Saturday, December 25, 2010

A strange democracy

Byline by M J Akbar: A Strange Democracy

India has become a strange democracy where Binayak Sen gets life in jail and dacoits get a life in luxury. It takes years of pressure for government to move against those looting the nation’s treasury; and when the majestic forces of enforcement do go on a “raid” they give their quarry enough time to remove every trace of evidence. You have to be exceptionally stupid to store evidence of your own culpability in a telecom scandal where deals were made and money paid three years before. Or, for that matter, even six months ago, as in some instances of the highly lubricated Commonwealth Games. By this time the money has either been spent, converted into assets, or sent to a convenient haven abroad. The political-industrial nexus is above the law, because it controls enforcement. But if the ruling class of India could have hanged Binayak Sen instead of merely trying to send him to jail for the rest of his life, it would have done so.

Binayak made a fundamental, mortal mistake. He was on the side of the poor. That is a non-negotiable error in our oligarchic democracy. Christmas must be truly merry in the homes of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and of course Raman Singh this year. The Congress and BJP dislike each other with a passion that only a thirst for power can generate; they disagree on just about anything and everything. But there is perfect harmony between them over Naxalite policy. End the Naxalite problem by elimination of the messenger; and the poor will not have the courage to ask for more than the trickle allotted to them by a gluttonous government.

Media is obedient doorman of this nexus, protecting its interests with a zeal that should surprise even the benefactors. The arrest of Binayak was converted into instant accusatory headlines. His trial was ignored by the press, which is why we do not know that there was virtually no substantive evidence. Suffice it to say that two of Binayak’s jailors, during his detention without bail, were declared hostile by the prosecution. Prosecuting lawyers are in the pay of government, as are the jailors. And yet two policemen refused to back the prosecution. A fabricated unsigned letter, apparently cooked up on a computer printout, seems to have been sufficient to convince the honourable guardians of our judicial system that Binayak Sen deserved a sentence reserved for only the most hardened murderer.

It is another matter that Binayak Sen, who was senior to me in school, was and remains the gentlest of people, distinguished only by a fierce commitment to his cause of choice. I do not agree with his political views or inclinations; nor does the political system. But it is only in a dictatorship that disagreement is sufficient reason for incarceration. India seems to be developing a two-tier democracy: generosity of the law for the privileged and vindictive, distorted application on the underprivileged.

It is ironic that the Binayak judgement appeared on the front pages of the Christmas day newspapers. We all know that Jesus was not born on 25 December; it was only in the fourth century that Pope Liberius declared this date to be a birthday because mystery and miracle has been associated with the winter solstice from time beyond memory. Christmas has become an international festival because it represents the most important values that give life some meaning and hold the complex social web together: peace, and goodwill towards all men, without which there cannot be peace.

This goodwill is not sectarian; it is easy to have goodwill towards some men, friends or benefactors. Christmas is the festival of the Other. It is the embrace of the dissident, or even the enemy. The most famous display of the Christmas spirit was the pause on the frontline in the First World War, when a few British and German soldiers announced an impromptu truce, played football, shared a drink and became human for a day before their superiors ordered them to return to the savagery of a terrible war that wrecked Europe.

If Binayak Sen is guilty of sedition on the basis of fictitious evidence, then, as was famously said during the great Gandhian movement against the British between 1919 and 1922, there are not enough jails in India to hold those equally guilty. The reference is not accidental. Governments have begun to opt for a colonial approach towards Naxalism and its myriad manifestations. The reason? Fear, perhaps terror. The corrupt can recognise their nemesis.

The Radialogue Wound

The Radialogue Wound
By M.J. Akbar
Third Eye in India Today
3rd January 2011

New words are an annual media byproduct without a balance sheet. The profit is not immediately visible, and loss not worth the count. The New York Times has produced a thirty-plus list that seems more obligatory than essential. Most words show the strains of artifice. Fortunately, terms like “sofalize” [socializing from home, through the net] will die a natural death after their fifteen seconds of fame. The hideous “mansplainer” just might get fifteen minutes of life, since it denotes a compulsive male opinion-giver and is therefore perfectly suited for TV pundits, but it is really too weak to survive.

Some deserve the immediate sentence of capital punishment. Put “Porno scanner” [synonym for the full-body security search at American airports] down for quick execution. Others are so tortured they seem to have spent time at Guantanamo. “Poutrage” [false anger] has clearly been put through a sadistic lexicographer’s tweezer. The accidental genius of Sarah Palin, which gave us “refudiate”, will survive as a joke as long as Sarah Palin survives as a joke.

But I do hope two words acquire momentum. “Coffice” comes from South Korea, a busy little country where the diligent can turn an internet café into an office for the price of a cup of coffee. In India, of course, we would need to rearrange the word a bit, since our specialty is turning an office into a café. Ficecof, anyone? Perhaps not. Any word that sounds like an interrupted gurgle can’t be good for conversation.

“Halfalogue” also has the feel of a strangled academic’s last wish, so all optimism about its future must be guarded. It means half an overheard conversation; and that makes it interesting. It first appeared in a semi-obscure research paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, titled “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech is More Distracting”, which multiplies its interest level. What a natural for Delhi’s chatterati: “The Niira halfalogue was just too much, wasn’t it? Do you think Manmohan carries a mobile phone?”

In fact, the Prime Minister doesn’t. Niira Radia, apparently, had at least eight mobile phones, only one of which was tapped. If one phone could inflict so much havoc, we can only wonder, enrapt in awe, at the destruction that a tap on all eight mobiles would have caused. Once upon a time, not very long ago, a mobile phone was at best an instrument of need and at worst a symbol of self-importance. Niira Radia has turned it into an instrument of caution for the large majority whose imagination is restrained by limits, and a weapon of duplicity for the few blessed with Machiavellian wile. If you are confident that your phone is tapped, you can always plant any story you want about anyone you dislike.

Even the most extravagant astrologer could never have predicted that Dr Manmohan Singh would be fatally wounded by a mobile phone. He has withstood, with great calm and fortitude, six years of Opposition artillery without a scratch on his reputation. Suddenly, he has become victim of friendly fire. A remarkable aspect of a scandal that has weakened the government to the point of fragility is that conversations which revealed part of the truth were between politicians, lobbyists, businessmen and journalists on the same side. This is collusive detail, not accusatory condemnation, from lobbyists and journalists who were friends of those in power. An investigative arm of government exposed a Cabinet minister. The lethal icing came from the anonymous sources who leaked the Radia tapes. Their names may not be public knowledge, although they are privately known, but this much is certain: officers of this government were intent on the destruction of its credibility.

“An old Chinese saying” is a tautology, for all Chinese sayings are old. The new ones are trapped in artificial ideology; the old ones were nurtured in the crucible of observation. Do not judge a man, goes one, until the coffin is closed, for he still has time to make a mistake. The Prime Minister made one mistake. He did not stop the DMK loot when he should have and could have. He permitted daylight loot from the nation’s treasury in order to survive. The true tenor of the Congress-DMK equation is revealed in a letter written by former telecom minister A. Raja, in which he virtually orders the Prime Minister not to interfere on telecom pricing. The moment Dr Singh meekly conceded, his credibility cracked. The Radia tapes reveal the hemorrhage of a self-inflicted wound.

Dr Singh came to office in 2004, but took a while to come to power. He may remain in office, but his power has begun to ebb.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Divide and Fool

Divide and Fool
By M J Akbar
In Third Eye: India Today
December 17, 2010

It is a bit surprising that Digvijaya Singh proved to be too clever by half. Imitating Abdul Rehman Antulay is not the most intelligent option for anyone who wants to make Rahul Gandhi the next prime minister.

The quality of governance is recognised by the management of a crisis; the depth of a politician measured by his ability to convert a crisis into an opportunity. A good prime minister controls events; a poor one becomes their victim. Each event demands attention, for politics is a daily diet, but all facts are obviously not equal. It can take time for a headline to etch its way into the national memory; the spectrum scandal took two years to become a scar in the collective psyche.

Scars might fade but only if the wound is light; in any case, they never go away. It may sound like a paradox, but every politician knows that when corruption becomes a joke in the voters' discourse, it is no longer trivial. Each time an Indian pays some exorbitant price at the vegetable market, he is reminded, at some subconscious level, of the number of zeros in Rs 1.76 lakh crore. The figure has become a symbol of merciless greed in a culture of elitist loot.

A historic event is easily defined; it lives across the lifetime of at least one generation, and shifts perception and faith imperceptibly but irrevocably. Bofors is 25 years old, but still works as a metaphor. The attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008 has changed the attitude of Indians towards Pakistan; there is no longer space in their spirit for adjustment with a neighbour that breeds, feeds and protects callous mass murderers and then trots out self-serving theories to justify criminal abetment of terrorism.

A significant charm of democracy is that every political crisis is a public carnival, open to censure of a judge, reproof of the victim, anger of the preacher and buffoonery of the jester. Do not underestimate the joker; a politician may find it easier to survive rage than lethal, viral caricature. The current crisis in the Congress is too evident to bear repetition, except that context is always a useful companion for text. The party has self-destructed in its secure southern base, Andhra Pradesh, and fragmented a vital alliance in Tamil Nadu, states that catapulted it to power in two general elections. The compensation in Karnataka, where the BJP is taking a beating, is insufficient in electoral terms. But it is the situation in the north which is probably more worrisome. The returns from its only reliable northern vote bank, the Muslims, have suddenly depreciated. In Bihar, more Muslims voted for the Nitish Kumar-BJP alliance than for the Congress. A repetition in Uttar Pradesh, where Assembly elections are likely to be brought forward to November 2011, could deflate the party into corrosive depression.

Digvijaya Singh, the party general secretary for Uttar Pradesh, is a clever man. It is a bit surprising that he proved to be too clever by half. Imitating Abdul Rehman Antulay is not the most intelligent option for anyone who wants to make Rahul Gandhi the next prime minister of India. Like Antulay after 26/11, he sought to resurrect a conspiracy theory that had become passe even in the Urdu papers where it once flourished.

The sheer audacity of an event as astonishing as the Mumbai attacks encourages doubt, which is the first step towards conspiracy. But surely Digvijaya Singh has common sense, unless he sacrificed that virtue at the altar of power. The Urdu paper theory is, in brief, that 26/11 was organised to kill Hemant Karkare, a brave police officer, because he was on the verge of exposing Hindu zealots. This implies that Hindu zealots came to a deal with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose leader Hafiz Saeed was so delighted that, with the help of ISI, he armed and trained 10 young men, and sent them on Jihad to India so that Hindu zealots might be protected! I am not a votary of the exclamation mark, but rarely has it been more necessary. You have to be scarily bonkers to believe such utter nonsense. It is one thing when an editor desperate for circulation takes recourse to stupidity.When a man who has been chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and could be home minister of India promotes such rubbish, we have to worry about the health of our politics.

A historic event such as 26/11 creates a national narrative that might blur at the edges but is essentially consistent with the truth. Digvijaya Singh compromised the Indian narrative in order to flirt with rabid sentiment.

The irony is the Congress is losing the Muslim vote because it no longer understands the Muslim vote. Indian Muslims have seen through the deception of decades. They are, at long last, rejecting the politics of fear and demanding development. Check out Bihar.

Who has the last word?

Byline by M J Akbar: Who has the last word?

Do we remember what we have heard or what we wanted to hear? Famous last words are tricky. Even strangers can get infected with nerves at the bedside of a dying man, not least because evidence of mortality induces depressing thoughts of your own inevitable departure. Relatives and friends are too affected by sentiment. Assuming that the deathbed utterance, if there is one, is more likely to be a mumble rather than oratory, the opportunity for tweaking is high, either in the interest of clarity or to improve the quality. Did Groucho Marx really say, “Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!”? Or Conrad Hilton, founder of the eponymous hotel chain, depart on the less-than-grand note of “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub”. The great Italian traveller sounds far more credible: “I have not told half of what I saw.” As does the brilliant Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” Such pitch perfect sentences seem edited by a benefactor for an anthology, which is where I have picked them from.

But of course the words survive because they are in character. The billionaire Hilton must have been obsessing about his hotel guests mucking up the bathroom; Groucho could hardly have resisted one last crack, or Thomas one last idle boast about the addiction that destroyed his talent.

Did Richard Holbrooke, the peripatetic czar of America’s policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, really tell a Pakistani-origin doctor, as he went for the final surgery, “End that Afghanistan war”? Or did the Pakistani doctor, who has watched his country pay such a corrosive political, social and military price for conflicts imposed upon Afghanistan by the strategic interests of superpowers, hear what he wanted to hear?

Holbrooke was the sort of man who took no prisoners in his day job and dominated the room when off duty. His fascinating official career began in Vietnam, paused for a stint as editor of Foreign Affairs and would have ended as the peace-broker of Bosnia if his friend and mentor Hillary Clinton had not given him diplomatic charge of America’s latest war zone. He would have occupied her present office if Hillary had won the White House. While Holbrooke roamed the world, there was one indisputable theme in whatever he said or did: the American interest came first. He was a classical New York, liberal patriot.

Did he believe, therefore, that it was now in the American interest to stop the war? During the two years of his intensive engagement he had — much to the dismay of Delhi — bought into Pakistan’s version of events. He became an advocate of Islamabad’s “strategic depth” theory and put as much pressure as he could on Delhi to withdraw troops from the Line of Control so that Pakistan could shift its own forces towards its western front. He was the principal voice within the Obama administration urging the largesse that Pakistan has received in the last two years. George Bush was far more circumspect while signing cheques. Pakistanis fondly recall his role in the massive relief effort after this year’s floods, when he personally took charge of distribution. [If Holbrooke was present he was automatically in charge.] But he would not want an end to the war if peace was primarily for Pakistan’s well-being.

War is not a continuous activity; there are long fallow periods between battles, even in a guerrilla war. The Afghan is in one of its fallow periods but it cannot end until one side accepts defeat or both sides agree on a ceasefire. America and Vietnam, uniquely, began peace talks without a ceasefire, so there is more than one model for termination of hostilities. Holbrooke was aware that, in a completely unstructured manner, a similar attempt was underway. This unacknowledged process has thrown up absurdities like the “Taliban” leader who was flown into Kabul by British intelligence for talks, before they discovered that he was a fake, nothing more than a provincial shopkeeper. Someone in ISI is probably still dining out on the true story. It is the sort of episode that makes Groucho Marx’s last words relevant.

Somewhere in his ebbing consciousness, and perhaps rising conscience, Holbrooke knew that the Afghan war had begun as the right thing to do, but been driven into an abyss by mistakes. It was time for America to cut its losses, financial and political, and deal with the aftermath as best it could. I wonder if Holbrooke had time to tell his Pakistani friends that it would be a dangerous mistake if they rushed into space created by American withdrawal. Afghan nationalism is as hard as the Himalayan rock of its mountains.

It does make one wonder what George Bush’s last words might be. Perhaps: Continue that war!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Chikileaks

The Chikileaks
By M J Akbar
The Third Eye: In India Today, December 9, 2010

Memo from G.K. Pillai, home secretary by special appointment to His Excellency P. Chidambaram:

To all hacks and their secondary lifestyle providers, with particular attention to peacocks and peahens: You ain't seen nothing yet, baby. You thought the icing was cool? Wait for the cake. If you believe the 150-odd conversations we floated your way was a bombshell, then the 6,000 in the storehouse will be an artillery barrage of World War I proportions. That was a tremor. This will be an earthquake. Trust me. I have read them.

I am not a journalist with half a head and three masters, or a greasy glad-hander with a coy accent strengthened by a bankroll. My decisions are permission-protected. When I gave the interview to Wall Street Journal promising that there was heavy, serious stuff in the still-secret transcripts, I knew what I was doing. And my boss knew what he was doing when he chose to publicly laugh - all right, make that sneer - at journalists who thought they were running the country. That wasn't an accident, or a slip. Grow up. He has read the file, examined those tapes and charted out his route map.

Can't blame him, or his fellow politicians. They have to take so much nonsense from this sanctimonious tribe of media balloons that the temptation to prick the swellheads must be irresistible. We will, of course, maximise the time taken in the process; must keep the lot trembling in the dread of anticipation for as long as possible. Moreover, nothing undermines a story so much as oversaturation of supply. The media could barely handle those 150 conversations. All these chaps who want to break news at the decibel levels of Babel never manage to find the silence for a bit of reading, even of essentials. Some of them have forgotten how to read, so we will forgive them. So many are simply too lazy. They would rather chatter than study detail.

My boss is a brilliant lawyer. We are going to be judicious. We will hand out stuff selectively, and spread it around. That's fair.

Dumping is not the home minister's style at all. He wants a few media ulcers to turn septic along the way, and that needs time. Remember, there is one lot of superstars which knows, or has a good idea of, what lies in the undisclosed transcripts: those who were phonemates of Niira Radia. You know some of the names from the teaser; they must be dreading the release of the full movie, wondering how much more indiscretion is hidden in the tapes. They escaped in the first round on the oily paths between silence, bluster, fudge and smarminess, but how far? They must be sleeping-pill addicts by now, wondering how much more of hug-and-help is frozen in our machines. Did even a casual line about satisfaction for services escape their lips? That's going to be the big one. Raja is passé. The future of the news wheel belongs to courtiers and paymasters.

India was an apple republic as long as the tapes were unknown. See how quickly it became a banana republic when ants began to crawl up corporate pants.

May I, an anonymous, faceless, gossip-abused bureaucrat, make a confession? What bliss!

Look, this is history in the making. History is forgotten unless it is branded. Watergate will survive in memory long after Richard Nixon has become oblivion. Who will recall Julian Assange, and who can forget Wikileaks?

Why should posterity remember our fling with phones as the Radiatapes? She is desperate to destroy the tapes, not preserve them. It is my boss who wants to prosecute, and maybe even persecute, on the basis of those tapes. The tapes should be named after Chidambaram.


Nice ring to it. Roll that over. Good on the tongue. Almost savoury. Works pretty well in a headline too. We must be kind to sub-editors who have to think of headlines; after all, Radia never phones any of them!

GK, Etc.

PS: I just can't understand why Americans are persecuting Wikileaks' Assange; they should give him a hero's medal. Wikileaks prove what some of us suspected but no one could confirm - that American diplomats are clear, concise, cogent and informed. Only the stupid and the prejudiced accuse them of being dumb. They know precisely what is going on in the world even if their government's policy is built within a maze of spiderwebs hung across Chinese walls. Their analysis of Pakistan is perfect; it has an unintelligent government run by the intelligence service. Why on earth don't they do anything about a nation which is going to obliterate itself and us as well? One of these days I must leak our tapes of American diplomats in Delhi to the Wall Street Journal.

The profit and loss of noise

Byline by M J Akbar: The profit and loss of noise

It is entirely appropriate that the man in charge of India's volume control, Pranab Mukherjee, should have uttered what is unarguably the comment of the year: our democracy has become too noisy. Through a long career stretching from the 1960s, Pranabda [as he is fondly known] has always preferred the brain to the lung. Noise has been neither in his temperament nor his bhadralok-Brahmin culture. His metier is ministerial; he is a fish out of water when his party is in Opposition. He knows that government has a tremendous advantage in the parliamentary form of government, even more so than in the presidential form, but only if it knows the mechanism of power. He would be the first to appreciate that Opposition very often has no option except to play its first and last card, noise.

Noise has become a pejorative term, which is unfair. Noise does not have to be necessarily loud. Oratory is beautiful noise. Music is noise touched by magic. Politics rarely rises to oratory, and never to music, but every Opposition knows that while it cannot survive if it is not heard, it must trade with the voter in intelligible noise. Rising decibel levels can be justified only if there is the logic of public interest at the core. The delicate twist that lifts Mukherjee's statement from the passe to the extraordinary is a descriptive qualification, 'a bit too'. Noise is essential to the system. Excess, however, grates. There is a clash of civilisations when the throat threatens to destroy the eardrum. Democracy works when all five sense are in harmony. Mukherjee's diagnosis was perfect, but his prescription was, shall we say, a bit ambiguous. He advised a bit of silence.

The virtues of silence can never be overstated. Silence breeds reflection and reflection encourages maturity. If that was Mukherjee's advice to Opposition, then it had some merit. But it is equally within the Opposition's rights to point out that government very often treats silence in precisely the same manner as an accused - as its first line of defence. In any criminal case, police have to give an accused the legal right of silence, so that he does not incriminate himself. Both Prakash Karat of the CPI(M) and Arun Jaitley of the BJP are asking Dr Manmohan Singh whether he reject the idea of a JPC because he fears that if he speaks he will incriminate his government in a scandal that continues to have the most astonishing reverberations as layer after surprising layer peels off. We now learn is that government tapped the middlewoman Niira Radia's phones because it believed that she was "indulging in anti-national activities". This takes the allegations against her beyond the edges of conventional corruption, and provides further justification to the Opposition demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the most sensational scandal in two decades.

It is ironic that government was forced to state this in the Supreme Court because of a petition filed by Radia's chief financial mentor and public guardian, Ratan Tata, the industrialist who has helped Radia's company grow from nothing to Rs 300 crores in just nine years. Acting on poor legal advice, Tata went to court to blanket out information, condemning India as a banana republic along the way. No weapon has ricocheted back faster than the Ratan boomerang.

It may be relevant, therefore, to consider where Pranab Mukherjee asked for a bit of silence. He was speaking to industrialists. While it is axiomatic that there cannot be bribery without money, and where there is money there will be businessmen, the 2G show is slowly turning into theatre where the lead role in the first act has faded before the aggressive emergence of businessmen on the stage. Ratan Tata has been dominating headlines with a persistence uncharacteristic of his class. He has been interventionist rather than reticent, often storming into the debate despite overwhelming evidence of sleaze on the part of his protege. It was only a matter of time before another businessman decided to label this as hypocrisy, which Rajeev Chandrashekhar did, albeit more politely. Tata's response was to claim personal virtue in the name of the Prime Minister, a double-edged tribute which Dr Singh might want to ignore; and accuse an Opposition party, BJP, of association in the exercise.

This might be the moment to point out that Niira Radia's telephones were tapped by the Manmohan Singh government, not the BJP. They were leaked by those today in power, not a BJP mole. If Ratan Tata finds his name in media stories on Indian scams, it is because the present government made the Radia tapes available to media. It is possible that the leaks had home minister P. Chidambaram's approval; after all, home secretary G.K. Pillai has, on record, promised much more.

Time to understand what Pranab Mukherjee implied: silence begins at home.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Scripture of deceit

Scripture of deceit
By M J Akbar

Third Eye : In India Today

The stench from the media cesspool has turned toxic, and there are still drama queens who believe that they can preen their way across the stage, noses delicately ensconced in a heroic lace handkerchief, till the troublesome citizens eventually tire of even the Radia drama. Since journalists always demand more fairness and balance in the reportage of their woes than they offer their victims, it will perhaps take some more time, and probably more tapes, before we can confirm whether prima donnas were also corrupt. But there is already sufficient evidence to indicate that they were stupid.

I am continuously amazed by how little journalists understand politicians. Perhaps it hurts their sensitive and inflated egos to get the simple fact that politicians treat most media with disdain, precisely because they understand how it works. And they have nothing but contempt for cozy collaborators who think they have arrived because they were invited to the parlour for cocktails, although they were never permitted into the dining room for dinner. A few of them indulged the hallucination that they were enjoying the intimacies of the residential bedroom. You could hear the sound of hearts being broken when the tapes revealed that it was only a transactional exchange rather than true love.

That purr in the ear isn't the music of your back being scratched, darling; it's the crackle of your slim wallet being emptied of ethics.

The politician's menu for media starts with the watery soup of flattery. Temptation is as old as the Garden of Eden, and the self important editor's worst weakness is actually a vigorous massage of the ego. Money may or may not come a close second, but ego is a genetic disease. Moreover, flattery costs nothing but a string of lies, and lies were never an accounting problem in Delhi. The journalist can even console himself, or herself, that it is an honest equation since the sin of money never stained hands.

The main course is harder stuff: pressure, sweet or sour. Obviously pressure is best coated in saccharine, and surrounded by the subtle fragrance of quality gifts which can range from mobile phone access and VIP friendly travel to the rather more serious business of corporate funding. If this does not work, and in many cases it does not (a cynic described half the editors as corrupt, which still leaves the other half all right), then the slow process of twisting your arm begins. Only medieval fools and Guantanamo honchos thought torture should be on public display; in Delhi they can twist your limbs without being in the same room. In the "worst case scenario", when you refuse to recognise "good sense", you lose your job for reasons that can never be attributed to the establishment. Don't make the mistake of protesting. The easiest way to make a grim room in government burst into cackles is the sight of a journalist being kicked downstairs.

By the time dessert is served the dinner party has become completely exclusive, for it is offered only to a chosen few. That is why Prime Ministers, of all parties, and super Prime Ministers like Mrs Sonia Gandhi, take a personal interest in selecting which journalists are given Padma awards and what is the pecking order of the deemed honour. These are personal grace-and-favour anointments.

The other great mystery is the naïveté of successful businessmen. They simply do not understand the labyrinths through which political power travels towards a decision, and hence their endless quest for either a presence or a guide through the maze. They are bewildered by the systems of Delhi's crime and punishment, reward and banishment, and frustrated by the numerous Chinese walls that block their approach. They deploy cash, but are uncertain about what they have purchased. A few think that the Rajya Sabha opens the door to Delhi, and discover that it was constituted for something quite outside their requirements. This is why the allure of a corporate lobbyist becomes irresistible.

Niira Radia was the perfect wheeler-dealer; she sold a mix of 20 per cent reality and 80 per cent illusion to her clients. Her hi-buy relationship with the ruling class included those journalists she believed were close to the powerful. There was nothing personal, just in case you got fooled by the ooziness of the recorded conversations. Ratan Tata would have been far better served if he had invested in media with a reputation for a value that his family used to cherish, independence. Jamsetji Tata held shares in The Statesman and no one ever questioned his integrity. Ratan Tata banked instead on Radia. The consequences of a poor investment have been heavy.

The script of the Niira Radia tapes is the scripture of today's political immorality.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Under the weather in Milan

Musings by M J Akbar : Under the weather in Milan

Snow is a sheet on the ground, talcum on the trees, a patched overcoat on the Alps and an electric blue at Zurich airport. I have to catch a connection to Milan within 50 minutes but there is no hint of hurry when I check with ground staff. Swiss calm about process and punctuality is eerie. Clockwork is in the DNA. I go through unruffled immigration police, board a transit train, grab a vital necessity from duty free and still reach my next flight with time to dawdle. The train welcomes visitors with the music of the moo, while a yodel drifts in the background. Forget the infamous cuckoo; the cow is symbol, pride and sustenance of Switzerland. Milk is the national diet, chocolate the people’s pastime.


The snow had turned Italian in Milan, intense and disorderly. The driver who welcomed me however was sunny in a puzzled sort of way. “Plane on time, eh?” he said in half-awe, half-regret. Swiss airline, I pointed out, not Italian. He beamed with great pride, switched the subject and wondered what snow was doing in Italy in November. Some of it had descended on me when the passenger bus stopped a little short of the terminal. Snow on a bald head can be a nuanced experience.


The limbs of Milan are commerce; the heart of Milan is worship. The city was born for trade but grew up around a cathedral, the Duomo, a magnificent tribute to the soaring power of the Italian imagination when touched by the miracle of faith. Inside the cathedral the eye is sated by an excess of inspiration as it wanders from painting to sculpture to stained glass. The skeletal saint-scholar standing against a curve in the walls, lit by the rays of a sun deflected by brilliant glass panes, is an utter marvel. The house of God carries the weight of human genius lightly, but cannot quite eliminate the pride of the artist, determined to reinvent the divine in his own image. And so, in a scene from the crucifixion on the stained glass, Jesus Christ is white but the thieves on either side are brown.


The Duomo is the perfect opening conversational gambit with a polite Milanese fellow-guest at our India-Italy conference in an 18th century palace. He surprised me with his readily-expressed irritation at the fact that Moroccan immigrants refused to visit the cathedral, calling it “haraam”. This gentleman was a Communist for 364 days and became right-wing at the ballot box thanks to illegal immigration, the great blight that dare not speak its name except in hushed whispers. I thought all he needed to do was wait out a generation. The children would integrate. The latest moll, after all, on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s endless list of “bunga bunga” partners in his swimming pool is a 19-year-old Libyan immigrant whose father probably thought she had gone to the big city to study physics. There is too much hypocrisy about illegal immigration. Immigrants brave the ardour of dispersal only because there are local jobs available. As Italy ages, there is great demand for young women who can nurse the old in their dotage. Demand will always fetch supply.


The most fashionably dressed tourists are Chinese, instantly recognisable by their complete indifference to their host environment. They travel to enjoy their own company, which is good enough reason. You can never tell whether their designer bags are fake, but who cares if they don’t care? Lunch at a café with bad food and high prices can be an education in international relations. The Chinese man keeps patting his lips with a chapstick; his stoic partner has enough lispstick already. The British couple at the adjoining table is armed with multiple chips on both shoulders, and seem irritated by the fact that no one is interested in the peculiarities of their accent. A French family is lost in inter-generational disputes as parents look at the price and son concentrates on the food. Travel convinces me that waitresses smile mainly because they know they will never see you again.


I am constantly told during my brief visit that I should never walk without headwear. But the only hat I have packed is a high, Kashmiri wool cap. The choice therefore is between looking like a Turkish immigrant who has not quite squared up the authorities, and dying of cold. No-brainer. Obviously I choose death over the police.