bye bye, thank you.”

‘House or no house arrest’: he could not care a damn about those funny-looking policemen (in lathis and khaki shorts?) who had dared to arrest a pillar of the American corporate establishment. ‘Bail or no bail’: what was a rotten piece of paper signed in an Indian court worth to a lord of Wall Street? Not even the decency of silence. Anderson was publicly, even proudly, contemptuous of those who did not have the courage to interrupt his freedom for a mere industrial disaster in which a few thousand semi-slave Indians had been gassed to death within hours and thousands more would die over years.

‘There is a law in the United States’: Anderson had twigged on to a basic truth that the law is a malleable reality for those who are “well-connected” in India. How could Anderson have respect for India’s law when those entrusted with its sanctity had defiled it? Anderson laughed at Indian law, and jeered at the Indian state. Compare this with the fact that his company was scared witless at the prospect of an American trial. Carbide fought hard, and successfully, with predictable help from a comprador Indian establishment, to shift the trial from America to India. Their subsequent collusion with Indian courts touched Supreme heights.

British Petroleum knew the perils of entanglement with American justice and shelled out within six weeks of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Big Oil (which is far bigger than Big Chemical) has been forced to put aside $20 billion for the repair of the environment after an ecological disaster that has not killed a single innocent human being. Technically, BP need not have paid more than $75 million. The first demand on Carbide, 26 years ago was for $15 billion. It has paid the equivalent of just one billion dollars (at today’s prices) for the death of nearly 20,000 people and the horrific maiming of over 100,000.

Barack Obama slipped on a bit of oil himself when the spill began. He thought playing to the gallery would subdue the clamour, while BP contained the damage. He upped the ante (it became an environmental 9/11) even while his National Guard helped BP by hiding affected bird-life from media cameras. Obama began to taunt the British in British Petroleum, perhaps because he found it easier to attack a nation than a multinational; but public opinion was not to be mollified by rhetoric.

BP paid America out of fear, not because of a demand order from its conscience. Carbide had nothing to fear, and never possessed a conscience. QED. BP will not pay a dividend this year. Carbide paid a dividend even after Bhopal.

‘India, bye bye, thank you’: those famous last Anderson words. Bye bye; this is a divorce, not a separation. There might be some alimony in it, but don’t start shopping until the cheque is in the bank.

Accusation is the easy exit route from Bhopal. Introspection will take us back to the beginning. Betrayal is impossible without trust. We did not trust Carbide to be honest. We trusted our political class, and it continues to search for new and inventive ways to betray us again.

(Times of India column :June 20, 2010)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Is peace on sale in Bhopal?

Byline By M J Akbar: Is peace on sale in Bhopal?

Here are answers to the questions you no longer have to ask. First: how long would deputy chairman of the planning commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, protégé of the Prime Minister, ranking leader of the World Bank Alumni Association and senior advocate of multinational corporate interests, have taken to send Rs 983 crores to Union Carbide or Dow Chemicals if Bhopal’s workers had killed the plant, rather than the other way around? My guess is 983 seconds. Ahluwalia would have probably sent the funds by wire.

The Madhya Pradesh government made a request for Rs 983 crores as additional compensation for the rehabilitation of gas victims. Ahluwalia could not find the money in 2008. When, in 2010, public anger at 26 years of injustice – not from Carbide, or Dow Chemical, but from Indian courts and brazenly insensitive Delhi governments – reached a crescendo, Ahluwalia discovered the money in 983 seconds, and released it quietly, a few hours before the first meeting of that desperate vote-saving device called the Group of Ministers.

Why was there no money two years ago and why is there money today?

Money was never the problem; Ahluwalia and his masters simply did not care for the gas victims. They were far more worried about the health of Dow Chemical, which was threatening to teach India a lesson for not eliminating any hope for liability payment from the company that had bought Carbide. Gas victims do not participate in discussions between India and American industry. They can’t speak English, and don’t live in Lutyens bungalows, so how would they understand the exchange rate between Delhi and Wall Street?

Does the Union government have Rs 1000 crores lying around in petty cash, which an upwardly mobile bureaucrat can pick up whenever he chooses to? Or does the Planning Commission have a secret account for emergencies like a sudden outburst of public opinion?

Officially, no: all expenditures must go through due process and find a claim on the national budget. But there is lots of moolah available from diversion; if you can’t dip your hand into the holy Ganga, there is always a quiet tributary teeming with fish. Each year, many departments cannot actually spend their allocated money and therefore return unspent portions. The minorities ministry has been notorious for finding ways in which it can avoid expenditure. In any case, a Union government can always find money if it wants to.

Why did the Madhya Pradesh government wait 24 years before it asked for Rs 983 crores? Why not in the first 983 days? Or in the next thousand days? Why wait for over 8000 days?

The snail-pace of the system is the easy, but bogus, answer. Over the last quarter century, Congress and BJP have shared power in Madhya Pradesh for about an equal number of years. They have offered a range of Chief Ministers from the charismatic to the useful to the voluble to the forgettable. Irrespective of their comparative merits, each CM has been motivated by one primary desire, re-election. That is the basic propulsion machine of our democracy, as indeed of any other democracy. The great tragedy of Bhopal is that it never became a game-changer in electoral politics, either in India or in the state, and so politicians simply did not care enough about the consequences of their indifference or malice.

A decisive general election was held within four weeks of Bhopal, but the mood of the voter in 1984 was shaped by the martyrdom of Mrs Indira Gandhi and the youthful promise held out by Rajiv Gandhi. Congress won every seat in MP, and very nearly every seat in most of the country. Five years later, it was Bofors, to be followed by Mandal and Ram Mandir. Life moved on. Bhopal’s dead, as happens so often, became a vague memory, a cause limited to activists rather than national purpose. It has taken 26 years for Bhopal to enter the political narrative, which is why Opposition parties are reactivating their comatose limbs, and government is discovering money that it could not find for a quarter century.

Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hold Ahluwalia, or anyone else, accountable?



The UPA government and its fulcrum, the Congress, believes that this is only another passing storm, albeit one of unsuspected turbulence. They can see the storm becoming a gale, with a couple of tornados hidden within the chaos. They have probably allotted private codenames: Tornado Digvijay, Gale Rasgotra, Storm Narasimha, and perhaps even Irritating Disturbance Singhvi. Hurricane Arjun [Force 4] is still to break, although, if it follows traditional patterns, it will veer and dissipate before hitting landfall. By the summer of 2011, Congress hopes, Bhopal will return to that old backburner, and a general election will still be a thousand days away.

It must be praying that Rs 983 crores will buy at least 983 days of peace.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

'Justice' for Bhopal is just political farce

'Justice' for Bhopal is just political farce
By M J Akbar

Trust me: if thousands of politicians, or their cousins, the nouveau riche, had died on that apocalyptic night in Bhopal, Anderson would still be in an Indian prison, rather than in America, protected by his company, and the company that his company keeps. But only the poor died in Bhopal. We treat our poor as dispensable chattel whose death is meaningless in the economic calculus, since there is no shortage of supply. Bhopal is class war.

Cynicism is never irrational. The irrational, often wrong, sometimes right, are impelled by instinct, heart or even conscience. Cynics are morality-proof. They prefer data to truth.

Delhi has set the gold standard for cynicism. It operates on four axioms: public memory is a dwarf; anger is effervescent; media can be massaged at the appropriate moment; any public crisis can be assuaged with crumbs, while the promotion of private interests continues off-screen.

Jairam Ramesh’s promise of a Green Tribunal in Bhopal is a classical instance of a crumb dipped in the pickle of hypocrisy. Where was this or any other tribunal in the last 26 years when the dead, the deformed and blind babies and the stillborn fetuses were a reminder that justice must be done? Or is this tribunal meant for the next onslaught by the dogs of chemical war upon the sleeping slums of Bhopal? Who was Veerappa Moily trying to fool when he claimed that the case against Warren Anderson had not been closed? Why doesn’t he keep the case open for a few more years, until God closes the chapter by taking Anderson away to whichever destination has been allotted to the butcher of Bhopal? A Group of Ministers has been appointed — merely to buy time until the return of amnesia.

The true Bhopal verdict was delivered within four days of the tragedy, in December 1984, not on June 7, 2010, when Anderson was smuggled out of Bhopal on a state government aircraft and then put on a plane to America. Since then we have witnessed a pretend-justice farce played out by government, police and the judiciary, including the Supreme Court. The last is most culpable, since we hold a Chief Justice of India like A M Ahmadi to higher standards of probity than we do politicians or policemen. Ahmadi got his proper thank you note after he retired.

Chief judicial magistrate Mohan Tiwari’s judgment served only one useful purpose. The sheer scale of its magnanimity towards the accused lit a fuse under the volcano of collective guilt. The lava is spewing from myriad crevices, scorching and burning many-layered masks that have hidden deceit for a generation. As memories were stoked, officials, some perhaps frustrated by the fact that their silence had not been rewarded, revealed how successive governments had intervened to slow down the judicial process and sabotage any chance of Anderson’s extradition. Union Carbide and its collaborators, including Indians of course, have sustained themselves with a lie, that it was an Indian disaster since the plant was built and run by Indians. The design is an exact replica of an American plant, and an American who was terrified of being tried in India was in charge of management.

The political establishment assumed that June 7 would be just another day in a long calendar, possibly punctuated by an occasional, futile scream. The court was fortified, and entry denied to petitioners, victims and media. My one memory of this courtroom, gleaned from television, shall be of the smug grin of an obese policemen laughing at two old women, their faces contorted by rage and frustration, who knew that the system which had stolen their lives had also cheated their children in death.

Trust me: if thousands of politicians, or their cousins, the nouveau riche, had died on that apocalyptic night in Bhopal, Anderson would still be in an Indian prison, rather than in America, protected by his company, and the company that his company keeps. But only the poor died in Bhopal. We treat our poor as dispensable chattel whose death is meaningless in the economic calculus, since there is no shortage of supply. Bhopal is class war.

Is it surprising — or not? — that while even the Obama administration jumped in with some gratuitous advice, Dr Manmohan Singh had nothing to say? Perhaps the Prime Minister would have been repetitive. In essence, the signal from Washington and Delhi is the same: forget the dead, get on with multinational life.

Barack Obama was not elected to ensure justice for the Indian victim. He is in the White House to protect American business, and defend the two-laws theory that motivates American international relations, whether in war or peace. When 11 American workers were killed in an oil rig blow-up in the Gulf of Mexico, Washington demanded $1.5 billion from BP. Nearly 20,000 dead in Bhopal, half a million affected, and the total compensation is $470 million. Do the math. Obama has promised to penalize BP for the current oil spill to the extent of many billions of dollars. Magistrate Manoj Tiwari wants only Rs 5 lakh as reparation from Carbide for mass slaughter.

When Exxon was fined $5 billion for the Alaska oil spill, nearly $40,000 was spent on the rehabilitation of every affected sea otter. The victims of Bhopal are, so far, entitled to $200 each.

Don’t do the math. It may turn you into a cynic.

( Times of India Column, 13th June 2010)

Above the anger of Bhopal, the silence of Delhi

Byline by M J Akbar: Above the anger of Bhopal, the silence of Delhi

Can you hear the silence above the rising anger over the betrayal of Bhopal? The three most powerful people in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi have not said a word through a week of national outrage after a first-tier judicial verdict on a mass murder 26 years ago.

True, silence is also a statement, but one besieged by questions. Perhaps they have much to be silent about. The Congress party is not used to so much silence at the top. Unsurprisingly, the second-tier players made a mess when confronted by the pressure of public opinion. Sycophancy is not necessarily synonymous with clarity. By the end of the week, Congress activists had only prayer: that the quiet would speak up, and the loud-mouthed ordered to shut up.

Lip service is not the sort of service that always fetches you a complimentary tip. Jairam Ramesh, who loves his voice almost as much as his hair, thought he would help out by announcing that his proposed Green Tribunal would be located in Bhopal. It only served to remind media of the fact that on his only trip to Bhopal as Environment Minister, Ramesh had sneered at the anguish of the victims with a remark so utterly glib and insensitive that it fails comprehension. Ramesh said, triumphantly, “I held the toxic waste in my hand. I am still alive and not coughing. It’s 25 years after the gas tragedy. Let us move ahead.”

How fortunate for the nation that Ramesh was not sleeping in a slum on that night in December 1984 when methyl isocyanate seeped out of the Carbide plant, killing nearly 20,000 and maiming over a 100,000 more, before its eerie poison had exhausted itself. We must be thankful to the Lord that Ramesh was not a foetus killed in unknown wombs; or that he had not reached the age of 26 with twisted limbs and dark, angry eyes while a mother covered her son with a protective shawl in a helpless gesture of love. How fortunate that Ramesh never met Raghu Rai, the great and compassionate photographer who has done more for the helpless than the Government of India, with its mighty instruments of state, and the Government of United States, with its great commitment to human rights, have done.

But let us touch the toxic soil with a smile and move on!

The central truth is that Bhopal is a saga of contemptuous betrayal in which anyone who aided an American corporate interest over the anguish of Indians was rewarded. The stain of shame began with Warren Anderson’s arranged escape in a Government plane, but it was only the beginning of the story. The CBI chargesheet in 1987 sought a jail sentence for 10 years for culpable homicide, “not amounting to murder”. Chief Justice A.H. Ahmadi watered this down; it is ironical that a Muslim Chief Justice should have been used for the ultimate compromise in a case in which most of the victims were impoverished Muslims. Ahmadi was given handsome post-retirement benefits. Anderson was never unduly troubled by the thought of returning to face trial despite an extradition treaty between India and the US. His bond was only Rs 25,000, exactly the same amount that the guilty have been required to pay after 26 years. The first demand that the Government of India made on behalf of the victims was for $3.3 billion. It settled for $480 million.

Token crumbs have been thrown periodically before the poor. The latest is a reconstituted Group of Ministers, headed by P. Chidambaram. Guess who was head of the previous GoM? Arjun Singh. And what is Chidambaram’s claim to fame? As Finance Minister he lobbied, along with Kamal Nath, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Ronen Sen, on behalf of Dow Chemical, promising his Prime Minister rich rewards in the shape of American investment if Dow was forgiven. Why did Dow really want to return? To reclaim Carbide land in India, since it had bought Carbide but disclaimed Bhopal’s liabilities. Dow had kept aside over $2 billion for asbestos-victim compensation for Americans in another case, but had no money for Indians.

Why should it? Indians had no money for Indians. Jairam Ramesh, of course, is a member of the new GOM as well. They would have probably kept Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi as well, if he had been a minister, since Singhvi was a lawyer for Dow, and sent his missives on Congress letterheads. Indians were unconcerned about the truth that Carbide knew of the danger of a leak, but did nothing.

There is so much to be silent about.

The heroism of volunteers who have fought a powerful, sneering bipartisan system on behalf of victims, for no reward other than the calm of a conscience, is beyond words. Am I dreaming, or will there come a moment when every Indian conscience is touched by Bhopal?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

BJP needs to convert the modern Hindu woman

BJP needs to convert the modern Hindu woman
By M J Akbar

The BJP seems caught in a bit of bind. It is beginning to look like the punter who lost a flutter on the football match and then a fortune on the action replay. Its original mistake was a misconception; its contemporary error is a misperception.

The historic flaw is its belief, at some gut level, that India is a secular country because the minorities want secularism. Indian Muslims do have a vested interest in secularism, since it ensures equality and democratic power, but that is less than half the story.

In 1947, a politicized Indian Muslim elite partitioned India to create Pakistan. Over the last six decades Pakistan has been unable to live with fellow-Muslims who happened to be Bengalis, driving them into a separate nation; marginalized minorities and turned the country into the Islamic Republic of Bloodistan. The obverse does not work in India, however much Rama Sene-style zealots might salivate at the prospect. The reason is quite simple. India is a secular country because Indian Hindus, who constitute the majority, and therefore have a proportional impact upon the political ethos, have created and defended a Constitution that is a remarkable triumph of reason over the temptations of sectarian passion. India is secular not because Muslims need it, but because Hindus want it. There is nothing new about it. The Hindu Mahasabha did not win a single Hindu seat in 1937, even in an age of separate electorates, and did not do much better in 1946 despite the fact that Muslim League swept the Muslim seats in an environment darkened by raging communal storms.

Logic suggests, therefore, that if the BJP wants to define itself as a “Hindu” party, it should tread the middle road of coexistence rather than the extreme path of discord. Harmony requires more courage, commitment and moral consistency than conflict.

The misperception arises out of a peculiar inability to comprehend the dimensions of an extraordinary Indian cultural revolution that has seeped across divisions of caste and community, with its epicenter located in Hindu society. The new Indian woman is all around us, seeking a place on a college campus, en route to the workplace; participating in television as activist, audience and artiste; on the sports field; on the street; she is everywhere you look — most of all, at home.

The revolution is not limited to the urban rich. A week ago we were forced, by that inedible curse called the traffic jam, to take a secondary road through villages from Dehradun airport to the academy in Mussoorie. Women, compelled by circumstance and male prejudice, were carrying large utensils of water on their head from source to home. The younger women were in jeans, or some variation of it. Women everywhere share the common aspiration for modernity and economic success.

The more ardent flag-wavers have missed this pervasive and continuing emancipation, which started tentatively in the 1980s but has acquired an unstoppable momentum now. There is change wherever the eye falls, in whatever the senses pick up: dress, public icons, shifting sexual mores — and examination results, where women are asserting their will to be future leaders. The new Indian woman has claimed the mantle of independence as the means of empowerment. She wants freedom, to choose, at a life-changing level; career above marriage if she so desires; or, at an incidental level, a pub over the confines of home. She is demanding the prerogatives of men.

Cinema, that persistent barometer of behaviour, has long abandoned the image of a sati savitri naari at the feet of her pati parmeshwar. The new Indian woman is increasingly contemptuous of any cage, gilded with gold or paste, in the name of tradition or any spurious ism. She barely bothers to hide her contempt. Fear, or trepidation, might make her hesitate occasionally, but this is a circumstantial restraint. Check her inner will.

One is not suggesting that this is true of everyone; but this is the role model that is influencing attitudes of decisive numbers. You cannot chase this generation out of a pub without sending a nationwide signal advertising your gender bias. The girls in the Mangalore pub did not go to drink senselessly; they went there to exercise the right to go there. Those who attacked the pub, incidentally, had the full support of conservative reactionaries from all religions. While reactionary politics might persist among some ethnic groups, it is becoming malodorous to the young. Religion remains an important aspect of Indian life; the Hindu young celebrate Durga Puja, Holi and Diwali with as much joy as their elders. But their faith, regrettable exceptions apart, is socially inclusive, not aggressively exclusive.

As India becomes an increasingly younger country, it is this culture that will tip power towards one party or another. If the BJP cannot get the vote of the young, modern Hindu woman, it has no future.

( Times of India Column : 6th April 2010)

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The many colors of red

Byline by M J Akbar: The many colors of red

Red is not a single colour. By the second half of the Sixties most of the world — Latin America, Africa, Asia, most of Europe — was awash in its many hues, and Vietnam took its counter-intuitive edge to the campuses and television screens of America. By the late Sixties, and through the early Seventies, the Naxalite offensive had turned parts of India scarlet. The epicentre was Bengal, but the seepage was powerful enough to affect Delhi. Mrs Indira Gandhi, the most perceptive politician of the last half century, recognised its implications amidst the comfort zones into which a slothful Congress leadership had retreated. She broke the party and reinvented herself as a pink ruby in a clutter of paste diamonds.

Mrs Gandhi was astute enough to launch a major offensive against poverty, but did not have the economy to sustain her political will. Nor did she have the conviction in shared governance to build alliances within Parliament, and with industry, labour, peasantry, academia and media that could become the vanguard of change. India is too heavy a weight. It moves only when we all pull together.

That familiar adage of the freedom movement — when Bengal sneezes, India gets a cold — worked for the last time during the red upheaval of the Sixties. The sun rose from the east, but that sharp red streak of dawn faded quickly in the harsh sunlight of the rest of India. Bengal rejected scarlet, and dyed itself in the pale red of democratic communism, introducing a doctrine that challenged other applications of the phrase. Where the Soviet-East European model, for instance, gave primacy to communism over democracy by subverting the latter into a one-party dictatorship, Bengal became a one-party state in a cooperative electoral process that legitimised the party through election victories that might arouse scepticism, but whose credibility could not be challenged. The fulcrum of Communist rule in Bengal was social stability, which Congress had destroyed in the Sixties by cynical manipulation. The peace of the last three decades has veiled the fact that Bengal is a partition province, with a history of Hindu-Muslim antagonism that has deeper roots than Punjab. The Muslim League was born in Bengal; and Punjabi literature has nothing compared to the anti-Muslim froth that layered so much of the best Bengali writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Why is the colour of Bengal swirling back towards the tricolour of India? There are many reasons, of course, including the rather obvious failure of the Left to embed itself into the consciousness of contemporary youth in the manner that it once dominated the minds of Bengali youth in the Seventies and Eighties. The young comrades who once drove a wedge into the sky kept the dream alive in their children, but have now lost their grandchildren, the teenagers who are leading the celebrations after every Mamata Banerjee victory. But there is a second, equally important, albeit unrecognised, reason for the electoral debacle.

We are used to dividing Bengal along Hindu-majority West and a Muslim-majority East, with the border as the only definition. But there is a new West and East in our Bengal. Official statistics say that the Muslim population of West Bengal is 28%; it might rise to 30% after the current census. But this demographic is not evenly distributed. Muslims are concentrated in the eastern districts of West Bengal, parallel to Bangladesh, forming about 40% of the voting population in the thickly populated regions south, east and north of Calcutta. Any map of the results will show that the core reason for Mamata Banerjee’s success lies in the shift of the Muslim vote from the Left towards her persona.

One uses this term carefully, since she is at the moment a personality who has inspired a revolt, but not been able to institutionalise her advance into a political structure. It is interesting that Muslim enthusiasm for Mamata has not transferred to the Congress. The Left has made gains where it contested the Congress, and its overall vote has increased by 4% compared to last year’s general elections. The Congress was routed in Pranab Mukherjee’s constituency, which has a Muslim majority.

If Mamata repeats this performance in the Assembly elections, one-party rule will be replaced by one-woman rule. The Left, technically, is a coalition, but in truth, Bengal has been ruled by the CPI(M). Having ensured social peace for three decades, the CPI(M) took the Muslim vote for granted, indifferent to the reality that the grandchild was not ready to accept what father had.

Could anything change what is widely seen as inevitable? The Left has begun to implement a job reservations policy for minorities; we do not know if this is too little, too late. Change is an exciting thought for a generation that has not experienced violence, so the young may dismiss this as a cynical last throw of the dice by a defeated gambler. Moreover, Mamata has empowered Muslims by making more of them candidates, but she will be vulnerable where she gives seats to the Congress.

The red of Bengal has already been diluted by time. The tint of the future will be determined in 2011, and the easel is with the Muslim voter. Both sides know that.