Sunday, September 26, 2010

Much Good from a Bad Games

Much Good from a Bad Games
By M J Akbar

Why have we become defeatists just because The Times of India has done such a brilliant job of exposing this strangely gut-wrenching but simultaneously hilarious loot of our wealth in the name of Commonwealth? Why are we so depressed merely because the world media has turned India’s image into a toilet seat, thereby fulfilling V S Naipaul’s dream first sketched in “An Area of Darkness” ? Away with the frozen frown! We must be sunny and optimistic. Let us look at the positive side and list the great achievements that await us during the Commonwealth Games.

India will win 200 medals. Given the rate at which the weak-livered champions from kidneyless countries like Australia -- imagine getting scared by a mere dengue mosquito! bah! -- are dropping out, we will soon be cheering ourselves hoarse as Indians win gold after gold in what becomes a virtual domestic competition. The downside is that our ministers will feel compelled to hand out Rs 20 lakh of our money to the winners, but at least the cash will go to sports stars rather than a greasy political shrimp masquerading as a whale or dolphin.

We Indians have, regrettably, forgotten our true strength. Do we remember that we were the first nation to defeat European colonialism? The British Empire never recovered from Indian independence; it was downhill all the way for London after August 15, 1947. It is but child’s play for a nation that destroyed the mightiest empire in history, to ruin the Commonwealth. Those who think of Suresh Kalmadi and the Group of Ministers in charge of the Games as merely incompetent or greedy or both are doing them a terrible injustice. They are, in truth, liberation theologians who are putting the finishing touches to a mission that Gandhi and Nehru were unable to complete. Our founding fathers killed the Raj; their faithful heirs have neutered the child of the Raj, the Commonwealth . Our generation achieved its goal through strict non-violence . All we did was to introduce the Commonwealth to Indian standards of hygiene and the Commonwealth became a gibbering wreck. The world is amazed only because it has always underestimated India’s destructive capacity, which is second only to India’s self-destructive capacity.

Delhi will be a divine city from October 3 to 14. Not a single foreign tourist will have arrived, and every Dilliwalla with the means will have followed Mani Shankar Aiyar out of the capital. Schools will be closed. Offices will be on semi-holiday . The Delhi government has already issued restaurant alerts through radio ads, saying anyone who tries to eat out is anti-national . Ergo: no traffic. Potholes will have been bricked up, with strict instructions to implode only after October 14. The skies will have exhausted themselves. The weather will begin to drift towards winter. Can you think of a more idyllic place to enjoy a fortnight of bliss? As nothing is perfect , the only precaution will be to ensure that you do not go anywhere near the entrance to the stadiums. The stadiums were built nearly three decades ago for the Asiad under Rajiv Gandhi’s stewardship at minimal cost, without any noticeable whiff of corruption, and therefore are excellent . It is today’s approach and the embellishment , done with amoebic dysentery spending that is the problem. If you are an ordinary Indian, please do not use any new connector bridge. The government will show some remorse only if anything happens to a foreign athlete when a bridge collapses.

Clear evidence has emerged that the inmates are no longer in charge of the asylum . It may have taken a press conference by one of our honoured foreign Games officials , in which he used a few indelicate words, and pictures that turned the world’s image of ‘Risen India’ into a horror story, but the high and mighty did finally stir. Intervention at nothing less than the Prime Minister’s level was needed to get chaps with long brooms to brush the dust out and use a bit of water in the bathrooms, but admit it -- it happened! Yes, we do not know yet what will happen when the athletes finally hit the turf, and whether swimming pool leaks have been plugged or not, but this column has already warned you that the best way to enjoy the Commonwealth Games is by staying as far away from the venues as you can.

A friend pointed out that we have only now begun to notice what happened some time ago: the CIA has taken over India. The CIA provides the core inner ring which pumps blood into the heart of the current ruling class of our country. CIA is: Corrupt Incompetent Arrogant. There is only one reason China is ahead of India; because it is run by the CPC: Corrupt, Perverse but Competent.

(Times of India Column, 26th September 2010)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Babri-Ayodhya Volcanic Eruption & the Judgement

Byline by M J Akbar: Babri-Ayodhya Volcanic Eruption & the Judgement

It is never easy to walk close to the precipice. The Supreme Court must be feeling very sure-footed to test its vertigo level on Ayodhya. It has put six decades of anguish, turmoil and a legal endurance test on the edge of a calendar. If there is the slightest mishap, and even the Supreme Court cannot claim the divine power of predicting what unknown factors might spin the coming week out of control, the Allahabad High Court judgement on the Babri title dispute could fall into a bottomless abyss. If the judgement is not read out before the end of the month it becomes infructuous since one of the judges is retiring. India does not have the energy to start another six decades of social, political and legal acrimony.

It would of course have been heavenly if time was the solution to a problem has proved intractable for both the British Raj and free India. Many problems in India do merge and disappear in that glacier called time. Faith, alas, arouses passions that have the resilience to defeat time. There is a view among those who have not experienced the depth of faith that the dispute has faded into unimportance. It was perhaps this assessment that persuaded Rahul Gandhi to claim that other things were more important. A little reading of history would be useful. The Babri-Ayodhya dispute has lain dormant for long spells before erupting suddenly, volcanically, and spreading its lava far and wide into the social streams of our nation. Sometimes it rumbles before bursting, and sometimes it surprises us with its arbitrary vehemence. This is why Sardar Patel, whose understanding of India was unmatched, advised Jawaharlal Nehru to find some way towards immediate closure of the two issues that had become symbols in the Hindu subconscious, the temple at Somnath destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni and the Babri mosque. Nehru was uncomfortable, but did not interfere with the reconstruction of the temple at Somnath, except that he would not allow the project to become a state enterprise. Somnath was comparatively easy since no one had built a mosque at the site. Patel warned that if the Ram-birthplace dispute was not resolved it would return to haunt India five decades later. It did, in less time than that.

Ayodhya was different because there was a mosque, built during the reign of Babar. L.K.Advani linked the two when he started his rath yatra towards Ayodhya from Somnath, exactly 20 years on 25 September. Another two decades of time have not brought any resolution.

Perhaps we are being lulled by the fact that there has been no violence over Ayodhya after 1992. Mistake. Indians, of any religion or denomination, are instinctively repulsed by violence, even if they can, on occasions, get as appallingly murderous as any crowd in history. But there is rarely exultation and always guilt. Even when top-of-mind recall has dimmed, it does not mean that an issue such as Babri-Ayodhya has disappeared from hearts.

The consequences of non-judgement will be horrendous. It is obvious from the statements of their spokesmen that the Congress is, typically, committed to irresolution. Its politics impels it to hunt with the mosque and run with the temple. This fudge was possible as long as the courts were taking their time. Time - a chameleon component of this drama - has run out, at least in the legal sense. There is at long last a judgement, by a respected high court. Even a stay on its implementation and the reality of an appeal cannot diminish the power of a verdict. The government would be very foolish to believe that it can bury the judgement in some legal maze, making it untraceable. If the judgement is not read by the court, it will still find its way to the people, through the media perhaps. The happy fact of any democracy is that suppressed information, like water, always leaks through the shackles of government.

The parties involved are already raising dangerous apprehensions. It is only natural for either, or perhaps both, to feel that the government is using delay as a tactic to deny them justice. The only salutary outcome of such a situation would be that the two parties forget their bitterness towards each other, and divert it towards the government in a common cause. Do not laugh. Stranger things have happened in Indian politics.

The Supreme Court has the liberty to hope that something could happen in six days that has not happened in six decades, an amicable settlement. But it has no right to abort the course of justice for reasons extraneous to the law. Tuesday is going to be a tense day, but I have no doubt that the Supreme Court will apply its own means test. It needs an answer to only one question: have the parties to the dispute reached a settlement outside the court? If the answer is no, as is likely, then before the Supreme Court rises it must give leave to its brothers on the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court to deliver their judgement. That is the only safe route back from the precipice.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Omar must know Army is not the Enemy

Omar must know Army is not the Enemy
By M J Akbar

Self-preservation is the default mode of the self-destructive. Omar Abdullah is trapped in an existential dilemma. He cannot blame himself for the wreck he has wrought. To do so would severely damage, if not abort, a political career born in genetic entitlement and wafted into that exhilarating but oxygen-thin ozone layer of celebrity. He cannot blame Delhi either, the favoured recourse of regional parties caught in a crisis, for he is a child of Delhi in more senses than one. He owes his job to the masters of the Capital, Congress and more specifically Rahul Gandhi. He tried blaming the local opposition, particularly his bete noire Mehbooba Mufti, but that is a futile dead end. It could not take him out of the maze. Mehbooba is in control of neither the street nor the secretariat. Blaming Pakistan is too obvious to raise anything more substantial than a yawn.

He has, therefore, selected the only escape route he could think of: blame the Indian Army. After 90 deaths in 90 days, the dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has become the fulcrum of his political fortunes. He did not offer to leave because of the complete collapse of governance and total absence of ideas. He threatened to resign if the Union government did not punish the Indian Army.

For which sin? Not a single death in the present crisis has resulted from an Army bullet. Those bullets came from the guns of the J&K police and CRPF. Why has everyone chosen to obscure this fact with silence and raise dust against the Army?

This question has disturbing dimensions. Why have separatists and militants never demanded that the state government disband the local police and send back the CRPF for taking such a toll? Why is the secessionist, and alas political, verbiage targeted at the Army and no one but the Army? The Indian Army came into the picture for the first time only on the evening of September 15. That was during discussions with the Fifth Corps on how to respond to the next stage of a carefully designed strategy — sit-ins before Army camps, meant to sustain the focus on the Army and weaken its presence in the valley. The Army has not been deployed in the demonstrations, and is concentrating only on its counter-insurgency role.

Why is the Indian Army the one-point target of those who want to break India? The answer is uncomplicated. The police, whether state or central, cannot defend the territorial integrity of India. The Indian Army can. It is therefore in the interest of secessionists and their mentors in Islamabad to create discord between the Indian Army and the Indian state.

Why is the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir lending his voice to this cacophony? Which gallery is a desperate Omar Abdullah playing to?

This crisis did not begin 90 days ago or a hundred days ago. It began in the minds of people who had an agenda and whose intricate planning was propelled onto the street by the Kashmir Jamaat e-Islami and its leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The Kashmir Jamaat has never made any secret of its objective, which is to merge the valley with Pakistan. It has financial and ideological links with Pakistan. It has deliberately disassociated itself from the Jamaat e-Islami in the rest of India. This slings-and-stones model was crafted to elicit world sympathy, and create a David versus Goliath confrontation. (David is a prophet of Islam as well, and lauded as a supreme instance of a jihadi in the holy Quran.)

The timing was certainly influenced by President Barack Obama’s scheduled November visit to India. Both Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton have said, at some point in their campaigns, that Palestine and Kashmir required resolution. Pakistan wants Kashmir on Obama’s must-do list as part of its pay-off for helping in Afghanistan, and protest builds pressure.

Intelligence officers should have picked up what any well-informed journalist in Srinagar knew. Prevention is the true cure in governance. The administration compounded intelligence failure by behaving like a bumbling, stumbling Goliath once demonstrations began.

Delhi was so indifferent that it did not even bumble. It took 90 days to hold an all-party meeting that suffused the airwaves with inanities. Why was Delhi silent until the volcano burst and lava spread beyond the valley? Manmohan Singh promised this week to talk to “anyone” who abjured violence. Kashmiris have the right to ask: why did you not talk when there was peace? This government inherited a Kashmir in improving health. It has frittered away a legacy.

Rahul Gandhi, who can be PM any day he chooses, says, disingenuously that he is unfamiliar with the complexities of AFSPA. The Prime Minister knows what it means: to weaken the Indian Army in Kashmir is to weaken India.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mandal chapter is now a book

Byline by M J Akbar: Mandal chapter is now a book

Has the Manmohan Singh Government ordered India’s first Hindu census? The exercise scheduled for 2011 to count the caste populations of the country excludes, by definition, those who do not believe in caste.

If someone asked me what my caste was, I would have no answer. I have a nationality: Indian. I have a faith: Islam. I have a birthplace: Bengal. I have a cultural identity even if this tends to get diffuse, since my father was a Bihari settled in Bengal, my mother a Kashmiri who was brought up in Amritsar, and I now live in Haryana. The answer may be complicated but it is still an answer. But caste? I have none.

Should I acquire a caste, if someone is willing to offer me one, in order to become politically correct in the era of Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi? I take these names quite deliberately, since, to the best of my knowledge, they too do not have a caste, at least if they are true to the philosophy of their faith. Will the Prime Minister claim that he is either a Jat or a Pappa Sikh or whatever when the men in white shirts with blank forms turn up at his door? Will Mrs Gandhi tell the censuswallahs that she has become a Brahmin-Christian because she married a man whose mother was a Kashmiri Pandit and father a Parsi?

What is the precise purpose of an additional, expensive and wearisome enumeration of our innumerable social differences? The normal census already delineates fractional, not to say fractious, identities which is why we know what is the percentage of Dalits and Brahmins and Yadavs and Muslims et al in every constituency, enabling politicians to select candidates on the basis of caste-communal mathematics. Government knows these percentages and publishes them for citizens to read and make demands for job reservation on a quota slide-rule. Are we now heading for the specific numbers of sub-castes and gotras, so that squabbles for the job-pie get even more intense, bitter and divisive?

Decisions with long-term consequences are being made with vision no greater than an eye-range of the next regional election. Cabinet ministers who objected to this caste census were warned that the Congress would lose crucial votes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh if it did not succumb to pressure from the margins. No party is so angelic as to reject adjustments which serve partisan ends. But the moment a party sacrifices its core values for perceived surface benefits, it is in danger of losing its political equilibrium.

The celebration of caste as a democratic virtue was perhaps inevitable in a complex dynamic where the reality of economic injustice was enhanced by layers of identity inferiority. Such problems had to be purged out of the system, and that could not happen by pretending that they did not exist, as if we had achieved some form of Gandhian Ram Rajya by virtue of becoming free of British rule in 1947. If the Dalit struggle for equity preceded freedom, thanks to the brilliance and courage of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who demanded and got a commitment from Mahatma Gandhi on political and economic reservations, then agitation by the impoverished among those a notch or two above was only a matter of time.

There will always be a gap between economic growth and social aspiration, particularly since it is almost impossible to spread the benefits of growth in ideal proportions: Marxism could not make it happen, and it is silly for quasi-capitalism to even try. The democratic process is the only one devised for a peaceful transfer of wealth along a sustainable axis. This is not a favour that the rich do to the poor; higher reward for labour and expansion of remunerative employment is an entitlement in a democracy. The peculiar catch in our country is economic and political mobilization around the unique reality of caste. The Mandal report, therefore, was an inevitable chapter in the economic history of India.

The question, two decades after Mandal reservations were adopted, is whether this chapter should become the full book. The interplay between votes and gratification is a function of any democracy, but it is dangerous to make that the sole parameter for decisions.

In an effort to ameliorate an obvious injustice, in the case of minorities who do not accept caste, the system has taken retroactive measures, like assigning a pre-Islamic identity to Muslims and categorising them by their caste before conversion. Since jobs and reserved educational seats are on offer, many Muslims have accepted this variant. Compromise however is never an adequate solution; moreover, it can become a bottomless abyss. The caste census institutionalises an anomaly. Caste has become a vehicle without a reverse gear, and there is no U-turn visible on the road ahead.

Perhaps the answer will lie in the prospect that Government jobs will become an illusion, as the private sector absorbs the functions of state authority. Politicians have already caught on, and begun demanding reservations there as well. If we are sensible, we will draw the line long before we encroach upon the private sector.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Memo to PM: Ego is unflattering

Memo to PM: Ego is unflattering
By M J Akbar

Could it possibly be true? Has Manmohan Singh begun to believe what some admirers have started to suggest with incremental passion, that he is India's best-ever Prime Minister? The answer must be no. He is clearly not self-delusional.

Why then did he suggest that his Cabinet was more coherent than that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, noting pointedly that Nehru and Sardar Patel were exchanging letters by the day and Indira Gandhi had to fend off the ‘Young Turks'?

His analogy is ahistorical. Nehru and Patel wrote to each other when they sought to place a well-thought out policy position on record; they were, in a very real sense, creating precedence, administrative culture and an archive of an incubating government. To suggest that this was worse than the petty, ego-heavy squabbling for turf and lucrative territory that is the hallmark of the current coalition, is an extraordinary disservice to two founding fathers whose ideas and sacrifice shaped the birth of a nation. Nehru's letter to Patel in September 1947, warning of Pakistan's plans to seize Kashmir by force, and suggesting that Sheikh Abdullah, then in Maharaja Hari Singh's jail, would be India's strongest ally, is a classic of the genre. This generation was literate, and its natural forte was letters. Nehru used them as an instrument of governance. He wrote regularly to his chief ministers; this did not mean that he was at war with them. Moreover, Patel died on December 15, 1950, and Nehru had many cabinets till he died in 1964.

Indira Gandhi did have to deal with a fringe group that romantically styled itself "Young Turks", after the majors of the Ottoman Empire who sidelined the Caliph-Sultan. But the tallest of the Indian Turks, Chandra Shekhar, never found a place in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet. Two factors create coherence: agreement on policies, and personality of the leader. Policy today, whether right or wrong, is scattershot; decisions tend to be driven either by electoral compulsions or bribery. Nehru and Indira were charismatic. Singh has many virtues, but charisma is not one of them. As a leader, he was too weak to select his own Cabinet; Sonia Gandhi did that.

It is remarkable that Singh never considered comparing his Cabinet with that of Narasimha Rao, in which he served as finance minister. Instead, he positioned himself against and above the supreme icons of the Congress.

The anti-Nehru industry in our politics has a fertile past. The good that men do, as Shakespeare noted, is oft-interred in their bones; mistakes become an indelible national memory. Nehru is chiefly remembered now for referring Kashmir to the UN and a traumatic defeat in the 1962 war. No Congressman is anti-Nehru, but a very strong faction has believed that Nehru was a flawed genius who failed in two critical areas — the economy and foreign policy. India paid a heavy price, in this covert analysis, for Nehru's tilt to the Left, and his heirs did nothing to correct that inheritance.

Rao was the first prime minister of what might be called the non-Nehru faction of Congress. Over the last two decades, Rao and Singh, with occasional help from right-wing parties, have sharply diluted the Nehru-Indira legacy, even as they continue to pay lip service to their names. They sincerely believe that they have served their nation better with economic reforms that took an axe to the state sector, and a strategic partnership with the United States. Indeed, they have been widely applauded by the new-economy elite. Rao even damaged the social consensus that Nehru forged between Hindus and Muslims after the trauma of Partition. Singh, of course, does not contribute to such radical social revisionism. But in the vortex of his unexpressed thought is perhaps a sense that history will place Rao on a pedestal higher than Nehru.

The subconscious is the voice of the silent man. Manmohan Singh is a silent man. Ideas, issues, the temptations of pride and pitfalls of vanity, nestle in that nether region of the mind because better sense suggests that it would be inflammatory and self-defeating to let them rise to the surface. Some thoughts are incompatible with open air. But they tend to curl insidiously through the backdoor of a casual remark, or side-alley of a comparison. The less-than-laudatory reference to Nehru, Patel and Indira Gandhi was a revealing moment. No prime minister has, even through the slippery sinews of a breakfast conversation, placed his Cabinet above Nehru's. There is neither irony nor consequence in the aftermath, since Congress has long shifted out of its mildewed, timber-laden socialist mansion into a new, gleaming prefab condominium.

Maybe Manmohan Singh knows his party better than the party knows him.

(Times of India Column - September 12, 2010)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Wanted, a Nobel Prize for Honesty

Byline by M J Akbar: Wanted, a Nobel Prize for Honesty

Now that a legitimate recipient can be identified for a Nobel Prize for Honesty, it is time Oslo introduced such a prize. One sensible option would be to scrap the prize for peace since each year the committee has to torture itself to find a candidate — before it hands over the cash and plaque to someone who has just declared war.

I have an excellent nominee for the first winner of the Nobel Honesty Prize: Alexei Kudrin, Finance Minister of Russia. In the first week of this month he told the news agency Interfax that the best thing his countrymen could do to help the national economy was to smoke and drink more. These are his specific words: “If you smoke a pack of cigarettes, that means you are giving more to help solve social problems such as boosting demographics, developing other social services and upholding birth rates…People should understand: Those who drink, those who smoke are doing more to help the state.”

There is an also-ran in these stakes. On 10 September, Sha Zukang, Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs at the UN, encouraged by a glass or four of alcohol, told Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General, “I know you never liked me, Mr Secretary-General — well, I never liked you, either…” But the winner is Alexei Kudrin, by a long shot. He was sober.

His message is simple. Smoking gives you cancer; cancer kills you early. A dead person cannot claim state pension, which is good news. Death also shifts the age-youth ratio in favour of the young. Further, you pay higher taxes on cigarettes and drink — more money, then, to the exchequer: wonderful! QED. Die to save the fatherland!

This is exactly how any Finance Minister driven to despair by deficits would express himself. But the rules tell him to talk like a weasel and promise more food, electricity, shelter and security even if he has to bankrupt the future in order to secure your votes today.

Dr Manmohan Singh, who had a hard time as Finance Minister and isn’t actually on a picnic as Prime Minister, is never going to give such excess, but you can almost hear him straining at the leash. Years of being politically correct at the cost of economic discipline are beginning to tell. He tipped over when the Supreme Court instructed his Government to feed the impoverished instead of letting grain rot. Dr Singh’s retort was sharp; in sum, that the Government was not in the business of charity. If the grain had to rot, so be it; if the impoverished wanted food they would have to go to the market. There is economic logic, apparently, in letting rats get fat. The Supreme Court, said the PM, should live outside the policy zone. If a lesser being had made such a remark, it would doubtless have invited contempt of court, but even supreme judges know better than to summon a Prime Minister at the drop of a remark.

The Prime Minister is a politician. Any suggestion to the contrary is promotion of a myth. Evidence suggests that his populism would be community-oriented rather than poverty-specific. He understands the nuances of the game better than some self-proclaimed professionals imagine. Community is the key: poverty is too amorphous an identity, whereas caste and religion are the truly powerful instruments of mobilization. It is not accidental that Dr Singh’s Cabinet has scheduled a caste census for next year.

Being a politician, he knows that his main responsibility is to keep the Government afloat until heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi declares himself fit to rule rather than merely campaign through non-sequiturs. Dr Singh keeps sane in the waiting room thanks to a quiet sense of humour. He has, for instance, advised his ministers to check out the United Nations code on corruption. Does he think that the whole Cabinet will begin to tremble at the thought of being caned by Ban Ki-moon?

Indeed, it is possible that ministers like Commerce Minister Anand Sharma who, poor chap, has declared to the Prime Minister that he has personal assets of a mere Rs 26,741, might apply for a UN poverty certificate, while we concerned Indians pass the hat for charitable contributions. It is a shame, in these post-Gandhian times, that as important a personage as Anand Sharma should have less in his bank than it costs to buy an official suit, unless of course he buys his suits from what lies in his cupboard rather than in his bank account.

Given the parlous state of so many of our ministers — the indigent Subodh Kant Sahai, for instance, has personal assets of only Rs 1.4 lakh — should we suggest to Oslo that they should also offer a Nobel Prize for Poverty?

Censorship is hereby imposed on all those who believe that what Indian politicians would really win year after year is the Nobel Prize for Hypocrisy.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Cricket row leaves Pak a nation sans

Cricket row leaves Pak a nation sans
By M J Akbar

Pakistan's cricketers seem unaware of the special burden they bear: they are the last idols left for the young in a nation bereft of heroes. There have been only two politicians who inspired the popular imagination, Jinnah and Zulfiqar Bhutto. A child born in the year Bhutto was hanged is already 31 years old. Jinnah was the epitome of financial integrity; Zulfiqar’s heirs are smeared by a reputation for corruption. You can only be disillusioned if you have illusions, and cricket still inspires pride among Pakistani youth. But for how much longer?

Perhaps the most revealing fact of the latest scandal is that the brilliant Mohammad Aamer, often described as the best bowler of his age in history, was born in 1992, the year his country’s current President Asif Zardari bought a chateau in France. Zardari’s garrulous spokesperson revealed a few weeks ago that this chateau had been in the Zardari “family” for 18 years, almost as if the Zardari-Bhuttos were Bourbons with ancient claims on choice retreats in Europe. Zardari is a Bourbon only to the extent that, like them, he has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. There has never been any explanation as to where Zardari found the money for the purchase of real estate at unreal prices across the world. Zardari’s parents did not own France; they merely possessed a few cinema halls in Karachi, and Zardari is not famous for having set up the Pakistani version of Infosys. His wealth came from bribery, a collateral benefit of the fact that his wife Benazir became prime minister in the wake of her father’s judicial assassination.

Aamer is a child of an impoverished family from a remote village called Changa Bangyaal in Gujar Khan. He could not afford an education, nearly died of dengue at 15 and developed a back problem that nearly wrecked his prospects as a fast bowler. He has watched the most exalted political family of his time thrive on loot. He has lived in an economic milieu where landlords enslaved the peasant, controlled the power centres of Lahore and Islamabad and, this monsoon, diverted floodwaters towards populated villages and towns so that they could protect their crops. He entered a game reeking of inside deals. Ian Chappell recalled, after this scandal broke, the Sydney Test in which Pakistan led by 200 runs in the first innings. Australia were only 50 runs ahead with eight wickets down in the second innings when wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal dropped four catches, enabling Australia to get a decent score and then run through Pakistan’s second innings. (It is probably easier to give away your wicket than to drop a catch.) Akmal is still a star of this team. Aamer’s captain Salman Butt is, quite apparently, complicit. Mazhar Majeed, the man at the heart of the furore, told the British tabloid that trapped him, that up to seven of the current Pakistani team could be bought. That percentage might be equally valid for the Pakistani political elite.

If Aamer was trying to maximize the financial benefits of his personal tryst with destiny, why blame him? He learnt from the culture of his ruling class. Zardari’s lottery was marriage; Aamer’s is cricket. If Zardari is the father of the fast buck, then Aamer is a jockey of the also-ran.

A Pakistani cricketer’s avenues for licit income are miniscule compared to an Indian’s. Newcomers in India with a tenth of Aamer’s talent become overnight stars and multimillionaires, not just from the game but from sponsorships because India has a flourishing economy. When all else is lost, Yuvraj Singh can always make a packet by promising to improve the tensile strength of a certain part of your anatomy. Still, no member of any national cricket team can consider himself poor any longer; nor does poverty justify fraud. This is the appropriate moment to congratulate Bangladesh cricketers like Shakib al Hasan and Tamim Iqbal, who were approached by bookmakers ahead of the two-Test series against India in January and reported the matter. Honour may be in a wheelchair but it is not dead.

There is a stale odour around cricket in India. We were once shocked when captains like Hansie Cronje and Mohammed Azharuddin were implicated. The first has gone to meet the great umpire in the sky. The second has managed an adroit backward integration into politics. It says something about Indian politics that a person prevented from managing our cricket has been chosen to manage our nation. Shock has been diluted into surprise, and we are now surprised that someone has been luckless enough to get caught in a sport heavily insured by silence.

Pakistani cricketers thank God at every traffic light. It is possible that on the field they are actually bowing to their bookie rather than to their God.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Fiction? Non-fiction? Just a horror story

Byline by M J Akbar: Fiction? Non-fiction? Just a horror story

The most reassuring aspect of Tony Blair’s just-released memoirs was evident in the Reuters photograph of a bookstore shelf stacked with copies on opening day. A red sticker on the hardback cover bore the legend: “Half Price”. This is poetic justice. A man who sold lies to his nation has been peremptorily discounted by its public. All the oily self-pity that has stained the book’s pages – tears for the dead, alcohol for the living author – was placed in perspective by the cold reception that this unapologetic misleader has got from a people disgusted by his malodorous past and continuing hypocrisy.

Blair’s problem is not that he was mistaken when, in March 2003, he became a poodle-partner in George Bush’s gratuitous war against Iraq. Anyone in office during a time of turmoil will make mistakes that could easily blemish an otherwise favorable record. Blair’s problem was and is that he is an unrepentant liar who ordered the fabrication of excuses to launch a war and destroy a nation that had never threatened Britain militarily or shielded Al Qaeda. His foreign minister knew that Blair’s thesis for war was a lie, and resigned, but the rest of the Labour Party mortgaged its conscience for power.

It was a coincidence that Blair’s story [in the circumstances, an appropriate word] appeared on the day that America officially declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. The formal cessation of hostilities seems to have released many American commentators and officials from pretence. While some analysts struggled hard to justify the war with contorted definitions of victory, America’s defense secretary Robert Gates admitted, at Camp Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, that he no answer to a fundamental question: “The problem with this war for any American is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid. Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it will always be clouded by how it began.”

Blair knows how it began in 2003: Bush ordered his secretary of state Colin Powell to lie before the United Nations. Powell compromised his personal credibility by arguing that America had discovered incontrovertible evidence that proved Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Blair, never to be outshone in the deception stakes, told his Parliament that they were only 45 minutes away from mass destruction itself.

The natural growth trajectory of a serial liar is to become fantastically self-delusional. And so when Blair is forced, in his book, to admit that he lied, he compares himself with Nelson Mandela! After all, Mandela could spin a fast one along with the best of them, he writes with a smirk. It requires a temerity beyond the reach of mere mortals for a smug middle class lawyer with sharp wits and enormous luck to compare himself with a man who challenged apartheid and a barbaric, murderous regime; spent decades in solitary confinement and then, when he finally came to power, ushered in an age of harmony between the once-enslaved and their tormentors. But hallucinating Blair is not content with comparing himself to a mere Mandela. “I bet Gandhi was the same,” he squeaks.

He cannot get off this lunatic pinnacle even when he has to concede that he has been a manipulator. Princess Diana was another one, wasn’t she, he giggles. So that’s all right, then; if you are as good as Diana you can safely destroy the world.

Blair is unable to come to terms with the Great Mystery: why didn’t the Iraqis roll over before advancing Anglo-American armies, and welcome the Bush-Blair Viceroy who would lead them towards civilization and McDonald’s, whichever came first? Why, after Saddam had been vanquished, did the people resist the onward march of such impregnable armies and air forces? Since his porous intellect cannot find an answer from the behaviour patterns of the world, the reason must lie in heaven: Islam. He writes he misunderstood the hold that “extremism” had on Islam. Only “extremists” could fight the toy soldiers sent by Pentagon and Whitehall, carrying chocolates and democracy; “moderates” would have welcome the liberators while they looted the museum, took over the oil ministry and extended their march to the capitals of other nations on their “axis of evil”, like Syria and Iran. There are laws of libel; why are there no laws against hypocrisy? Or would that mean the end of bombastic memoirs? One records, with relief, that no Iraqi Arab memoir has, to my knowledge, called warmongers like Blair and Bush examples of extremist Roman Catholicism or American Puritanism.

Bush-Blair had a bizarre sense of humor: they contrived to name Blair a special peace envoy to the Middle East after he lost his job as Prime Minister. When Barack Obama hosted Israel and Palestine for talks on Thursday, along with Egypt and Jordan, he should have explored the potential benefits of amnesia. Alas, he forgot to forget.

An European cartoon shows a puzzled London bookstore employee asking her manager whether she should place Blair’s memoirs in the fiction or non-fiction category. It should really be among the horror stories.