Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mao of Gujarat

Byline by M J Akbar : The Mao of Gujarat

The unnamed young students of Ahmedabad who had a question or two for Rahul Gandhi this week were pertinent, not pert. They also provided more evidence that students are doing the job that journalists either cannot, or will not, do; which is, ask relevant questions. In this case, media was prevented from reporting the event, so journalists can't be faulted, and we know what happened thanks only to an enterprising reporter from the Times of India who had a source inside the hall.

The essence was simple and the same: students wanted to know why they should vote for the Congress when Narendra Modi had developed Gujarat so much. One answer given by Rahul Gandhi was odd, to say the very least. Mao Zedong, said Rahul Gandhi, also developed China but "he caused destruction to the country, too". I am not too sure whether Narendra Modi would mind being compared to one of the great figures of the twentieth century, warts and all. Rahul Gandhi probably gets his views on history from some briefing by a young and fresh associate, but he could have checked with the Chinese. They have moved on from Mao, just as India and the Congress have moved on from Mahatma Gandhi, but China still reveres the leader of the Long March as the leader who laid the foundations of China's economic miracle. Mao's portrait dominates Tienmien Square as well as the nation's banknotes. If Modi can become the second Gujarati to have his picture on the Indian rupee, he will consider his life well spent. Chairman Modi has quite a nice ring to it as well, although Modi would be going too far if he published a little red book packed with his quotable quotes and asked millions of young people to wave it in unison during a cultural revolution.

A young girl was sharper in her question. She asked which Congress leaders could measure up to Modi on the development matrix. Rahul Gandhi had four names on the tip of his tongue: Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and A.K. Antony. It is interesting that three of the four did not contest the Lok Sabha elections, and the voters in Chidambaram's own constituency had such a poor view of his development capabilities that he was declared defeated before he was declared elected in the 2009 general elections. It would be interesting if Jairam Ramesh could find a constituency from where he could get elected on a development platform, but his ministry does take its priority cues from Rahul Gandhi's travel plans. What is definitely interesting is that the finance minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee, does not figure in Rahul Gandhi's list of heroes, either in development or honesty. The two lists are, in fact, similar, because Rahul thought that the three most incorruptible ministers were also the PM, Antony and Chidambaram. He did not however consider Jairam Ramesh worthy of a position in the honest brigade. Poor Jairam. Or, one wonders, is it more appropriate to say, rich Jairam?

One doubts if the people will give too much credence to such certificates from the Prime Minister-in-waiting, but the large tribe of Rahul-watchers in Delhi must have already done an instant calculus, shifted positions on the pecking order and altered levels of homage. The big winners are obviously Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh; the first jumps to the top of seniors, and the second takes pole position on the second tier. The certificate slates them as stars of Rahul's first Cabinet, whenever or if ever that comes about, so now you know who to call if you want anything done.

The Ahmedabad students did not get into a critique of the heir's remarks, but they did press on about Modi. Why was Rahul denying Modi credit for Gujarat's development? He had caused "some issues" replied Rahul Gandhi. Did he mean riots? At this point the story takes a curious turn. This was where Rahul Gandhi could have departed from fudge and become forthright. Instead, says the report, "the Congress leader refused to engage further and walked out saying he was getting late". Perhaps he was only getting restive. Rahul Gandhi had found out what Barack Obama discovered when he met Mumbai students at St Xavier's College. It is easier to field questions from journalists than students. But that does not explain why he was evasive at the end. The students were more specific and forthright than him. It must be a recurrence of the old Congress disease, trying to play both sides against the middle.

Those who take the young for granted do not understand the young. They like cosmetics, but they never confuse make-up with the face.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Revenge of Hema's cheeks

Revenge of Hema's cheeks
by M J Akbar

Third Eye - India Today column

For 15 years BJP leader Hema Malini's filmstar cheeks have felt the laceration of Lalu Prasad Yadav's electoral sarcasm. On November 24, those patient cheeks took their revenge. Lalu has lost to Nitish Kumar before. This time he was demolished by the BJP as well. Within minutes of the start of the counting process Lalu looked so 19th century, a relic adrift of a Bihar weary of puerile jokes and self-loathing, eager to edge its way into the mainstream of the Indian dream.

Every election offers a surprise, or it would be a carbon copy of the previous poll. Flux is the essence of democracy just as static is the sting of autocracy. The re-election of NDA in Bihar hid a shock for those commentators who determine the contours of conventional wisdom from the safety of a potato couch. The BJP won 91 out of the 102 seats it contested, a strike rate that is so unique that it could unnerve friend as it easily as it might enrage a foe.

Neither rage nor bragging make for good politics, because the first is not a rational answer to a problem, and the second is puerile. The Congress is not going to collapse and disappear just because it has won only four seats this time. Lalu may be depressed but he is not dead. His vote has declined by 9 per cent from 2005, but it is still more than 25 per cent, sufficient as a foundation for restructuring. Politicians do not come to an end, until the end comes to them.

What should worry the Congress is a political displacement that just might overflow into adjacent territory. Rising prices and a repeated whirl of corruption charges have dented Congress support when the party expected that victory in 2009 would lead to rejuvenation in the Gangetic belt. In Bihar it expected an alliance of upper castes and Muslims to provide the boost. Upper castes went to the BJP and Muslims shifted to Lalu, Nitish and, to a small extent, the BJP. The third is clearly remarkable and could be called the Ayodhya dividend. The BJP's decision to accept the Allahabad High Court verdict, irrespective of its outcome, and its stricture to spokesmen against provocative comment or behaviour, sent a positive signal. BJP leaders are pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm of the younger voter. They should not be. The young, of any faith, want peace and a route map to jobs.

Nitish Kumar's vote added up because he did his arithmetic soon after coming to power five years ago. When development is a word and an objective, its political benefits are not always apparent. In Bihar development had a face, and the face was that of a woman. There was a 10 per cent rise in the turnout of women, and all of it went as reward to a ruling alliance that had delivered by giving women security and empowerment. Bihar is the only state that has given women 50 per cent reservation in panchayats, which have a budget of Rs 8,000 crore. Do the math. Gender bias in public-or indeed private-life is a primary symptom of stupidity, and Lalu might have paid a price for his overly aggressive objections to women's reservations in parliamentary elections.

Will the Bihar results have any impact on Delhi? For starters, the NDA is back in business after an extended spell of bankruptcy. There is a sudden spell of nationwide instability that makes you wonder if all political columns should be left in the expert hands of astrologers. Chief ministers have been placed on rocking chairs; on the day Nitish Kumar returned to power, a Congress chief minister lost it in Andhra Pradesh and a BJP chief minister teetered at the edge in Karnataka. You might consider this pedantic, but on November 22 the Government of Dr Manmohan Singh lost the support of Mamata Banerjee and the DMK on the key issue of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G scam. Even the DMK, which is the target, thought a confrontation was not worth the effort. These parties have smelt the street and sniffed the odour of putrefaction around the carcass of old politics.

The old politics of caste and corruption has been buried in Patna as well by the Nitish avalanche. Its ghost might hover for a while, but if it is dead in Bihar it can't really survive anywhere else.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

His Voice's Master

Byline by M J Akbar: His Voice's Master

Thought for the week: if accent-fraud were a criminal offence, how many serving members of the ruling establishment would be guilty? To speak English well in a country which has inherited it as a service-language is commendable. To speak it badly is perfectly understandable, since it is a foreign tongue. But to speak it in a pseudo-imitation of a style that even an abashed BBC has quietly abandoned is unforgiveable. You could not have got solicitor-general Gopal Subramaniam's haw-haw syllables from central casting, but that may be only a minor sin in his latest curriculum vitae.

Perhaps a pseudo-argument comes more easily to those who acquire a pseudo-accent; it is possible that he believes that unctuous loyalty to his client - in this case Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - combined with sonorous homage to the goddess of truth, are sufficient substitutes for fact. He chose to tell the Supreme Court, and then the people of India through television, that he had gone through every relevant file and could say with authority that the Prime Minister had replied to every query by the persistent Dr Subramaniam Swamy on the 2G spectrum scam. Before the end of the day the Prime Minster had accepted that the second highest lawyer in government had lied to the Court and the people, and changed his lawyer to the highest in the land, Goolam Vahanvati. The response of lawyers, including political ones, employed on behalf of the Prime Minister shifted to evasion.

Whenever crisis induces a government knee to jerk, the first tendency is to jab in the direction of media. The messenger is so often the first victim. And so an upwardly mobile minister like Kapil Sibal advises media not to "pillory" the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister is not under strain because of television or newspapers. His credentials are in doubt because of the remarkable diligence displayed by integrity-activists like Prashant Bhushan and judges of the Supreme Court who felt compelled to ask him why he had not bothered to respond adequately to a scam spreading in public view. This was not a sudden, one-off, grab-and-run operation. It was a carefully and intelligently laid out scheme by the DMK, which insisted on the telecom portfolio because it knew the rewards that lay in the allotment of licenses. The Prime Minister is in trouble because the DMK took care to keep him informed through letter about how precisely it was going to subvert systems and determine pricing without consultation or due process, and received his acquiescence through acknowledgement of its letters. The crucial letter was sent not by A. Raja but by Dayanidhi Maran, in February 2006. Maran could not have been more explicit: he wanted pricing, the key that opened the treasure house, out of government purview. This was the price of power, and Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi paid it.

If you want to understand the political twist in this tale, look for the answer to only one question: who leaked the Maran letter to a television channel? Maran himself could not have done so, since he is not suicidal. Equally, those on the PM's side can be ruled out, for the same reason. The BJP or other Opposition parties did not have a copy, and if they had one, they would have held a press conference, not handed it over to just one trusted correspondent. The leak came from someone in government who wanted to weaken Dr Singh. Why? Obviously because he believes that a weakened Prime Minister has become vulnerable, there might be a vacancy at the top soon, Rahul Gandhi is not ready to take the job, and therefore he could become the next PM.

Prime Ministers and their press advisors should actually stop worrying about journalists and start worrying about that anonymous tribe which turns out jokey sms-es. The PM may have maintained his studied silence but the mobile companies who had benefited from DMK largesse did not. The joke about the 2G spectrum that turned viral was marvellous: 'PM breaks his silence. The only 2G I know is SoniaG and RahulG.' Ridicule is far more devastating than criticism.

As it so happens, SoniaG and RahulG did, in different ways, offer their support to Dr Singh. Mrs Sonia Gandhi chose to deliver a small sermon with no names mentioned, as if the crime had been committed by the US Congress rather than the Indian National Congress. But the great damage was done not by what the Opposition said, but by what the PM did not say: his silence. The law acknowledges that silence is the best defence when words might become self-incrimination. But the law of public life is not equally generous to silence.

What is the tensile strength of silence? Lawyers can afford to manipulate their narrative as easily as they stretch their accent. Dr Singh used to have an authentic voice, which is why Indians trusted him. He lost that voice during the worst crisis of his long life.

Friday, November 19, 2010


By M J Akbar

In India Today
Third Eye

A less complacent lot might have seen the approaching firestorm from some distance. Someone somewhere was bound to turn up with a matchstick. The Supreme Court, which has emerged as the supreme voice of the nation, asked the explosive question that is echoing across the land: what precisely was the relationship between Ali Baba and the 40 thieves?

For those who have just discovered that familiarity is not synonymous with certainty, Ali Baba was an unassuming professional with humble appetite and mumble diction who was transformed when he overheard the secret password to the treasurehouse of thieves in a jungle that was certainly less ferocious than Delhi. In one magic moment Ali Baba became the keeper of fabulous fortune. So what did this God-fearing man do? Report the stolen goods to the law? Or did he mutter, under his beard, something about stable government and the compulsions of coalition politics, and let sleeping crooks lie? Ali Baba did not steal anything, mind you. He merely took passive advantage of someone else’s malfeasance.

Perhaps the cracker lit by the Supreme Court would have been a damp squib were it not for the sheer extent of the loot stolen. Bofors became a national byword not because of the money involved, but because a government was suspected of having compromised the nation’s strength.

A. Raja’s spectrum scam is about sheer size. I have no idea at which point India’s mind begins to boggle, but once you have written Rs 1.76 lakh crore in digits, you are very clearly in boggleland.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has tiptoed through six boggle-free years with ballet steps. His feet seemed to know their way through the minefield which is government almost instinctively, even occasionally landing safe after an acrobatic leap or two. But mines are silent, dark and deep, and they have promises to keep. They await their moment with deadpan patience. Then they explode. And you lose face.

With one stiletto sweep, the Supreme Court has torn multiple holes into the face-veil that has protected the Government’s pockmarks from the public eye. It asked the Prime Minister of India why he had presided over the loot of India in order to preserve himself in power.

It is nonsense to suggest that the prime minister is first among equals. He sits at the head of a Cabinet controlled by an utterly imbalanced caste system, in which only he is the Brahmin and the next level a few rungs below. Dr Singh knew precisely what was happening in the telecom ministry among the lower orders, which is why he wrote to his telecom minister suggesting transparency in the bidding process before it began. Raja had less respect for the Brahmin than the Brahmin expected. Raja laughed in private and did precisely as he pleased in public, adding insult to injury by putting his shrug on record in a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office. What did the prime minister do? Acknowledged the letter, and added his warm regards in the process. Raja, and his party, DMK, never once had any doubts that power was so important to the Congress that corruption would be the least of their concerns. Who can blame Raja for being so accurate in his assessment?

The prime minister does not sit in a helpless office. He has the right to demand any file from any ministry. A note from him can stop any process till fuller examination. A phone call by a bureaucrat from his office will pour sand into any government wheel. Any decision that involves more than Rs 500 crore has to go through the Cabinet. Dr Singh knew every detail about the one thief who could have put 40 from Ali Baba to shame. What did he do about it? A whole lot of nothing.

It is fashionable to label every Opposition protest in Parliament unruly. When was the last time that a ruly Opposition has achieved anything? In fact, the Opposition has been terribly ruly about the spectrum scam for too long. This story began in UPA-I and is destined to continue into many more serials in UPA-II. The CAG exposé of Raja was known to government before the Opposition disrupted Parliament. Why did the prime minister ignore publicly evident condemnation until ruly turned unruly?

Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is scheduled to last for three-and-a-half years more, and possibly it will. It has however lost something vital. Mathematicians have not created enough digits to measure the loss of credibility.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rising on Barmecide's yeast

Rising on Barmecide's yeast
By M J Akbar
Third Eye - In India Today
November 12, 2010

Never underestimate the nutritional value of Barmecide's feast, even if it feeds the senses rather than the stomach. For those unfamiliar with the psychological weapons used in the medieval Abbasid court at Baghdad, Barmecide would invite the impoverished to a fictitious repast filled with platitudes from an ardent host and gratitude from the fervent guest.

Obama cannot afford to upset the only functioning mercenary force at the service of the Pentagon, the Pakistan army.Illusion has its place in statecraft; at least it nudges a promise towards the end of a rainbow. Is cynicism appropriate, even if Barack Obama's promise to support India's demand for a permanent place for India in the Security Council was heavily qualified by his spokesman within hours of his departure from Delhi? The spokesman merely stressed the obvious: there was neither a calendar for, nor a route map to, the promised land. But, as grandmother has told us, something is better than nothing.

On the eve of the crucial New Hampshire primary for the 2008 American presidential election, an exasperated Bill Clinton exploded in public, telling an astonished audience that Obama had spun "the biggest fairy tale". Like all good fairy tales, it had a happy ending. Obama is in the White House. But fairies can be addictive. Obama rationed his fairies as he responded to Indian public opinion. Before the visit, his position was UN reform was "complicated", to quote the precise word. When he realised the need for a "return gift" after picking up 76,000 jobs from the Indian private and public sectors, he calmly handed over something that just might get on to his successor's agenda if Obama is lucky enough to survive in the White House till 2018.

Obama mentioned Pakistan for the first time at 12.32 p.m. on Sunday in response to a student's question in Mumbai. [The students were far better than the selected journalists authorised to lob soft questions at Obama at the official press conference.] Obama called Pakistan a vast country; perhaps he was thinking of a vast battlefield. His initial formula for eternal peace on the subcontinent was the sort of thing that looks eminently reasonable on paper until you begin to parse the sentences. India, he parried, should have a vested interest in poor, troubled Pakistan's stability.

This is the sort of sentiment that can win you a premature Nobel Prize but disintegrates before evidence. Pakistan is tremor-neutral when it comes to inflicting damage upon India. If Pakistan was not stable in October 1947 then it will never be stable as long as it exists. Instead of negotiating over Jammu and Kashmir across the table, leaders as eminent as Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan sent thousands of terrorists to seize Srinagar. Pakistan began Indo-Pak relations with a declaration of a war that has never ceased. Self-appointed Field Marshal Ayub Khan crowned his highly stable career with the two-pronged 1965 war, in which both irregulars and regulars were sent to battle. Pakistan may have been unstable when it lost half the country in 1971, but that was its own doing. It was certainly perfectly stable when General Zia ul Haq armed, funded and sheltered partisans of the secessionist Khalistan movement. Terrorism in Kashmir is endless. For six decades, the destabilisation of India through terror has been the motif of Pakistan policy. So how does it matter to India whether Pakistan is stable or unstable?

Obama's visit was perfect from his point of view. He wobbled a bit on a slippery tightrope, but did not fall. With one eye on Islamabad and the other on Delhi, it was hardly surprising that he looked cross-eyed occasionally. The moot point is obvious: Pakistan is Obama's wartime ally, India merely a peacetime friend. Obama cannot afford to upset the only functioning mercenary force at the service of the Pentagon, the Pakistan army. The Pak army's annual pay grade of about $3.5 billion is a blip on the $700 billion the Pentagon spends yearly. Israel and Egypt get as much in aid for far less work. Come to think of it, the outsourcing of IT jobs to India probably costs America more than outsourcing the Afghan war to Pakistan.

Did Delhi get anything more substantial than the illusory comfort of a piece of paper reiterating known positions? Obama has done nothing substantive about India-centric terrorism from Pak havens in two years. What are the odds that he will do anything in the next two, despite a patronising pat on India's back with talk of equality? Since floating on illusion is our preferred hobby,we lapped up this rubbish. India is not an equal of America, and will not be for some time. Illusion served Barmecide well enough.
Note: Barmecide's feast never works without cooperation from the victim.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Traders, not Partners

Byline by M J Akbar: Traders, not partners

How many words will India get in Barack Obama’s autobiography, Faith, Hope and Miscarriage, due in 2013?

Going by the law of proportions, it should be between 100 to 104 if the complete book is around 200,000 words, roughly the length expected in a multi-million dollar advance. According to a fine story by my friend K.P. Nayar in the Telegraph, George W. Bush, Dr Manmohan Singh’s “best friend”, devoted exactly 208 words out of 195,456 to India in his memoir Decision Points. “Even those 208 words figure in just three paragraphs only in the context of justifying a visit by Bush to Islamabad after his trip to India in March 2006,” notes Nayar.

Time to clear your throat. The civil nuclear cooperation deal — you remember that one surely? It was the highlight of the summer of 2008. Every television channel was singing “Singh is King” while money changed hands by the sackful in the Lok Sabha to persuade purchasable MPs to save the nation — is dismissed by its principal architect in one and a half sentences.

Those 208 words are not a measure of how important the nuclear deal is in the American perspective; they are an estimate of where India stands among the nodal points of American decision-making. That half-page was authored by a friendly President, not a hostile occupant of the White House. A book is written in a cold logic that sits well on the shelves of a library, not hot air that steams across political rhetoric during a state visit.

The geopolitics of Pakistan have made it relevant real estate in the two major confrontations after the Second World War: the Cold War between the West and East Eurasia; and the current hot war between America and its real or imagined enemies in the Muslim world. Pakistan’s policymakers cottoned on to this very quickly in the Fifties, when they adopted the Pentagon as their Godfather. They felt jilted when their contribution to the jihad that ended the Cold War was treated with indifference by a victorious America, but such is the way it always has been; sentiment is no substitute for need. Pakistan wooed and won China as Godfather 2 during the fallow phase of its relationship to America. Here too strategic interests coalesced since China wanted to outsource at least some of its Himalayan confrontation to a nation which seems to have an Eveready battery in its gut where conflict with India is concerned.

Pakistan got a second wind after 9/11, and Pervez Musharraf picked up its ballast to his own and his country’s advantage. International relations are always untidy, and nations make space for overlapping or even contradictory interests. But despite serious underlying tensions there was a certain neatness in the US-Pakistan-China diagram. China had a lock on the American economy, and Pakistan on the American war effort. The situation would have been different if the Shah or his descendants had been in power in Tehran, but with Iran hostile, America could only conduct its Afghan operations from the east. Washington has had to play a carefully measured strategic game within this triangle.

American policy, whether in the time of Bush or Obama, is perfectly logical, since it is driven by American interests. What is astonishing is that Delhi’s strategic community should have, with the help of largesse from the UPA government, abandoned a history of autonomy in order to smuggle itself into the contours of American strategic requirements when Washington has always made its priorities clear.

Even Bush worried about the consequences of the nuclear deal on the American equation with Pakistan, and Obama has authorised a policy that not only multiplies Pakistan’s offensive capabilities both on its western and eastern fronts, but also endorses China’s gift of at least two additional nuclear plants. As a further sweetener, Washington has promised to beef up Pakistan’s economy, although this might be beyond its capabilities.

For both Bush and Obama, India is primarily a market; they are traders more than partners. China is a manufacturing base for the American economy, and India an opportunity for Walmart. They are, as they have repeatedly made clear, interested in India’s middle class rather than in India. When did Bush or Obama mention either Pakistan’s or even China’s middle class? Bush has been quite specific. He has said in his book that the “educated [Indian] middle class has the potential to be one of America’s closest partners”.

Friendship does not flourish in an either-or matrix. Disagreement is not evidence of enmity, and it would be far better for Washington and Delhi to accept departure points rather than pretend that they do not exist. Obama and Manmohan Singh can live with each other without being in love with each other.

I hope Obama gets to write his memoirs only in 2017 rather than 2013 but that is a decision which will be taken by the American voter.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The one commandment

The one commandment
By M.J. Akbar

In India Today: Third Eye
14, November 2010

For reasons best known to the Almighty, greed is at the very bottom of the Lord's pecking order in the Ten Commandments, as faithfully reported in the Exodus chapter of the Old Testament. Murder, adultery, theft and prevarication take precedence. Maybe life was different when God was taking a personal interest in human affairs; as the poet reminded us, He doesn't fancy more than a passing glance now. The old days were tough - bondage to the Pharoahs could not have been a vacation - but perhaps they were simpler because prophets knew how to administer a sharp rap across the knuckles.

A contemporary index of vice, done by a mortal, would surely be more realistic about the corrosive dangers of avarice, and push it up the rankings. Any other vice exhausts itself, but greed is insatiable because it has no limits. You can count a murderer's victims. Casanova would have been hard put to attempt serial adultery, even if he lived in a nudist colony or a British pub. Liars are perfectly aware that if their tongue grows too long their words lose the ability to deceive. It is not entirely accidental that while the holy Bible was confident that sharp, short orders were sufficient for murder or theft, greed required a proper paragraph, just in case some future Chief Minister of Maharashtra confused it with natural entitlement. Hence: "You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, nor his male servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour's." I presume mobility was not a big issue in the promised land, and crime was confined to the neighbourhood watch.

In any case, the Lord's statute is comprehensive enough to deal with Chavan and the creative partnership of generals, bureaucrats, builders, fixers and politicians who stole the inheritance of Kargil widows to provide themselves a room with a view over the Arabian sea in downtown Mumbai. Regrettably, while the Lord laid down the law, He left accountability to men. When convict and judge share the same interests, justice takes a holiday. This should clear the brow of those who are perplexed by the Congress Party's laissez faire approach towards its latest poster boys for fecund corruption.

A chief minister who shovels loot into his basement buys protection by sharing some with high-fliers living upstairs.

The Congress is not, and has not been for some time, perturbed by corruption; needless to add, most political parties seek to emulate its cash-stack culture, albeit never as successfully. The Congress is, however, always perturbed by the prospect of losing the voter. It will act, therefore, not when it discovers corruption, but when public pressure threatens the party's base. Media pressure is not good enough.

Political parties also have to worry about implicit internal blackmail. A chief minister who shovels loot into his basement buys protection by sharing some with high-fliers living upstairs. Moreover, what action can you take when the chaps in queue are equally guilty? Chavan did a brilliant job of distributing sleaze about those who wanted his job.

Every leader of Maharashtra has parlayed land into personal wealth. Why is land at the root of corruption? It is the most easily disposable, and exploitable, asset under government control. Land was the principal source of power during Mughal rule; the emperor personally owned every inch of the empire, and distributed its revenue in return for loyalty. Loyalty was preserved across generations since transfer to an heir had to be confirmed by the royal court. The British converted land into state revenue through the permanent settlement; the transfer was made in perpetuity, but revenue had to be guaranteed, or the sepoys would arrive. These systems of imperialism may have been exploitative, but they survived on logic. Democratic India has turned land into a cash cow for anyone in authority, with enormous fortunes being made between the difference in price and redemption in value.

Any corrupt circle seeks to expand its circumference. There is protection in numbers. There is insurance in sharing. The morality of greed demands that every thief gets his due. If land is stolen from the army, then generals must be appeased. Those condemned to be ordinary Indian citizens might be appalled at the thought of generals stealing from Kargil war widows, but fixers know that the honesty of individuals and institutions is often only the absence of opportunity. This is India. Everything is on sale. Palms itch. They need grease.

If Moses had been a modern Indian, God would have given him only one commandment instead of ten: Don't get caught. And if you do, brazen it out.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The strength of cool

Byline by M J Akbar: The strength of cool

A seller of sweetmeats can either celebrate Diwali or sell his mithai. He cannot do both. The goddess of wealth will enter his door only if he keeps his shop open, not if he goes around bursting crackers. That is the nature of his compulsion; or, if you want to get theological about it, his dharma. Barack Obama comes to India on the night of Diwali not to enjoy a much-needed holiday after the woes of defeat, but to turn the Great American Hardware Store into a mall.

He was buoyed on his long journey by some good news; the American economy had created about 150,000 extra jobs for the third month in succession. He used the opportunity to tell voters who had just humiliated him that his main purpose in visiting India was to bring back orders that would increase employment opportunity in America. He made this speech on television, just in case anyone in India wanted to know.

Obama is not landing in Mumbai because of an insatiable urge to visit sites of a terrorist attack launched from Pakistan, aided and abetted by some of the highest and mightiest in the land. If terrorism on Indian soil perturbed Obama deeply, he would have twisted an elbow or two in Islamabad, even if he did not go so far as to twist an arm, so that the perpetrators of terrorism could be brought to justice instead of roaming around promising further variations of holy war. Staying at the Taj in Mumbai is a reassuring gesture, but in the same spirit as a visit to Rajghat; obligatory rather than compulsory, a tip to local sentiment rather than an expression of solidarity. The real reason for a day in Mumbai is not a chat with students, but photo opportunities of deals being signed with private sector companies. These pictures will be played back in America as witnesses of a President doing his job at the Taj in Mumbai, not posing with Michelle at the Taj Mahal in Agra.

This is good news. Sentiment forms such a large part of the Indian psyche even in international relations that we either get hot or cold; we never understand the strength of cool. India and America need each other but, thanks to the Indian economy, an American President needs India just a little bit more today than India needs him. Indian diplomacy will be measured during the Obama visit by the answer to just one question: will Obama be allowed to roam free on a one-way street or will he give before he takes? If the traffic does not flow in both directions, then Delhi is gullible, which is far worse than being weak.

The Chinese are excellent traffic policemen; they know when to keep the lights red, even for an American President, even to the limits of exasperation. When Obama visited Beijing, he was surprised at the lack of warmth; when he encountered the Chinese at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, he discovered that they could be rude. That has not brought China-American relations to a halt. The Chinese were signalling what American media is now beginning to recognise: that, in their estimation, their leader Hu Jin Tao is the most powerful man in the world, not Obama. Or, more accurately, since the Chinese Communist Party no longer indulges in idolatry, Beijing is more powerful than Washington. The People's Liberation Army has not become stronger than the Pentagon, but the Chinese treasury is certainly a safer bet than American treasury bonds.

India is not in that league, and illusions will not take us there either. As a friend pointed out, there is an implicit imbalance even in the dates of the itinerary. Which American President would host a state visit from India during Christmas? We welcome a guest during Diwali. However, India pays cash for goods it needs, and that is sufficient to command respect.

What can Obama bring to India? He can start counting; any wishlist will be long. But the item at the top is the key, the rest can be sorted out by lesser mortals. Business issues like outsourcing look good in headlines, but businessmen have one advantage they do not readily advertise: they know how to look after themselves.

Obama needs clarity in his own mind, and then agreement with Dr Manmohan Singh, on a definition of security in the region. It has been Pakistan's consistent policy to provoke conflagration over a virtually settled border along Kashmir. Provocation is a game that can slip so easily out of control, particularly when terrorism is part of the game, but Pakistan has developed a vested interest in instability for a number of reasons, not least being the extraordinary share of power that the army commands in its polity. Security involves peace all along the Himalayas, from the Hindu Kush to the dipping range in Arunachal, and if America believes that a relationship with India is of any value then it must coordinate its policies with Indian concerns. If this does not happen, the rest of the agenda will not travel.

A shop is useless without customers.