Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crown prince Rahul cannily turns left

Crown prince Rahul cannily turns left
By M J Akbar

Has Rahul Gandhi launched a campaign against Congress? More precisely, has the heir presumptive, affectionately dubbed a modern Lord Krishna by his more fervent fans, begun to undermine the Congress establishment, at the pinnacle of which sits Manmohan Singh and his home minister P Chidambaram?

This makes some political sense. Having milked the right-of-centre to the point of exhaustion, the Rahul Congress is steering towards left-of-centre. Meanings, of course, have changed. As the centre has shifted in the last two decades, 'right' and 'left' have moved along with it. 'Left' now represents populism, rather than ideology. Marx died in the 1990s and even his ghost cannot escape from the effective burial given by comrades Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping.

The sabotage of big-ticket investment in order to fence the tribal vote in Orissa is only part of the developing story. The official catechism describes Naxalites as the biggest threat to India. If Chidambaram had his way, the air force would be bombing them. He must be a bit deflated at the sight of Lado Sikoka, a Naxal, preceding Rahul Gandhi at an Orissa public meeting around the same time that Manmohan Singh was urging, from a dais in Delhi, police chiefs to fight the good fight against Maoists. Sikoka had been arrested by this police on August 9 and beaten up, before being released so that he could welcome Rahul Gandhi with a garland at Niyamgiri.

It has always been clear to Delhi insiders that Digvijay Singh opened a front against Chidambaram with Rahul Gandhi's permission. Outsiders now have confirmation. Since politics has very marginal room for sentiment, Chidambaram could become the first casualty in a Rahul Gandhi cabinet. It would be a sad end to a fizzing career were Chidambaram to end up as governor of Chhattisgarh, the better to counsel his supporters in the BJP on how to tackle Naxalites without help from the air force. Indeed, it cannot have been very helpful to our ambitious home minister that the most laudatory references now come from BJP leaders. Perhaps he raised the issue of "saffron terror" to pick up some long overdue brownie points from his own side.

No prizes for guessing who would become home minister in a Rahul Gandhi government.

The ultimate success for a ruling party is that delicious bipolar ability to occupy both government and opposition space. The British in India perfected the art of functioning through a loyal opposition. The Muslim League was so loyal that not a single League leader went to jail during the three decades of our independence movement. The Congress tended to be less loyal, but always recognized limits, until Mahatma Gandhi liberated the Congress and enough Indians from either fear or temptation. One cannot think of a Congress leader who did not go to jail.

Democracy, but naturally, induced a variant. Jawaharlal Nehru ignored the feeble right and absorbed the non-communist left into the Congress in periodic stages. His own leftist credentials were impeccable, which helped.

Indira Gandhi artfully split the left and right, until the Emergency united the rest against Congress. Their common antipathy lasted, more or less, until the NDA gave Congress and the left common cause. The new element is the sudden implosion of the Left in Bengal, which threatens to convert vacant space into a vacuum. Even as Congress and Mamata Banerjee seek to destroy the CPM, they know the value of Marxist sentiment in the country's polity.

It is axiomatic that a largely impoverished nation needs a political party that the poor can identify with. The Congress has set out to be the party of the poor in daytime, and of the rich at night. Its sunlight politics will fetch votes, its twilight policies will enable it to govern. This is an extremely clever act whose opening scenes are being played out for a new generation that is vague about Indira Gandhi and amnesiac about Nehru. The hero of this drama must have the charisma to dazzle the poor and the flexibility to keep the rich onside. That is the challenge before Rahul Gandhi. His avowed role is to be the guardian of the poor in Delhi, which means that the poor need protection from Delhi. He is at home with the elite in the evening and is now making the effort to capture the sunshine hours.

However, regional parties have been there, done that. They continue to do so. Naveen Patnaik understands the trap of governance. He has been forced to take a position on one side or the other of the day-night constituencies; and he does not have a Manmohan Singh to play the foil. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could not manage this contradiction, but others have learnt. Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati or Chandrababu Naidu will not be pushovers.

Paradox and problem intersect in any country; India's size and potential make the challenge more complex. We will see whether Congress has the agility to use power to transfer power to yet another generation.

( Times of India Column - Siege Within/Out of Turn)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Income shall prevail

Byline by M J Akbar: Income shall prevail

The controversy over the MPs’ pay and emoluments is misplaced. We should lead a campaign to increase the salaries of MPs, but only if we can find a way of reducing their income.

The nation should not be irritated by a few thousand rupees more in legal pay for MPs. It should be worried stiff about the crores that they make unofficially. Mortals live off a salary; MPs live on their collection.

Corruption is not limited to MPs of course. A substantial section of the elite achieves fiscal immortality through the deathless alchemy of bribery. MPs, however, have a peculiar problem that becomes a suo moto excuse for greed. Even those who are averse to bribes, or those who live frugally, need a supplementary source of hard cash, since there is a total mismatch between the compulsory costs of a complicated job and official compensation. Did you ever meet any MP who looked as if he was feeding his family, educating his children, entertaining constituents, paying for at least two homes, all on a salary of Rs 12,000? Sure, there are millions of free phone calls and hundreds of paid flights, but phone companies have not yet devised a process by which calls can substitute for lunch. The salary is a thong, not a three-piece suit. It helps them claim that they are dressed. They make up the difference between pay and lifestyle costs by accepting “donations”.

The theory behind low salaries was that MPs did public service, and therefore should not be a burden on the public exchequer. Such idealism quickly degenerated into hypocrisy.

There are exceptions. A handful of MPs, generally but not exclusively of the leftist persuasion, live within their limited means, using party resources for their political expenses. But the only MPs who can afford to fold their hands instead of stretching their palms are professionals, like lawyers, who make a multiple of their peer salary in less than a morning’s work. Given our system, perhaps the only way a legislator can remain beyond the law is by being a lawyer — or an accountant with a lawyer’s account. The rest are condemned to polite, if inventive, forms of beggary. The system works on omerta, the code of silence. Strict adherence is essential, since the code is unwritten. When a club member breaks the silence, as Mayawati did by paying tax on at least some of such donations, there is withering unease.

Our antipathy towards politicians leads us into partial error; anger at the individual may have its uses, but the true problem is the malodorous system that sustains our democracy. The private wealth available to party leaders is astonishing; what they spend, while exorbitant enough, is a small percentage of the monies available to them. There has been no serious attempt to find a solution because it is virtually impossible to legislate against a functioning fiction.

The astronomical cost of elections has moved democracy into an unreal dimension, as distant from Election Commission rules as possible. Every commissioner knows that the expense statement provided by the candidate is an utter fraud, but signs on it nevertheless: if you punish 543 elected MPs the only presence left in the august chamber will be the lonely ghost of Mahatma Gandhi. Figures differ; a candidate’s expense in a parliamentary constituency can vary from Rs 2 crores to Rs 25 crores. And if you are buying votes on a wholesale basis, as has begun to happen in some southern states, then Rs 25 crores is what you put on the table before the first gambit.

The source of election funding becomes a regular resource for the elected MP. There are two reasons why two thirds of our MPs are crorepatis: according to numbers floating on the internet, 315 out of 543. The “regular resource” is one of them. The second, and more dangerous, is that elections are becoming a rich man’s game. Those outside the charmed circle are totally intimidated by the minimum requirement; and if they cannot raise that much, they cannot be credible candidates in any case. You cannot be elected without the support of the poor, but the Lok Sabha is no longer a place for the poor. It is unsurprising that the average worth of an MP has risen from around Rs 1.86 crores to Rs 5.33 crores.

What does it matter, then, whether an MP gets Rs 12,000 or Rs 60,000? At the top of this elite institution is the super elite of leaders, some of whom use private planes far more often than regular airlines. They don’t even bother to use the free airline tickets at their disposal.

No salary can ever pay for the lifestyle to which an Indian politician has become accustomed. The need is high enough, and when you top it up with greed, the upper limit of the cash inflow becomes a measure of individual, or ministerial, ability.

Heaven knows if we shall see any reform, but we can start with a refurbishment. We can remove the nation’s avowed motto, truth shall win, from Parliament.

On a more sombre note: what will be the outcome of such incomes?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Our pot-holed system breeds treadmillionaires

Our pot-holed system breeds treadmillionaires
By M J Akbar

After long and in-depth research, full of arduous travel to tedious destinations such as Singapore, Bali, Los Angeles, New York, London and Berlin — with a difficult weekend side-trip to Helsinki — an all-party parliamentary delegation has come to the incontrovertible conclusion that it only rains in India.

The logic is irrefutable. If rain fell on other cities, their roads would also crumple like Commonwealth Games toilet paper. Since no London becomes a moon track with one rainfall, it obviously never rains in London.

Fie on those who think that only Delhi surrenders to water-riven weather. The ‘low way’ (it began as a highway) between Mussoorie and Delhi is a very democratic drive. It begins in BJP khand, swerves through BSP queendom and then zigzags into Congress empire. This national artery gets a nervous breakdown in Uttarakhand, then descends into nightmarish trauma in UP. By the time it enters Delhi, it has an incurable split personality. It should be renamed after Freud.

We are a curious nation. For nine months we pray for the monsoon, and the moment our prayers are answered, we have no idea what to do. It is as if the showers came once a century rather than once a year.

You don’t need to summon Agatha Christie to solve the plot. Most of our roads are constructed for annual destruction, since there is more money to be made in rebuilding than in building. Governments are not merely hand-in-glove with contractors; they are hand-in-pocket. Shared loot is safe loot.

Contractors are not particularly worried about the law; they have lawyers with Satyam on their tongues. A congenial cynic suggested that it was time Parliament passed legislation decreeing that anyone worth more than Rs 1,000 crore would automatically be given bail. Businessmen make money all over the world. The difference is the distance between profit and avarice. The first has limits; greed has none.

In our country, corruption has become mainstream; honesty is a rivulet, which is why the System has developed such sophisticated expertise at deflecting street anger. The game is played out in full public view, and we do not see hypocrisy trapping us in slow motion.

What does the System do when it does not have an answer? It changes the question.

Witness how the rage against corruption in CWG has been manoeuvred into a debate on whether they can be held successfully. Who was responsible for this delay in the first place? Even this question has been diverted. The Organizing Committee, reorganized with some sticking plaster, is being reinvented from villain to victim of mysterious forces. We do not know if any race in CWG will see a nail-biting finish, but certainly the preparation has acquired a nail-biting dénouement.

Fudge is offered instead of explanation. The previous government, it is declared in stentorian tones, took the decision to hold the Games in Delhi. So? The previous government did not decide to hire treadmills for a few weeks at many times their retail price. Instead of treadmills, we have treadmillionaires.

A committee of 10 wise bureaucrats is appointed as the scourge to destroy evil and shepherd the Games towards a shining heaven. What has the committee been tasked to do? To “solve coordination problems…ensure completion…furnish progress reports…tie up loose ends”. In other words, to do within 45 days what should have been done over 45 months.

The simple fact is that they cannot take any decisions because all the decisions have already been taken during The Era of Evil — apart perhaps from a catering contract and sponsorship, the second of which is a revenue decision rather than a spending one. A government committee, incidentally, will provide excellent cover for the return of public sector sponsors.

The critical issue lies elsewhere. Indians are not against the Games; they are against corruption in the Games. Can this committee reverse any of the deals that have been exposed remorselessly by media? Will it return, without payment, the treadmills to those who have become treadmillionaires? Sanctimonious noises about the guilty being punished after the event are meaningless. How? If a contract has been sealed at a particular price by mutual consent, and then executed, how can the contractor be held guilty of malpractice? This is more dust in the eyes of a nation already semi-blind with sleaze.

Suresh Kalmadi was quite right to flash a V-sign after the “accountability” meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence on Thursday afternoon. The scapegoats in his committee have paid the necessary price. None of their decisions have been altered, since there were too many others clinging to the food chain. Nothing has changed, apart from the touch of a few cosmetics that barely hide the accumulated debris of deals. Long live the System.

Unless, of course, it rains on the parade in October.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A French chateau and starving Pakistan

Byline by M J Akbar: A French chateau and starving Pakistan

The reservoir of hatred has to be very deep for Pakistan to reject India’s aid at a time when desperate, flood-affected, marauding men snatch precious food from wailing, helpless women; when advertisements for donations are appearing in British and American newspapers; when the United Nations has stepped in to lead a rescue effort; and when the World Bank has offered two billion dollars over the next two years to ameliorate the consequences of an unprecedented national calamity. It took an American rap across the knuckles before Pakistan accepted India’s five million dollars.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s response to this gratuitous insult was a testament to his faith: he offered more. The best answer to visceral animosity is surely a civilised handshake, even if one may have to count one’s fingers after the hand has been shaken.

A caveat is essential. We must not confuse the Pakistani people with the Pakistan government. The government was playing politics with a crisis. The starving have no time for cynicism. The true victims of any such calamity are the poor, for the rich live above water. No poll has indicated that Pakistan’s flood-displaced would rather go hungry and roofless than eat wheat or take shelter under a tent purchased with India’s dollars.

Was Asif Zardari’s fear of Indian money directly related to his fear of the Pakistan Army?

A natural disaster of these proportions can become a defining moment in history. There were many reasons why East Pakistan broke away to create Bangladesh in 1971, but the Yahya Khan regime’s hopeless, and perhaps even prejudiced, neglect of the region after the devastation caused by Cyclone Bhola in 1970 became the conclusive evidence that persuaded Bengalis that they would never get justice in Pakistan. There is already sufficient information from the ground to indicate that Pakistanis are at least as angry with Zardari as Bengalis were with Yahya Khan.

The Khyber-to-Balochistan deluge — stretching across 20% of the country, a space larger than Italy — has begun to reinforce a resurgent public view that the Pakistan Army might have become a more natural institution of governance than the Pakistan People’s Party and the democratic organisations now in power. Its chief Ashfaq Kayani mobilised his troops for relief instantly. Zardari, in a display of astonishing, callous indifference, preferred to go on what can only be described as a working holiday in France and Britain, wherein the holiday invited more publicity than the work. The Army also donated, very quickly, a day’s pay, a thought that did not immediately occur to legislators. Zardari, in sharp contrast, breezed through his expensive jaunt, spending $12,000 per night for his suite in London, and zooming off, with his children and his nominated heir to the Bhutto throne, on helicopters to his chateau in France. A Zardari spokesman explained that this chateau had been in the family possession for 18 years. That then would be around the time when the Bhuttos were in power in Islamabad. Two plus two in Islamabad equals a chateau in France and a lordly estate in England.

Pakistan’s internet is also in flood. The invective against Zardari has to be read to be believed. Alas, the most exhilarating examples cannot be reprinted in a newspaper. It is safe to assume that the credibility of the PPP has been washed away in this flood, and it remains in office from now for purely legal, rather than politically legitimate, reasons. The reputation of the principal Opposition party, led by Nawaz Sharif, which rules Punjab, has been battered by allegations of corruption and maladministration. The main parties have a vested interest in protecting one another. But the fact is that their incompetence has left a huge vacuum, and the only institution capable of filling it is the Army.

The civilian challenge to political parties comes from a far more dangerous force than the Army. To put this in a single sentence: fundamentalist organisations with a terrorist wing, like the renamed Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, reached the affected people long before the government. The only comforting news from internet chatter is the manner in which civil society in Pakistan has mobilised to fill the gap that Islamabad has left. But there is only so much that impromptu citizen action groups can do. They cannot be a substitute for a nation’s government.

Zardari’s fear is valid. Would a coup be as unpopular today as it would have been a year ago? In fact, a year ago it would have been impossible. It might not have become probable even now, but Kayani is a patient man in a country where elected officials are conducting impatient hara-kiri. Zardari has been cozying up to American VIPs like John Kerry, but Washington’s generic dislike of coups is not so strong as to sabotage its self-interest. America is involved in a borderless war in Afghanistan. America’s strategic imperative demands a strong government in Islamabad, and if that means giving recognition to a future President Kayani, so be it.

Asif Zardari’s decision to buy a chateau in France could prove to be a wise investment. It is certainly a far more comfortable address for an ex-President than a VIP jail within a fortress on the Indus.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

History's lesson: jaw-jaw, not war-war

History's lesson: jaw-jaw, not war-war
By M J Akbar

Mountbatten, as governor general, and Nehru, as prime minister, did not let Pakistan seize by armed force what should have been negotiated over a table. They ensured the legality of the Indian response to aggression through the instrument of accession and then supervised the Indian Army action that drove the invaders out of most of Kashmir.
Would we remember August 15 if it were not a holiday? Admit it: most of us are feeling vaguely cheated that it falls on a Sunday this year. Its rituals have fallen flat, tripped by boredom and repetition.

A more interesting question: did we actually become independent on August 15, 1947? No. This truth has been carefully screened behind a mist of sentiment and the symbolism of the rising tricolour on a pole where once flew the Union Jack. What we got in 1947 was dominion status, under the Government of India Act of 1935, amended by the British Parliament in 1947 to create two dominions instead of one. At the apex of their polity, India and Pakistan would have a governor general, appointed by the British monarch in consultation with Delhi and Karachi.

Jawaharlal Nehru, with commendable foresight, asked the last viceroy, Mountbatten, to continue, and gave him a role in the executive as chairman of the Cabinet's defence committee. This was hard-headed, not sentimental, since the commanders of the Indian armed services were British, as were senior officers: transition would take time. This single decision would pay historic dividends in Jammu and Kashmir. Mountbatten wanted to be named governor general of Pakistan as well, but Jinnah chose to become Pakistan's first British appointment, rather than his country's first prime minister.

India became a sovereign nation on January 26, 1950 when it adopted a Constitution and held an election that gave India its first adult franchise government. In Pakistan, there was much squalid politics, with governments being dismissed arbitrarily, before it got a Constitution in 1956, soon usurped by a military coup. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, united Bengal's last premier and the law minister who piloted the Constitution through the assembly, tells an amusing story in his memoirs. In May 1953, Governor General Ghulam Mohammad, dismissed Pakistan's first Bengali prime minister, Khwaja Nazimuddin, just after he had proved his majority in the legislature, apparently because Nazimuddin was about to reduce the strength of the army by 30,000 men. Ghulam Mohammad took care to cut Nazimuddin's telephone line to prevent him from appealing to Queen Elizabeth for a reversal of the dismissal. Such action would have been within her legal rights.

Do these anachronisms of history matter?

They matter so much that blood is still being spilt in Jammu and Kashmir.
Partition divided India and Pakistan in 1947, but did not resolve the status of the two largest princely states, Kashmir and Hyderabad. The Hindu maharaja of Muslim-majority Kashmir and the Muslim Nizam of Hindu-majority Hyderabad thought, for reasons they never made very clear, that they could remain independent. A little after Partition, Nehru wrote to Mountbatten that the best time for discussions on the future of Kashmir would be after the spring thaw of 1948 since his government was overburdened by the bitter aftermath of riots and resettlement.

Pakistan pre-empted a peaceful settlement in 1948 by organizing an invasion thinly disguised as an "uprising", in October 1946. If Pakistan had not sought to seize Kashmir through war, the Kashmir problem would have been resolved across a table in 1948. The Act granting dominion status to India and Pakistan did not envisage independence for any princely state. Britain still had a legitimate presence on the subcontinent.

Mountbatten, as governor general, and Nehru, as prime minister, did not let Pakistan seize by armed force what should have been negotiated over a table. They ensured the legality of the Indian response to aggression through the instrument of accession and then supervised the Indian Army action that drove the invaders out of most of Kashmir.

When, in response, Jinnah ordered the Pakistan army to join the war, he discovered the limitations of his power in a dominion. Acting chief of the Pakistan army, General Sir Douglas Gracey refused to take orders from Jinnah. His army joined the war only in the spring of 1948, after a quiet nod from London.

Mountbatten was, of course, also the man who pushed Nehru into referring Kashmir to the United Nations. It is ironical that his reputation is now stained on both sides of the border. In Pakistan, he is vilified as the biased viceroy who favoured Nehru's India for public and personal reasons; in India, he is the UN-villain. Such was the fate of do-gooders whose best intentions were a trifle out of step with reality. The Kashmir story has now moved beyond the UN, plebiscites and even the India-Pakistan war. War solved nothing and wrought nothing but misery in 1947; it can only inflict havoc today. There is only one lesson, if indeed anyone has time for history's moral science. The war that Pakistan began is a recipe for disaster; the negotiations that Nehru and Mountbatten wanted are still the only option.

( Times of India column)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mosque has no door

Byline by M J Akbar: Mosque has no door

Can there be any rational reason for such subliminal fear of a house without a door? A mosque has no door; it is always open to anyone. Submission is the guiding force of its spirit and simplicity is its objective. There is equality in the lines of prayer. Servant stands beside master to bow, at the same moment, before the Lord. Divisions and pretensions dissipate. The whole world, as the great Indian theologian and mass leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad used to say, is God’s mosque. Nations may claim to act in the name of God, but God does not need nations. A mosque is neither factory nor fortress: why should it arouse either envy or fear?

The opposition of some sections of the American right, led by politicians like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, to a mosque at the site of the 9/11 tragedy is bewildering, at the very least.

A war memorial is not built to perpetuate war. Its relevance lies in the promise of peace. It honours heroes who have given their lives, but this sacrifice, in the words of a famous testament, is ennobled by the promise that they gave their today so the living might have a better tomorrow. A war memorial is a symbol of conflict resolution, not conflict enhancement. A mosque near the World Trade Center will epitomize the partnership necessary for a common struggle against the horror of terrorism and its evil masterminds, wherever they might live.

Is ignorance a reason for the right-wing campaign against the mosque? I was at the East-West Center in Hawaii a few years ago for a faith-media seminar. On Friday, our very considerate hosts offered Muslim participants a chance to join a local congregation for noon prayers in a small room where the minute local community gathered regularly for namaaz and fraternity. Some non-Muslim colleagues came along because they had never seen a Friday prayer. We are all convivial, but I daresay at least one or two of them were relieved that the Imam had not declared war on the West and we had not unsheathed scimitars as part of ritual.

Ignorance is too generous an alibi for Gingrich and Palin. They have been candidates for the most powerful job in the world. It is foolish to dismiss them as fools.

A mosque at Ground Zero will interfere with their politics, in which the Muslim must be etched as an irredeemable zealot with manic eyes and foaming mouth; the mosque must be distorted into a fountainhead of hatred; and every Muslim be blamed for the sins of the few bigots and terrorists who perpetrated 9/11. A range of political forces has a vested interest in the myth of the mad Muslim as the last evil standing between civilisation and chaos.

The irony is that Palin and Gingrich do not represent the idealism and philosophy of America, a nation that is liberal, open, democratic and secular. Gingrich is a false American; Palin is a falsetto American.

The true American patriot is Michael Rubens Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, who has supported the idea of a mosque. I use his full name deliberately: he is of the Jewish faith, from a family of Russian émigrés. Bloomberg reflects the idealism of America as well as the anguish and wisdom of his own heritage, of a people who have suffered the trauma of bigotry and threat of extinction for two millennia. He knows prejudice when he sees it; he understands the poison it injects into the human psyche; and he is willing to set aside the prospect of political advantage from hysteria in order to stand on the side of justice. Those who gave Barack Obama a Nobel Peace Prize without much reason might want to consider Bloomberg for much better reasons. He has, in the process, also exposed organisations like the Anti Defamation League, who seem to have sold their principles for politics. Fareed Zakaria deserves our respect for returning the honorarium and First Amendment award given by the League.

Bigotry is not the exclusive property of any denomination; Muslims offer their share in the long list of self-appointed leaders who spawn the culture that leads to terrorism from pulpits which desecrate the meaning of a mosque. But it is utterly self-defeating to blame Islam, or the vast majority of peaceful Muslims, for the sins of a few. Terms like “Islamo-fascism”, George Bush’s intellectual contribution to this debate, are meaningless gibberish. Islam is 1,400 years old; fascism entered the dialectic only with Benito Mussolini. So whatever else Islam might be it cannot be fascist. True, there are some Muslims who are fascist, but why blame Islam for the tyranny of despots? No one blames the Roman Catholic Church for Mussolini.

Terrorists conspire. A conspiracy is hatched behind closed doors. A mosque has no door.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A Valley Riven by Anger & History

A valley riven by anger & history
M J Akbar

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief, was commissioned in August 1971. The other four-star general in the Pakistan army, Tariq Majeed, is due to retire on October 7, which makes him an exact contemporary. Lt Gen Khalid Shameem Wyne, chief of general staff, will lay down his baton on March 8 next year and is consequently just a few months junior. Lt Gen Syed Absar Hussain, who is in charge of Army Strategic Forces, was at the Command and Staff College in Quetta in 1971. He got his artillery commission in April 1972. Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, director-general of the ISI, is already on extension, so is of Kayani's age. Lt Gen Javed Zia, head of Southern Command, Quetta, Lt Gen Muhammad Mustafa Khan, commanding 1 Corps, and Lt Gen Shahid Iqbal of V Corps are retiring either this year or next.

What do the men at the top of Pakistan's army have in common? They are officers of the "traumatized generation". Each joined an army that had been humiliated in the 1971 war, which ended not only in the gut-wrenching surrender of more than 90,000 troops to an Indian general, but the partition of Pakistan and the reinvention of the East as Bangladesh. The only war that Kayani has fought, barring recent civil wars of course, is the game-changing 1971 conflict.

His generation, still burning with an adolescent heartache that can never quite heal, has had a silent, consuming mission: revenge for Bangladesh through Kashmir, preferably within its career span or at least in its lifetime. The tortured angst of zealots is even more acute because in their fevered imagination, a "Muslim" army on jihad had been disgraced by a "Hindu" force. If the status of Kashmir changes in the next five years, this generation will have realized its religio-nationalist fantasy.

The Indian analysis of Bangladesh differs from the Pakistan narrative: we believe that the Indian Army's intervention in 1971, formalized by an infructuous Pakistan air strike on the night of December 5, was only the last paragraph of a long suicide note written by an incompetent president, Yahya Khan, and a brilliant megalomaniac, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. We believe a series of racist political mistakes was topped by denying Sheikh Mujibur Rahman a chance to form the government after he had won a majority in a general election.

Four decades later, Pakistan is waiting for Omar Abdullah to become the Yahya Khan of Kashmir, and tweaking events with just enough intervention to help a mistake gravitate towards a crisis. This may sound far-fetched in Delhi, but there is optimism in Islamabad. The Jamaat e-Islami, which advocates accession to Pakistan, is, at long last, in the vanguard of an upsurge; the slogan on the streets is that Omar may be in government but the Jamaat's Syed Ali Shah Geelani is in power. From across the LoC, Syed Salahuddin, leader of the Pakistan-sponsored Hizbul Mujahideen, urges Kashmiris, in a speech widely believed to have been delivered through a mobile phone and broadcast over microphones, to flood the streets as victory is imminent.

There was little premonition of this summer's conflagration. Last year's elections passed off so peacefully that there were self-congratulatory smiles all around. Calm bred complacency, and its principal side-effect, arrogance. A death on June 11 was shrugged off as an incident. It took eight weeks for Delhi to rise from slumber, and then only to offer boring clichés as balm. Shoot-at-sight orders have had no effect: you can't shoot a whole city.

Estimates differ but the death toll in Kashmir between June and the first week of August is around 40. Rampaging Muhajirs, outraged at the murder of their Shia leader, Syed Raza Haider on Monday, have killed more than 80 and injured hundreds of Pashtuns in Karachi. This was not a Hindu-Muslim riot; this was Muslim-Muslim carnage. Muhajirs are UP-Bihar migrants who left their land in 1947 for the Promised Land. Six decades later, they need private militias to defend themselves because they offend Pathans in a "pure" country that has virtually eliminated "infidels" from its demography.

It is an evil moment in history when a corpse-count becomes the comparative difference between two nations. A fact is staring at us: 1947 unhinged Muslims of the subcontinent, and a once-cogent community is split politically and psychologically, inflamed by passions that veer between unhealthy fear, violent anger and dysfunctional dreams. If Kashmiri Muslims believe they can achieve independence, then they understand neither India nor Pakistan.

Generals are transient. Pakistan's generals do not count corpses because they believe that death is a mere statistic in a larger war. Democracy transcends the prejudice of generations, and demands a ruling culture far beyond the ambitions of any coterie. India cannot diet on such cold calculations. A daily drip of blood has corroded the credibility of Srinagar's government. If the mood of the people does not change, the government must.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

No Short-cuts in Governance

Byline by M J Akbar: No short cuts in governance

Governments never seem to understand a basic fact of the democratic dialectic: no Opposition wants its demands met. It prefers a Government to be stubborn, so that it can string out the accusation long enough for it to sink so deep into the public consciousness that it cannot be extricated by delayed redressal. There is not much political value to an accusation unless it becomes an intrinsic part of campaign rhetoric. In theory, the Opposition turns a day in Parliament into a verbal festival over the Commonwealth Games because it wants accountability for corruption. In practice, Opposition parties need to maximise the advantage by being able to go to town — and village — with the message that the Government has not only stolen the people’s money, but is so thick-skinned that it will do nothing about the thieves. The obduracy of authority is the ultimate gift to Opposition.

In real terms, it hardly matters whether Suresh Kalmadi goes now or after the Games. His role as the sports czar of India is effectively over. It is only a question of whether he gets a nice gift at the farewell party — which, of course would be the closing ceremony of the Games — or he is sent towards the sunset in lonely isolation. As far as the people are concerned the difference between grace and disgrace has evaporated. It could hardly be otherwise given the scale and sheer audacity of the corruption. It is possible that the bunch in charge of this lucrative extravaganza thought they had squared all sides. There were junkets aplenty, across the political divide. The BJP’s Vijay Goel went to Beijing for “technical studies” as did the Congress’ Jagdish Tytler: neither had anything to with CWG but must be worthy of technical doctorates by now. Perhaps they were being given early training for the Asian Games. Delhi’s Congress legislators Haroon Yusuf and A.S. Lovely went to Melbourne to find how they run city transport, which of course is why Delhi’s traffic has already become better than Australia’s. Naturally they travelled first class. This is nothing but big-budget back-scratching between pals, an insurance policy against exposure: if everyone is guilty then no one is guilty. The officials have piled up enough flying miles to look after family holidays for a couple of years. They might all have got away if they had not all been so confident about the spread of the swill. But there are always a few who refuse to be co-opted. They keep our democracy democratic.

Time turns corruption into a milch cow. If A. Raja had been dropped from the Cabinet after the telecom storm burst, the collateral electoral damage would be limited. Now that he is being retained, he will become the perfect, mobile target for Jayalalithaa during next year’s Assembly election: “mobile” is the perfect metaphor, of course, since Raja will be wandering around the state. A good cartoonist could do wonders with Raja posters, if Jayalalithaa has one — and has the will to leaven her anger with a bit of wit.

Governments do understand a second fact of our political debate: the issues that agitate Parliament and media are seasonal. Their expectation is that they will seem less important to the voter once the initial froth has subsided. If the big tent does finally manage to produce a circus, the memory of the gravy train that brought it will dissipate in the merriment. Who will bother to hold anyone accountable after the Games are over? It is not in the Government’s vested interest to do so. It is not within the Opposition’s capability to do so.

The tendency to elide through crises with token gestures can become a self-defeating habit. This was the initial approach to the building anger in Kashmir, and now the people do not take even a well-meaning gesture seriously. Omar Abdullah was literally driven away, and had to be bundled out to his waiting helicopter by a frantic security posse when he visited a hospital. He cannot travel a few kilometres through his capital in a car; he needs a helicopter. He reached the flood-distressed region of Leh with far more alacrity than he had shown in the city from which he rules, because, for the moment at least, he has become Chief Minister of Jammu and Leh rather than the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Perhaps he, and Delhi, believes that Ramzan, the month of fasting that begins this week, will bring calm. It could. Surface calm however is not peace. There are no short cuts in governance.

Does Government need to worry about Opposition fulminations if there is no election visible? That is the only accountable moment that the ruling system takes seriously. Since we do not have the law of recall, Governments tend to dismiss street anger as an emotion that can be assuaged nearer an election. Lack of popular support, however, saps the energy of authority.

A weak government weakens the nation.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Ultimate Games of also-rans

The Ultimate Games of also-rans
By M J Akbar

We might all have missed the point about the Commonwealth Games: the problem is not in the games but in the Commonwealth. Britain took the event seriously when it began life as the Empire Games, for it was a good opportunity to find out how the natives were getting along in approved pursuits. Even the Queen is no longer interested in a collection of countries that don’t take orders from her, have little in common and less by way of wealth.

Why then should Usain Bolt be interested? There is neither the financial reward of professional engagement, nor the prestige of an Olympics medal. The CWG is the ultimate competition of also-rans. The most versatile athlete at the Games is probably going to be the acrobatic Katrina Kaif, who may not be much good at the 100-metre dash, but is the undoubted star of the 100-metre-wide wriggle and writhe which will surely be the most interesting event of the two-week tamasha.

The Games were never about sports. They were a fortuitous opportunity for Delhi’s ruling class to divert a vast fortune from the national exchequer, in the name of national prestige, and spend it on just those few parts of India’s capital where the elite lives. As patriotism, despite its many virtues, is also the last refuge of the scoundrel, a healthy part of the money was siphoned off, evidence of which has begun to move towards the front page.

Trenchant critics like Mani Shankar Aiyar could be falling into a trap when they pray for calamity. (By the way, which would you prefer: a good monsoon or a good CWG?) The oldest PR ploy is to deliberately lower expectations so much that even if the event is halfway average it can be billed as a triumph and all memory of corruption can be washed away in the ensuing gloating and self-congratulation. You have to be seriously stupid if you cannot get a few stadiums in shape after spending Rs 35,000 crore, and we should never underestimate the intelligence of the corrupt. So expect Delhi to have the Games without a hitch: the weather will have improved; the streets will be light on traffic because locals will be on holiday and tourists absent; athletes will get their feed thanks to last-minute contracts at inflated rates; and a Rs 40-crore balloon, bloated with controversy, will provide adequate laser lighting to Katrina’s sultry gyrations. Sports will merely be a boring hyphen between excellent opening and closing ceremonies.

Would David Cameron, prime minister of the premier Commonwealth nation, be caught, dead or alive, at the opening ceremony in Delhi? As his extremely successful visit to India last week proved, he is, sensibly, far more interested in a bilateral relationship with India than a disjointed, multilateral extravaganza, even though Britain is the mother of the Commonwealth. The only flaw was our disconcerting tendency to call Cameron “Cameroon”, but this was the hangover from a far more successful sporting event, the football World Cup. We will have mended our ways by the time he drops by again.

The relationship between India and Britain must be one of the more astonishing success stories of history. There is a moving anecdote about an argument between Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi during their last detention, in Pune, after Gandhi launched the “Quit India” movement in 1942. Age, and life with a difficult, indomitable husband, had begun to wear “Ba” down. Once, seriously ill, she chided her husband for pitting impoverished Indians against the might of the British Raj. Why, she asked, did Gandhi want the British to quit? India was a vast country, and they should stay, but as brothers, not as rulers. This, replied the Mahatma, was precisely what he had been telling the British.

Kasturba, who did not live to see freedom, would have been pleased this week: Indians and the British have become, almost imperceptibly, brothers. Britain and America are mere partners. Cameron admitted, during his Washington visit, that Britain was the junior partner. There is no seniority in the equal British-India relationship. Scottish jute mills were once the largest employers in India; Tata is now the largest employer in Britain. There is far more genuine, if latent, sentiment than both countries are loath to admit. While political bonds might be stronger across the Atlantic, India and Britain are united by unnoticed details of cultural contiguity. Cameron would scoff down a curry without a thought, for curry is as British now as Indian. But look carefully at the photograph of Cameron eating a hot dog, in Mayor Bloom-berg’s company, in New York: his lower fingers twirl away in implicit disdain of the unfamiliar. Hot dog on main street is not Cameron’s fav-ourite fast food.

And now that the ranking dove in the Indian Cabinet has decided to purchase 57 British Hawks, things can only get better.