Sunday, December 25, 2011

The world of Maya

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 25)

That formidable number cruncher of the Mayan civilisation who, 5,125 years ago, initiated a calendar which decided, without much by way of explanation, that its last date would be 21 December 2012, had one distinct advantage over any contemporary astrologer. He isn't around to find out whether he was right.

So will the world end in a little less than 12 months?


Friday, December 23, 2011

Different Strokes

From Byword- India Today (December 23)

Dear Doctor Dubai:
You are a very busy man, Doc, as anyone who commands the sole confidence of the President of Pakistan must surely be, so I hesitate to waste your time over a niggle. But this niggle just won't go away. On December 6, President Asif Ali Zardari unexpectedly left his country ostensibly in search of your care in Dubai. Zardari returned to Pakistan on December 19 amid intense speculation that he would disappear again, this time for a more generous absence. It seems, therefore, that the fate of a nation hangs on a niggle.

Doc, all you have told us is that Zardari had "stroke-like symptoms". This carefully mysterious formulation has left us a trifle confused and a bit thirsty for more information. Every stroke may have stroke-like symptoms, but every symptom does not, it seems, owe its origin to a stroke.

So, Doc, was it a stroke or not a stroke? If it was a stroke, where did it strike? If it was merely "stroke-like" then you could perhaps let us know what it was like.

Please don't take this personally, Doc. But was there anything specific in those "symptoms" that required treatment in Dubai and only from your capable hands and doubtless brilliant mind? Are there no doctors in Islamabad, or Lahore, or Karachi, capable of dealing with dislikeable symptoms? One asks because nasty wags in Pakistan and despicable rumour-mongers in India are thoughtlessly spreading the idea that the President of Pakistan does not trust any hospital in Pakistan, and is terrified of being poisoned or some such. This cannot be true, of course, for if a President cannot trust his own people then he has no right to continue in office. But loathsome western journalists have even reported that Zardari was "recuperating at his home in Dubai" after, apparently, you sorted out those malicious symptoms. If Islamabad isn't safe even for some much-needed recuperation by its President, then you are up a creek without a paddle, isn't it?

Your medical knowledge is vast, Doc, so perhaps you could enlighten us on this one, without, I hope, violating the Hippocratic oath. Is it possible for a President to get a stroke from a memorandum?

I am referring of course to the memo passed on to the Pentagon by a Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, allegedly on behalf of Zardari's ambassador to Washington Hussain Haqqani, begging American generals to avert a possible coup in Islamabad. Haqqani, predictably, denied authorship but the memo was so toxic that Haqqani has disappeared into a coma. His resignation on November 22 did nothing to impede the rampaging infection of the memo. Haqqani is not a diplomat, by profession or temperament; he was and is star yes-man in the Zardari court. His appointment to Washington was a graceand-favour gift from Zardari. Add two and two and you get the contemporary Pakistan crisis.

Zardari ran but could not hide. His government fired shots in the air, insisting that Parliament, press, and its friends in Lahore and across the world would never tolerate another coup. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was not particularly impressed by bluster. Instead, the army chief showed that his grasp of politics and the comparative power of his country's institutions was more astute than civilians had bargained for. The army petitioned the Supreme Court to investigate the origins of memo which "unsuccessfully attempted to lower the morale of the Pakistan Army". Very smart: the memo was a failure, but its intentions were treasonable. If the Supreme Court after due process can find someone higher up the civilian command chain guilty, then Zardari is pincered. This would, in effect, become the most legitimate coup in Pakistan's history. Kayani could recover his own, and the army's, prestige by refusing to occupy the consequent vacant space, and letting a general election find the next president and prime minister.

Zardari recognises a crossroads by instinct. On the night of Friday the 16th, Kayani had a threehour meeting with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, an unusually long chat for peacetime palavers. Within 48 hours Zardari was back to his residence in Pakistan from his home in Dubai. Never imagine that a scapegoat cannot hear the sound of sharpening knives; indeed, the fever of his imagination raises decibels. When a military-political commentator like Lt Gen Talat Masood (retired) states deadpan that civilian and military leaderships are on a collision course, Zardari doesn't need any advice on who will be in the middle of that collision. At the age of 56, a hospital bed in Dubai, with recuperation facilities nearby, must be immensely preferable to years in a damp Attock prison, even if it is on the banks of a brisk Indus within breathtaking view of the Himalayas.

So you see, Doc, how vital those "stroke-like symptoms" are? Do reply when you find a minute.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Gathering power of moral snowflakes

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 18)

You can create a Lokpal, but how do you change India?

Anna Hazare's movement has been among the most important developments since Jayaprakash Narayan's stirring leadership in the 1970s marked the second phase of that long historic process known as minting a nation out of a country. Anna's breathtaking contribution is that he has forced us to recognise that there is cancer in the body politic and that it is entering a terminal stage. He has withstood threat, pressure and inducement, including temptations aimed toward both ego and bank balance. He has insisted with courage and conviction that we find a doctor and fund a hospital that will begin to address this national disease. Both are essential, since there can be no forward movement until we identify and institutionalise those who can heal the patient. But diagnosis, however brilliant, is not a cure; it is only the beginning of a process. The next step, if anything, is harder.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

How do you censor a teashop?

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 11)

Spokesmen do not speak for themselves; they are their masters' voices, or they don't remain the voice for very long. Ministers, similarly, do not propose dramatic, or drastic, policy options without implicit clearance from their boss. This is standard practice. Kapil Sibal is not solely responsible for the proposed censorship of social media, currently the most effective communication system on the net.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Death takes no prisoners

From Byword- India Today (December 9)

Dev Anand hated death as intensely as he loathed the consequences of time. Age itself was an unbearable coffin; and in some unfathomable way he believed that death could be postponed indefinitely. He thought of death as some kind of personal defeat, and defeat did not enter his vocabulary. He might falter, but never fail. For a six-decade superstar life does not imitate art so much as become an art form.

His movies always had a happy ending, and there was no way he was going to deny himself the same privilege off screen. He was not quite a Peter Pan, the child who froze time, but he remained rooted in his Twenties, unable or unwilling to step beyond a bracket that distilled the exuberance of existence into love, sex, success and adulation.

But a body does not have the flexibility of the imagination, and Dev Anand chose to wrap his neck in flowing scarves to curtain the tell-tale desolation of skin stretching away from flesh. He could hardly hide his face, but a miracle occurred each time I met him. The years visibly peeled off, through his eyes, driven out gradual layer by layer by the dazzle of his smile and the mystique of memory as conversation crept inevitably back into the past. There was nowhere else to go. The past was the only golden age, and if gold needed constant burnishing to glisten, it would get all the massage it required. In that exultant narrative, Dev Anand was both his name, a God of Joy, as well as Kama Dev, God of Love; the two were indistinguishable.

The one startling variation in a resplendent career was Guide. The film had very little to do with its origins in R.K. Narayan's book; Dev and his brilliant younger brother Vijay, who directed the best of Dev's oeuvre, threw it out of the window and made their own movie. Guide's Rosie, played exquisitely by Waheeda Rehman, was not mere rebellion, but a revolution that injected gender independence into the consciousness of an India still wandering through the fog of social norms.

Guide is also the only film in which Dev Anand dies. But this death was a strategic manoeuvre. He resurrects triumphantly as eternal truth, beyond the tragedy of time. No ghost has ever been so handsome.

While Dilip Kumar made a lachrymose fortune as part of his public persona obligations, and Raj Kapoor evolved from saving his trousers in Awara to saving the nation in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Dev Anand stayed faithful to an insouciant street smile, whether in Baazi's cheap gambling dens, or amid diamonds in Jewel Thief. He seemed ambivalent about smart theft; his loyalties were securely with law and order, but there was always a faint suggestion that his heart belonged to the panache of sophisticated crime.

Dev Anand was 42 when Guide was released in 1965. He solved his unacknowledged midlife crisis with style. He created the 1960s look with a sequence of memorable hits: Kala Bazar, Hum Dono, Bombai ka Babu, Asli Naqli, Tere Ghar ke Saamne, Guide, Jewel Thief, Johny Mera Naam, Tere Mere Sapne and Hare Rama Hare Krishna. He was the Sixties. His high collar shirts, exotic hats and ankle-length corduroys ended the baggies era. His heroines were a cast from heaven: Waheeda Rehman, Nanda, Sadhana, Suchitra Sen, Nutan, Vyajayantimala, Hema Malini and finally the only woman who broke his heart because she went over to Raj Kapoor for a role in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Zeenat Aman. As he grew older, his girlfriends became younger. He had broken so many hearts it was but fair that someone should break his at least once.

When history is written, as it should be, the tipping point will be a subject of legitimate debate. When did the decline begin? His hand, it is true, began to go limp from the wrist in Kala Bazar (1960), but that remained no more than a personal oddity even when his pistol in Jewel Thief notoriously pointed 45 degrees south instead of straight at villains. The ebb began with Gambler, offered to a shocked public in 1971: Dev Anand had a straight handlebar moustache that Groucho Marx would have shunned. The icon of charisma had lost it. By the 1980s his films were nothing more than a tawdry list of embarrassments. But, to use a phrase that has never seemed more appropriate, it was "Never say die".

Dev Anand had the rare ability to make a stranger seem a friend, and a friend feel irreplaceable. Anyone who entered his aura returned with at least an anecdote. Alas, now that there is no one to contradict them, stories about personal encounters with Dev Anand will both magnify and multiply. But that is how a life becomes a legend.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The 5-point Political Reform Programme

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 4)

It is time for the father of economic reform to initiate political reform. Priority Number 1: Dr Manmohan Singh should abandon the oath of secrecy which Cabinet ministers take, very solemnly indeed, when being anointed to the highest level of government. Step 2: a ban on mobile phones during Cabinet meetings. Which of the two is more difficult? The first, since it is easier to amend the Constitution of India than change the ideological commitment of politicians to their self-image. Democracy has its demands.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Chaos Theory, UPA Style

From Byword- India Today (December 2)

The decision on FDI in retail has been so clumsy that there is a counterintuitive theory to suggest that it must be secretly brilliant. There is always a good case to be made for chaos as an alternative to coma.

The Delhi variation of the chaos theory is persuasive, if you happen to belong to the innermost ring of the many concentric circles of power that constitute the capital of India. Thus travels the logic: the decision was taken during a Parliament session to deliberately provoke Opposition parties into hostility. A shut Parliament is good for a government without answers on contentious problems from the statehood of Telangana to the state of Anna Hazare. Add low economic growth (the rate has slipped to 6.9 per cent) and high inflation, and you have enough to keep Opposition hungry in Parliament. FDI successfully deflected the primary focus of a session during which BJP, with able help from Subramanian Swamy on the outside and former telecom minister A. Raja on the inside, hoped to whittle down Home Minister P. Chidambaram. The Almighty has turned an attentive ear to Chidambaram's prayers.

The corruption debate had only one side; a hapless Government under relentless attack. Foreign investment has at least two sides. Government can always claim that it will create jobs, help farmers and bring down prices-who's to check? These are projections drawn in smoke against a 10-year horizon, by which time most of today's leaders will be irrelevant. The helpful bit for the establishment is the existence of a mall class which hopes to turn India into America before the next general election, or at least within its lifetime. So, even if Rahul Gandhi takes a hammering in Uttar Pradesh next year, as his resident intellectual Jairam Ramesh seems to have whispered at the Cabinet meeting where the FDI decision was taken, the Youth Congress can always be sure of a warm welcome at any mall pub.

Pity, you can never be equally certain about what will come into the House with the storm you induce. There was never any danger to survival, since this Cabinet decision did not need confirmation by a vote in Parliament. This was a ruckus problem, not a mortality matter. The Congress was confident of being able to manage an aggregated Opposition. It was taken aback by a disaggregated Government. The leader of the House, Pranab Mukherjee, expected turbulence from Bengal, for he is familiar with Mamata Banerjee's style.

But Dr Manmohan Singh and his finance minister were thrown aback by the DMK's sudden discovery of spine. Sometimes injury can be good for your political health, and DMK has decided that it is not going to take its wounds lying down. Its strategy for Sonia Gandhi is borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi: it has begun a non-cooperation movement. It does not, as yet, demand independence from upa, but it wants a sort of Dominion status. It will make life as difficult as it can without seeking separation. The hurt at Kanimozhi's long imprisonment is apparent; in DMK eyes this was betrayal. Some insiders are livid; they are hinting that 2G money was shared in equitable proportions but DMK was left alone to twist in the wind.

If the Prime Minister was surprised by his allies, he must have been startled by the revolt over FDI within the Congress triggered by the leftish Defence Minister A.K. Antony. This was more than local political manoeuvring for while Antony fell silent, Ramesh Chennithala from Kerala and Sanjay Singh from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh decided that this would be a useful banner to unfold.

Denied the foreground, Anna Hazare flickered in and out of the screen from the background. Perhaps it is time to check out a seeming paradox.

The Anna Hazare movement is over, but it is not dead. It is over because it has completed its historic work. It is alive because it has successfully convinced Indians that corruption is the enemy they must destroy in order that the nation might survive. Some smug ministers imagine that Hazare's demand for radical change was maverick theatre, that the last scene has been played out and its impact can be erased by procrastination given the proverbial limitations of public memory. Memory might be fickle, but anger is not. Corruption has touched the national gut because it has corroded the body. Corruption is pervasive and persistent. Corruption is not sectarian. Retail FDI may enrage 10 per cent and enthuse a different 10 per cent, but bribery is the loathsome price 80 per cent pay to the 20 per cent with power.

In the immediate future, Anna Hazare might overplay his hand. He might even invite a few jeers. But the next general election will be a burial ground for anyone who thinks Anna Hazare's movement has lost its life.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Charge of the old guard

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 27)

If it had been only another item on the continuing agenda of economic reform, the decision to permit foreign direct investment in retail would have been taken at least two years ago. Dr Manmohan Singh's government has been in its favour from the moment it was sworn in seven and a half years ago, but was thwarted by the Left, without whose support it could not have maintained a majority in the Lok Sabha during its first term. That is understandable. No sensible government risks its survival for the benefit of a multinational's bottom line. But 2009's general elections changed the arithmetic of the Lok Sabha dramatically, and with it the algebra of policy manoeuvres. However, the Left's decimation did not alter a basic fact: that opposition to retail FDI cuts across partisan lines. The government has majority support in a compliant Cabinet, but not in the less obedient Lok Sabha. The coalition that governs India is now split, although not broken.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Pakistan's Toxic Brotherhood

From Byword- India Today (November 25)

Pakistan's President Asif Zardari's sins could fill a few volumes during a lean publishing season, but he has one compelling virtue, all the more impressive for being so rare in politics. He stands by his friends.

Cynics might snipe that this is because he has so few of them. But friendship is always an elastic commodity when you reach a pedestal. There is also, for starters, nothing personal about it.

Perhaps the reigning Pak authority on fair-weather friendship is Husain Haqqani, the man who has lost his grace-and-favour job as Zardari's envoy to the United States. Haqqani has never wasted time on sentiment in a career remarkable for cross-party acrobatics. He started out as an activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the student politics of Karachi University and found a benevolent godfather in the late General Zia-ul-Haq, the despot who hanged his bete noire Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Zia propelled Haqqani into the lower orbit of establishment. The establishment never recovered.

Haqqani slid as easily into Nawaz Sharif's groove as he did into Benazir Bhutto's. The Bhuttos seemed unfazed by his association with Zia. No matter who rose to the top, Haqqani rose with him or her. He was one of the great marvels of meritocratic sycophancy. The second, it should be stressed, would have been impossible without the first.

Such sensational careerism paused when the army returned to power after Pervez Musharraf's coup in 1998. It paused but did not halt. Haqqani retreated to that familiar hiding place of reluctant exiles, the American academic world. Washington is both sharp and generous in its human investments. This one turned productive when Haqqani became ambassador to the US. The shrewd Haqqani had placed his own bets on the Bhuttos when in exile. The restoration was marred by the tragedy of Benazir's assassination but Zardari proved a reliable mentor when he became the luckiest President in Pakistan's turbulent history.

Haqqani's moment should have lasted at least as long as Zardari's. But both became complacent. They forgot, or thought they could sidestep, the classic faultline in the earthquake zone known as Pakistan's power structure, the permanent conflict between civilian and military forces.

When the Pakistan Army draws a line in Islamabad, it does not write on sand. Haqqani lost his cushy job because he thought his wiles could trump the army as Zardari's term began to wind down. He appealed for help to the one institution he considered superior to Pakistan's army, the Pentagon. It was an astonishing example of stupidity on the part of someone with a reputation for being clever.

The issue is no longer whether Haqqani was guilty of treason, but whether Zardari is complicit. Zardari could hardly be unaware of the limits of civilian authority. His own and his family history should be sufficient guide. Even as President, he was forced to give Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani an unprecedented three-year extension. He did not do so willingly. He has now watched helplessly as the isi welcomed Haqqani to Islamabad with an interrogation. The big question now is: how much time does Zardari have left?

Kayani is aware that a coup will not get the domestic or international support necessary for a veneer of legitimacy. Neither can he be sure of support from the Supreme Court. Why risk a shot in the dark when his target is so vulnerable in daylight? It makes much more sense for Kayani to use the army's influence to force an early general election. After these elections, Zardari and Haqqani can bond again in New York as retirement benefits in Islamabad come with toxic conditions.

Fear of uncertainty is less than half the story in Pakistan. An increasing number of influential Pakistanis are being driven abroad by the certainty of fundamentalist violence and the danger to their lives. Najam Sethi, the well-known journalist, now edits his Lahore-based newspaper from America. He is on the hit list of those who killed the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Sherry Rehman, named as Haqqani's replacement, will be far safer in Washington than Karachi. She has courageously championed the cause of minorities being persecuted by fundamentalists. The palpable fear among the thin crust which remains sane and liberal in an increasingly beleaguered nation is not fear of Talibanisation in next door Afghanistan but the Talibanisation of Pakistan.

How many times can you become a refugee in two generations?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Curious Gamble of Rahul Gandhi

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 20)

There is one question within the complicated Uttar Pradesh conundrum that has left me completely bewildered. Why on earth has Rahul Gandhi made the results of its Assembly polls next year such a prestige issue – his own prestige, not his party's? Why has he staked his personal reputation on UP, and then multiplied the stakes, when he has no real reason to gamble his own future on the vagaries of Awadh?

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Gandhian Paradox

From Byword- India Today (November 18)

The Nehru-Gandhis seem to have a soft spot for grandfathers. When Rajiv Gandhi posed for India Today at the launch of his public career to establish a public image, he ignored Jawaharlal Nehru's trademark red rose on a khaddar sherwani, and slung a Kashmiri shawl over the shoulder in the manner of Motilal Nehru, the aesthete barrister who forswore a lucrative practice and elite lifestyle to become a Gandhian exactly 92 years ago. When Rahul Gandhi launched his first independent responsibility campaign on November 14, at Phulpur, for Uttar Pradesh, he revived Jawaharlal Nehru rather than Rajiv Gandhi. Jawaharlal was born on November 14, 1889; and Phulpur was his constituency in the first general elections. November 14 is also celebrated as Children's Day.

If Rajiv's preference was iconic, Rahul's choice is political. His electoral persona is being shaped. The foundation remains true to character: an edgy on-and-off stubble and rolled-up kurta sleeves designed to swoop up campuses and cricket fans. This is layered by a patina of left-of-centre rhetoric aimed at the poor who are beginning to feel a bit ripped off by the trickle-down theory that is the standing rationale for economic reforms, which were envisaged, with minimum fuss, by Rajiv Gandhi, but have become synonymous with P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh. In the Rahul calculus, eternal youth plus dynastic charisma plus poverty politics equals hundred-plus seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Nehru became a socialist long before he had to fight an election. Rahul Gandhi's speechwriters tend towards American Ivy League academic glamour for intellectual inspiration. Here is something they could use the next time Rahul Gandhi goes to Phulpur. His grandfather was elected president of the Congress for the first time in December 1929, at the Lahore session, which, under his pressure, adopted the historic Purna Swaraj (full freedom, rather than mere dominion rule) resolution. Discussing his convictions, Nehru told delegates: "I must frankly confess that I am a socialist and a republican and no believer in kings and princes, or in the order which produces the modern kings of industry, who have greater power over the fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the old feudal aristocracy."

During his first campaign, for the 1937 elections, Nehru was assertive enough-or brash, as his critics might put it-to claim that the socialism he had injected had visibly strengthened Congress. He said in Mumbai on May 20, 1936, "If the Congress has grown stronger, it is because I raised the issue of socialism." It was at the very least an audacious assertion in the shadow of a Mahatma who had converted Congress from a lawyers' forum into a mass movement. Gandhi knew the art of the gentle rebuke. He told the 1942 AICC session, after the Quit India resolution, "In Jawaharlal's scheme of free India, no privileges or privileged classes have a place. Jawaharlal considers all property to be state-owned. He wants planned economy... He likes to fly, I don't. I have kept a place for the princes and the zemindars in the India that I envisage."

Gandhi wanted his heir to understand him, just as he sought to understand his heir, but that socialist gulf was never bridged. Nehru got his Planning Commission in free India, but the Mahatma was more perceptive. The princes and zemindars are still with us, not to mention modern kings of industry, quite a few of them in Congress, possibly queueing up to polish Rahul's Nehruvian sentences. Such are the paradoxes of politics.

If a creed has to work, it must carry the weight of conviction, not just the frippery of an electoral tactic. Is Rahul Gandhi indulging in ritual appeasement, or is he seeding the climate for economic policies that he will implement when he becomes prime minister? Has he thought through a simple proposition: social justice is essential to social stability, but what precisely does it mean in 2011 and 2012? Surely it cannot mean what it did in 1929 and 1937. How do you reconcile the needs of the impoverished with the demands of an expanding middle class? The relevance of any idea is determined by objective reality. India is no longer a colony; it is still cursed with poverty but not crushed by famine and helplessness.

Rahul Gandhi's slogan for UP is a curious defensive feint disguised as an aggressive jab: Hum jawab denge. It is the sort of phrase that looks more convincing in an advertising agency than a village teashop. Is it a subliminal plea by a new leader, eager to answer questions that no one has yet asked? Maybe we could begin with a simple one: has Rahul Gandhi thought through a philosophy for the future? Rahul Gandhi likes to fly, but to where?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A soft hiss from the Mamata balloon

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 13)

The chaps who wrote fables, and there was none better than Aesop the old Greek, knew what they were talking about. All those centuries ago Aesop told those who would listen that it is dangerous to make threats your staple form of communication. When you huff and puff and promise to blow the house down, you have to consider a simple question: is that your own house? It might be temporary rented accommodation, but you don't stop paying rent until brokers have found alternative digs and the new landlord has signed the documents.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Beware of Dust Storms

From Byword- India Today (November 11)

Hazrat-e-buddhu bhi Gandhi ke saath hain
Zarra-e-khaq hain magar aandhi ke saath hain

There is little justice in translation. Akbar Allahabadi, the iconic 19th-20th century satirist, would have been especially amused at any transition of his Urdu into English. How do you convey to an alien culture that Hazrat, an honoured title for a holy man, can also become an acerbic appendage for any holier-than-thou hypocrite? I hope this transliteration will serve: Even the Honourable Ass is with Gandhi; He may be a mere speck of ash, but he is with an aandhi (storm).

Allahabadi wrote this during Gandhi's first great mass movement, for swaraj, between 1919 and 1922, the wonder of its age. An astonished British Raj watched the Muslim clergy, led by Imam-e-Hind Maulana Azad and Maulana Abdul Bari, gladly cede leadership of its Khilafat jihad to a frail Gujarati Bania. For a century the British had played off Hindu against Muslim with the impunity of an umpire who can change the rules to suit his decision. Communal violence lay at the deadly edge of this game. As the perceptive Jinnah told the viceroy Lord Chelmsford in 1918, "I know very well that in the Indian states you hardly ever hear of any Hindu-Muslim riots." (We should make a comparative study of riots under British rule and Indian princely states part of our curriculum).

For those three shining years, Gandhi inspired the magnificent power of Hindu-Muslim unity. His call for swaraj rose from a welter of intermeshed whispers to a storm that shook the impregnable oak of British rule till it trembled like a leaf. But an aandhi does not pick and choose each speck of dust that collectively turns it into a historic force. It diminishes differences of character or ideology, and eases contradictions because it is propelled by a single purpose that is far higher than individual or sectarian interest. And so the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind mobilised Muslims for Gandhi while the Hindu Mahasabha worked its field since both wanted India's liberation from colonial rule.

All mass movements have this ability to step over internal hurdles. The CPI(M) was on the left flank of the anti-Emergency upsurge between 1975 and 1977 and Jana Sangh on the right, and neither saw the other as a problem for their larger cause. In 1989, after at least two years of coordination in Parliament, the CPI(M) and BJP not only supported the minority government of V.P. Singh but ate weekly dinners with their Prime Minister while Singh said grace with as much grace as he could muster. No one called Singh communal; at least no one in his senses did. The Bofors bribery scandal had created space for competing ideologies to cultivate common ground, and control an election that catapulted V.P. Singh to the job he coveted: Prime Minister.

So did this mean that everyone in Singh's Cabinet possessed a certificate of honesty from Mother Teresa? I could name half a dozen ministers who took money with one hand and another six who raked it in with both. Every campaign is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly; even Khilafat leaders like the famous Ali brothers, Muhammad and Shaukat, were accused of putting their hands in the donation till in the name of expenses. Did this matter to the people? If it did, then it mattered far less than the common cause.

Those who believe they can dilute Anna Hazare's impact through pinpricks at his associates understand neither him nor India. He does not really have associates; he has an issue, corruption. He would have remained a fringe figure if this cancer had not aroused the doctor in him. He does not run a political party. He does not aspire to become President or Prime Minister. It is immaterial what stand he took on the Babri mosque, as some Urdu newspapers have been inspired to write in the hope of deflecting Muslim sentiment away from him. He is not the guardian of secularism, or whatever passes for it currently. It makes absolutely no difference whether there is saffron in his audience or green. It is immaterial whether there is a cat watching him or a queen; he wants both to be honest with public money. The controversies over his core team, or outer ring, or the net on his periphery are unimportant to the voter, who is only interested in a cure that will keep this cancer in remission.

The establishment believes that it can deflect Anna Hazare by generating contempt for some Hazrate-Buddhu among the specks of dust. Waste of time. Anger against corruption rages in bursts, and then falls silent. A tree will tell you that the only way to survive a hurricane is to bend. We shall soon learn if Delhi understands nature, and human nature.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Don’t tell, don’t know

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 6)

Is "lower middle class" sufficient mitigation for crime? Justice Jeremy Cooke of London's Southwark Crown Court was not being unkind when he took origin into consideration awarding 19-year-old Mohammad Amir a kinder sentence than his teammates Mohammad Asif, a regular of the Pakistan cricket team, whose career had been punctured but not quite flattened by controversy, and Salman Butt, senior enough to be named captain.

Friday, November 04, 2011

A Word About History

From Byword- India Today (November 4)

A rare October snowstorm along the edge of the Atlantic can be the best of times and the worst of times. The trees along the highway between Philadelphia and New York put on their winter make-up of white-bright talcum while the low sky broods with grey intensity. The snowflakes are deceptive. They fall like tossed cotton but carry the power of heavy metal when bound into ice. One icepack fell on the roof of our sedan from a girder of a bridge with the clang of a rock, startling the driver whose principal virtue so far had been an unblemished Punjab-origin optimism. The snowstorm stretched a two-hour drive to a disconcerting four.

A book is a good companion for bad weather. It helps split the personality. Half of me was engrossed in the anxious beauty of the storm while the other half flirted with facts about the first millennium in a splendid tome called Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present.

History roams on many routes to the past, but a pretty good way to navigate is through the story of words. The next time you are bahadur enough to ask your naukar-chakar to buy subzi at inflationary prices from the bazaar, and then give it to the bawarchi to cook, remember that each of the italicised words came to India from the silken route between China, Central Asia and Persia in the 13th and 14th centuries. Time, however, has altered the inflexion of meaning, and not for the better. During the supposedly stratified age of Mongol emperors and hordes, noker and chakar were warriors of the finest professional pedigree, and part of the protective ring around the ruler. It was a military aristocracy based on ability not birth; the chakar was a symbol of courage who looked upon "death as returning home". In our allegedly democratic times, naukar-chakar have been reduced to menial whipping boys.

Chingiz Khan's nokers were close enough to be considered friends, and formed the core of his imperial bodyguard known as kesig. This team took responsibility for all aspects of his security, including protection from poison. The baurchi was the steward with special responsibility for the kitchen, one of the select braves or baaturs. The current incarnation of these terms, bawarchi and bahadur, is less than heroic, conjuring images of a chap wearing a lungi in Calcutta or a puny doorman in Mumbai. Khubilai Khan, the grandest of the Mongol-Chinese emperors, had 12,000 such bodyguards. Marco Polo reports that the Khan had gifted each one with 13 robes in different colours, and estimated that the lot would have needed over a million yards of silk.

Evolution is rarely in a hurry; the meaning took its time to change in India. As horseback conquerors settled down to become a comfortable ruling class, their court acquired the flab of sedentary power, and the ethics of older class and caste systems. Work had once lifted your status, now status became graded into cemented categories. Anyone in the ruler's service became, well, a servant. The British added a contemptuous dimension to inherited hierarchies. They allotted the Mughal imperial court dress to cooks and attendants, and imposed their three-piece suits and neckties on the compradors that they co-opted into the second and third tiers of their Raj. Go to any Brown Sahib club in Delhi for confirmatory evidence. The Indian middle class, which has become the new ruling community in our post-independence democracy, has adopted the superiority-complex of feudal and coloniser without the former's generosity or the latter's efficiency.

American boys 50 years ago would dream of becoming cops who chased and killed robbers. There are no cops in America today. They are all police officers. It stands to reason. If you sit in an office, you are an officer. Train drivers are called engineers, and when American politicians talk of their middle class they mean precisely those who were yesterday's blue collars. Language is a gauge of social esteem, and respect begins with self-respect. India is too large and complex to fit into any single dimension, but one senses that our country is being jolted out of traditional mental shackles which defined a place for the poor on the outskirts of both the geographical and mental space by the young who will not accept shibboleths or assumptions of the past.

The unprecedented uproar over the Rs. 32-a-day poverty line is evidence. Economists were surprised because they had not changed their societal calculators in five decades. This quiet revolution is not led by those below the poverty line, but by those who will not accept a minimalist definition of poverty. The new Indian demands more accurate mirrors and more ambitious horizons. Dalit replaced the previous term for those who had once been outcast. In 10 years naukar will either rise back to its Mongol meaning, or disappear from those Indian languages which use the word.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Through the looking glass ceiling

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 30)

How much anger do you need to smash a glass ceiling?

A glass ceiling became the symbol of discrimination during the struggle for women's rights in western democracies. By the 1970s women had moved out of the stereotype steno pool into the infested rivulets of middle management, but there was no further room for upward mobility. An invisible ceiling prevented them from entering the boardroom. No rules prevented entry. It just did not happen.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Arabian Knights

From Byword- India Today (October 28)

The Arab Spring is a rebellion on the cusp of becoming a revolution. It started as a sudden uprising ten months ago in Tunisia. Last Sunday it took its first stride into the future when Tunisia held its first free elections. The last time Tunisians "voted", in 1994, intelligence agents checked ballots and arrested those who had not stamped the ballot in favour of their preferred dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. On October 23, thousands of candidates from 80 political parties sought a place in the new Constituent Assembly.

A revolution, as has been famously observed, is not a tea party; a rebellion even less so. Peaceful transition in Tunisia and war in neighbouring Libya illustrate an old fact: it is up to the ancien regime to determine the difference. Ben Ali understood that he had cheated his people long enough, and disappeared into exile with his pot of gold. Libyans would have given Muammar Gaddafi gold enough, and his retinue of nurses plus an Italian football team for his vicious sons, as farewell gifts if they had left quietly. Instead the megalomaniac Gaddafi decided that Libyans were rats who should be exterminated.

I am surprised that anyone is surprised at the manner of Gaddafi's death. What did we expect the rebels to do? Offer Gaddafi buttered scones and an airline ticket to Geneva while the clock struck four at Grantchester? Lenin understood the dangerous romance of nostalgia fanned by dispossessed elites, particularly the media, and their ability to idolise false memory. He knew the halo of death can obscure the obvious and did not waste much sympathy on the Romanovs. Libyans had none for the despotic, avaricious family that turned a nation's resources into personal wealth, ruled by decree and terror and tortured anyone who opposed them till its dying day.

There is always some distance between a first step and destination but if Tunisia's election becomes a moment of true liberation it will shape the contours of the 21st century. Exactly a hundred years ago, a group of army officers known as the Young Turks launched the mid-eastern Muslim world's first search for modernity on the deathbed of the Ottoman empire, but history dumped this opportunity into the blood-soaked dustbin of the First World War.
This movement reinvented itself, under Mustafa Kemal, as a Turkish resurrection. The Arab territories of the Caliphate relapsed into feudal neo-colonisation or, later, into the mirage of officer sultans who promised socialism and justice but delivered tyranny. Gaddafi was Libya's version of this corrosive delusion.

It is entirely in order that the party expected to win Tunisia's polls, Ennahda, offers Turkey as its role model. Its leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi, is clear about his vision: a durable, plural democracy which protects minorities and promises women equality in education and employment and the freedom to wear or reject a head scarf if they so choose to. This, naturally, is sufficient to invite the appendage "moderate Islamist", as if that were a vaguely acceptable but not quite desirable sort of crime. I await the day when the great liberal newspapers of Europe and America call the Christian Democrats "moderate Christists" or America's Republican Party a "Biblicist Planet Coalition".

The Arab future will be rough, as freedom also enables the release of poisons in the storehouse of the defeated establishments. Egypt has already witnessed violence against Coptic Christians. But communal riots continued in India after freedom without derailing the nation's commitment to democracy. It took a century to reach from the Young Turks to Election Sunday; it will take perhaps a decade for the democratic revolution to become durable.

History is not an even story. A lifetime may deserve nothing more than a footnote, and a year that energises an epoch could require many volumes to comprehend. The last year has been a stirring chapter but the book is still being written. Dictators need paid chroniclers. Tunisia's narrative belongs to 30-year-old Amin Ghouba who told The New York Times on polling day: "Today is the day of independence. Today we got our freedom and our dignity from the simple act of voting."
Democracy is dignity.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Shield of Higher Cause

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 23)

When Julian Assange, father of WikiLeaks, makes a viral enemy of a potential friend, he always does so in the name of a Higher Cause. Such mavericks are necessary in an age where information has become a frontline weapon.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Alibi Called Secrecy

From Byword- India Today (October 21)

Secrecy in government can be both dangerous and essential. The difference lies in the cause: secrecy is criminal when it veils misdeeds, and honourable when it protects the national interest. Unfortunately, only politicians in office can make that call. Their primary impetus does not drive them towards transparency. They are far more adept at justifying self-interest with some rant about national duty. Patriotism used to be the last resort of the scoundrel; these days it is generally a first preference.

The debate on the Right to Information (RTI) is caught in this warp. Governments argue that in certain circumstances they are duty-bound to shade the truth, or even lie. We understand that. We also understand when that privilege is exploited. Every nation permits flexibility in the lie-line during times of war, for instance; but even in the fog of high patriotism we condone the evasions of a warrior but punish the falsehoods of a warmonger. The scars of George Bush and Tony Blair, who lied to drag their countries into war with Iraq, will not heal in their lifetime.

Dr Manmohan Singh's Government is not engaged in any war, except with itself; but fractious civil war tends to encourage the temptation of censorship. It has quite deliberately started a public debate on RTI, albeit with the usual feints and side-trips into blind alleys, aimed at amendments which will curb access to documents. Privately, this administration is convinced that RTI has degenerated into a licentious free-for-all.
If we want to understand why, then the correct question to ask is 'why now?'

Dr Singh did not inherit RTI. He can claim parentage of this legislation. He placed it among his more noteworthy achievements during the campaign for the 2009 general election, and doubtless won at least a few additional votes. During his first term, Dr Singh was perfectly content with RTI. Why has it become a problem two years into the second term? RTI procedures have not become any more liberal, although activists have become sharper and more sophisticated, blocking loopholes before they can be used to escape disclosure. The difference between the RTI triumphalism during UPA 1 and RTI nervousness during UPA 2 is fairly simple. Before 2009 Dr Singh felt he had nothing to hide. That confidence has melted with the disclosure of malfeasance by his ministers on an industrial scale. A series of self-inflicted wounds has shredded credibility, with RTI inflicting most of the injury. Corruption is the source of these wounds, making them gangrenous. The nationwide symbols of corruption are the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum sales. In both cases files obtained through RTI not only broke the story wide open but also sabotaged the possibility of any cover-up.

When governments seek to set the record straight, a question must follow: who set the record crooked? Before RTI it was far easier to blame media for distortion. But when media has in its possession a true copy of original files, then the whistle of the blower sounds more authentic than the convoluted explanations of a minister. Our parliamentary system has a nuanced approach to lies: any minister caught lying to the House is expected to resign, but a minister who can avoid the truth is considered clever and competent. RTI leaves ministers bereft of such protection.

Dr Singh's Government is showing all the symptoms of "secondtermitis", a wasting disease that can turn fatal. Most governments thrive after election; it is rather more difficult to survive re-election. Even the great Jawaharlal Nehru began to wobble after re-election in 1957. The peace pedestal on which he had constructed his international persona began to crumble on the China front by 1959 and collapsed during the 1962 war. At first glance Mrs Indira Gandhi's case seems an exception, for nothing could go wrong at the beginning of her second term in 1971. But by 1973, nothing could go right. Her third term, between 1980 and 1984, drifted on the acrid smoke of mistakes and violence, ending in the tragedy of her martyrdom.

Governments which are re-elected atrophy in the squeeze between high expectations and complacent delivery. They also begin to believe the illusion that opposition is dead. Nothing dies in a democracy.
Public life has more than one meaning in a democracy; it is not only about the management of public affairs, but also public in its process. The shelter of privacy is accorded to only a few subjects, notably defence. In other areas of governance, secrecy is an alibi, not a solution, and alibis do not even buy you much time at the contemporary exchange rate. Dr Singh no longer has a government to gain by whittling RTI, but he still has a reputation to lose.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Media needs some immediate attention

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 16)

I can't quite determine which part of the story made me laugh, and which brought on tears, when I learnt that some zealous functionaries had passed around envelopes with Rs 500 notes to journalists in Satna who had been summoned to report on L.K. Advani's anti-corruption campaign. It was not Mr Advani's fault; he was victim of a prevailing system. However, as pitfalls go this was a bit of a crater dip.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Brothers In Arms

From Byword- India Today (October 14)

Brotherhood is a moveable feast. The Abrahamic faiths have always been cynical about its virtues. Cain, first child of the first family, dispatched Abel and then artfully asked the Almighty, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Cain was never a likely candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he could have become, in a contemporary incarnation, a cold strategic warrior, much sought after by think-tanks. Abel the Good Boy merely confirmed that decency is an invitation to murder.

On October 4 Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai described Pakistan as a "twin brother" just hours after he signed up on a strategic relationship with India. Was Karzai encouraged by the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are locked in a property dispute across the Durand Line? Friends do not have ownership claims; brothers do.

Brotherhood was also on the mind of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad when, within the same week, he telephoned Karzai to say that "enemies never want to see friendship and brotherhood in the region and we should do our best to bring hearts and thoughts closer to each other." Ahmedinejad tends to talk like a Persian poet of the inferior sort; his point was not very subtle. He wants the three Islamic "brothers" Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to make common cause against "enemy" America. I am not totally sure that Karzai, who has just lost his real younger brother Ahmed Wali to a Taliban bomb in Kandahar, believes he has the same enemies as Ahmedinejad or Asif Zardari.

On October 12, India signed agreements with "maritime neighbour" Vietnam to deepen strategic ties, and, in a rebuff to China, continue oil exploration in the South China Sea. Vietnam is the only country in four decades to have silenced China on the battlefield, forcing Beijing to withdraw from its territory after a 17-day war in 1979. Vietnam did not defeat France and America in order to succumb to China.

International diplomacy is a layered mechanism. Every bilateral purpose leaves a bit of space for potential crosspurpose. Peacetime manoeuvres are often far more intricate than straight-line confrontations of nations in conflict: foreign policy is the art of establishing advantage without the self-injurious risk of forcing a war. The patterns emerging from Iran to Japan are fascinating, perhaps because they are volatile. Primary needs intersect with parallel initiatives, linked by self-interest when they cannot be held together by logic.

Ahmedinejad is testing the possibility of a "Muslim alliance" of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan as the dominant influence between the Caucasus and China, stretching down to the Indian border in Punjab. This does not necessarily mean that Iran would be hostile to India, but Delhi has no role in this "Muslim consolidation". Pakistan might get more "strategic space" against India, but become vulnerable to American pressure and Chinese worry; China fears secessionist Islamism in Sinkiang. India's response is ethnic outreach to Afghan Tajiks, who resent the domination of Pushtuns. India's strategic intervention is largely about training Tajik soldiers for war against Pushtun-dominated Taliban, a variation of the Northern Alliance strategy when India financed anti-Taliban forces before America returned to lead them into Kabul after 9/11.

India has one significant advantage. It has no brothers in a region overloaded with faith-fierce siblings. Nehru tried brotherhood in the Fifties, and we all know what Comrade Mao thought of it. Today, emotion has been squeezed out of Indian policy, making it leaner and hopefully a bit meaner. Even at the height of Indo-Soviet amity in 1971, Delhi side-stepped Brother Brezhnev's bear hug. The cool Vajpayee-Singh cultivation of America is bearing reward now, nudging ahead quiet partnerships. There is virtual understanding between India, Vietnam, Japan and the US in the blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with China. They are drawing a line on water.

In 1962, America was ready to send air force squadrons with bombs and pilots to the Himalayas. The key question since 1962 has been: Which nation will support India in a second India-China conflict? The answer is emerging in the Indian Ocean and Pacific.

As the wealth of the world begins to rotate back to resource-hungry Asia, confrontation and cooperation will be calibrated by both long-term perceptions and immediate needs. We will learn, over the next decade, which nations have understood the tilt of history. Fervour is not conducive to comprehension; far better to be cool. Delhi is getting good at cool.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Seen, obscene and unseen

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 9)

Wealth is far easier to recognise than poverty. Wealth is either seen or obscene; poverty remains largely unseen. Poverty of the worst kind is hidden in those parts of India — or indeed the world — where it is outside the provenance of government, and beyond the interest of individuals and institutions who fuel the engines of modern life, like business concerns or bureaucracy or media. Those of a liberal persuasion do feel the occasional moral twinge at the passing sight of near-starvation, but poverty does not appear on any balance sheet, liberal or conservative. The cure for liberal guilt is aversion. We take our eyes off the hungry. We leave the responsibility to government.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Salt On Poverty's Wounds

From Byword- India Today (October 7)

There are three ways in which a journalist gets a headline right: deep thought, instinct, and good luck. Of the three, instinct might prove to be the most reliable, since it does not permit space for doubt. The favourite word used by media to describe the cessation of hostilities between Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and former finance minister P. Chidambaram, at a particularly volatile moment in their war, was "truce". Spot on.

The Oxford dictionary defines "truce" with its usual pithy perfection: "An agreement between enemies or opponents to stop fighting for an agreed period of time." A truce does not signify the end of war, and it isn't. Congress President Sonia Gandhi would of course like this truce to last at least till the next general election, or the installation of her son Rahul Gandhi as successor to Dr Manmohan Singh, whichever comes earlier. Both the contestants might be irrelevant to a Rahul regime, Pranab because he wants to retire, and Chidambaram because he is now too controversial. But the Pranab-Chidambaram ceasefire, negotiated through multi-tier back channels with a finesse that nations might envy, was held together by a band-aid rather than a bandage. It was always a veneer, and it crumbled within days.

The artillery of Delhi's intra-party wars is disinformation; the battlefield is mostly newsprint; the first casualties are bureaucrats, particularly those under consideration for some choice posting. There is an old Indian saying from the feudal days: when you want to destroy a king, first kill his parrot. That is the fate of officials close to ministers; they get trapped in poison weeds planted by the opposition. As in any war, the circumference of damage is inevitably far larger than the circle of target. Institutions get battered, as much as individuals. When critical ministries like finance and home are involved, government becomes dysfunctional. This is not sniper fire, this is civil war, symptom of a much more serious malaise.

Stability in power is not merely an attribute of numbers, and levels of support in the legislature. An American president does not need a majority in the Senate, but Barack Obama's mooring has come unhinged. There is no threat to Dr Manmohan Singh's tenure yet, but his coalition has lost its centre of gravity. Its majority is sustained by the compulsion to postpone accountability, although in a democracy this cannot be an indefinite luxury. Survival may be certain, but governance becomes uncertain. When a government loses discipline and direction, it can inflict self-damage in the most curious, if revealing, ways.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, to offer the most recent instance, has poured salt upon poverty's wounds with a fervour that the electorate will remember long after feuds fade into the subconscious. His economists must have done the math: calculated the minimal calorie requirements for survival, costed it and emerged with the now infamous Rs. 32 definition of daily urban need. Statistics are a trap in an insensitive mind. They may be necessary for policy, but they must be refurbished by the human touch in politics. Here is a statistic that Montek Singh Ahluwalia might consider worth a thought or two. He lives in the most exclusive residential zone of India, or perhaps Asia, in one of the string of multi-acre palaces built for the elite of the ruling class in Lutyens' Delhi. If the Government ever thought of selling Ahluwalia's bungalow, it would fetch Rs. 400 crore or more. Economists in the Planning Commission have computers which can count and divide. They would calculate that every blade of grass in Ahluwalia's expansive, grace-and-favour residence is worth more than Rs. 32.

Politicians who live in similar palaces are at least accountable at election time, and know that the price of callousness is defeat. Ahluwalia is where he is because of only one vote, the Prime Minister's. Dr Manmohan Singh is a generous employer. Ahluwalia's sole penance was to appear pseudo-contrite on a friendly television channel. The remark will prove more expensive to the party which hired him.

General Jack Jacob, our living hero of the Bangladesh war, told me of a cockney ditty British soldiers under his command would sing during the Second World War. It's the rich wot gets the pleasure, It's the poor wot tikes the blame, It's the same the whole world over, Isn't it a bloody shime!

Within months of victory in this great world war, these impoverished cockneys threw out Winston Churchill, the genius who saved his nation, in an election that became an avalanche, because they were tired of taking the blame while the nabobs drank champagne. Democracy hath no fury like the poor scorned.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The certainty of uncertainty

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 2)

The Congress is suffering from the hammer blows of ambition on the anvil of power. The BJP has a splitting headache in expectation of power. The first is serious. The second is silly.

Friday, September 30, 2011

An enemy in common

From Byword- India Today (September 30)

America," Jinnah told author-photographer Margaret Bourke-White just one month after partition in 1947, "needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America." The shadow of Russia muted the claim from pompous to possible. Jinnah always understood the power of an enemy far better than the value of a friend. America, he believed, would buy into the Soviet threat, and Pakistan use it as a decoy to obtain arms for what Jinnah believed would be an existentialist war with India.

Bourke-White remarked, perceptively, while recording the conversation in her book Halfway to Freedom: "Jinnah's most frequently used technique in the struggle for his new nation had been playing off opponent against opponent. Evidently this technique was now to be extended into foreign policy." Pakistan, which abandoned Jinnah's domestic philosophy of a secular Muslim state very quickly, and without remorse, has been more faithful to Jinnah's foreign policy.

Jawaharlal Nehru, reflecting the philosophy of India's freedom movement, set India's foreign policy by a different compass: the search for common friends rather than enemies in common. He dismissed alliances as neo-colonisation. His idealism could bubble to levels unacceptable to his more sceptical colleagues, many of whom accused Nehru privately of dangerous naivete only to be proved publicly right during the 1962 China war.

American foreign policy, shaped by the life-and-death drama of a world war against fascism, quickly followed by another against Communism, understood the impulse of nationalism but was deeply suspicious of any internationalism that blurred the difference between 'good' and 'evil', as Washington defined the terms. Neutrality was almost as grave a crime as hostility. Wartime sensibilities stretched to accommodate any kind of government if it remained onside in the confrontation with the Soviets. The greater threat obviated the problem of lesser evils like dictatorship in the range of allies. To be fair, the Communist bloc was hardly a shining example of democracy, or even social justice; it was equally cynical and less productive to boot. In any case, Washington was at ease with either democrat or dictator in Pakistan as long as both were Cold Warriors.

Much has been written about the impact on India of the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather less about the consequences for Pakistan. The over-extended celebrations of the US-Pak victory in Afghanistan drowned out an obvious reality: friends become as irrelevant as enemies at the end of war. America's alliance with western Europe would quite likely have dissipated after 1945 had the ideological-military challenge from Russia not kept them together. Jinnah had wisely predicted that Soviet Union would force America to befriend Pakistan. But that wisdom was co-terminus with the existence of the Soviet Union.

Geopolitics is a variable science; geography may not change, but politics does. America and Pakistan have drifted into virtual conflict which both governments were loath to acknowledge for different reasons. The Mujahideen who declared war on America, a long list of militias including al Qaeda, continue to treat Pakistan as a sanctuary, a fortress from which they hit America, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. The Pakistan army offers terrorists succour and space in pursuit of a "patriotic" agenda, as a strike force against India and any government in Kabul that refuses to accept Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan. The Pak military establishment is not particularly unhappy when America bleeds in Afghanistan.

For a long while Washington refused to read the evidence, or pretended it was satisfied with patently manufactured excuses. The Pentagon has swallowed its anger for a decade, in the belief that even a duplicitous Pak army is better than an openly hostile Pak army. It even kept quiet when Pak soldiers ambushed American officers and men on May 14, 2007 at a place called Teri Mangal after a tripartite meeting with Afghans. An American major was killed, and three other officers wounded; the Black Hawk in which they escaped was described as "blood-soaked".

But fiction has become difficult to sustain after the discovery and death of Osama bin Laden. On September 22 Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, put this duplicity on record when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that anti-American terrorists, responsible for 77 US casualties in one truck bomb strike alone, were a "strategic arm" of the ISI. It was a week in which Barack Obama could not find the time to meet Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani. Gilani canceled his trip to New York. Islamabad is scrambling to reorganise with its usual mix of bluster, sulk and SOS to old friends. It will have to come to terms with a radical shift in the strategic environment. India and America now have an enemy in common-the terrorist with a base in Pakistan.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (September 25)

In the loneliness of the small town where I was born, and the shuttered years of boarding school, dream was a five-letter word called Tiger. Mansur Ali Khan's magic transcended the supreme piffle that passed for cricket commentary when radio, with a glowing green eye in the right hand corner, was our primary passport to Test cricket.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Good Lord

From Byword- India Today (September 23)

The best doctor for the cure of pontification is surely the Pope. The best political Popes understand this. When Mikhail Gorbachev was asked at Harvard's Kennedy School what would have happened if in 1963 the Soviet supremo Krushchev had been assassinated instead of American President Kennedy, he took a grave look at the audience and replied, "I do not think Aristotle Onassis would have married Mrs Krushchev." If Gorbachev's predecessors had possessed a sense of humour, and come down to earth from the high walls of the Kremlin at least occasionally, Soviet Communism might, just might, have survived. You can't afford to be pompous when the potatoes have run out at your signature store across the street from the Kremlin. More empires have died of pomp than circumstance.

It's bad enough when the Pope thinks he is God. What happens when God thinks he has been demoted to a mere Pope?

Of the many imponderables in contemporary Indian politics, there is one thing that stands out as certain. We now know the identity of the person in Chennai who hates P. Chidambaram the most. His name is R. Kumaramurugan. On September 16, the home minister's 66th birthday, he plastered Chennai with huge posters adulating Chidambaram as the modern Lord Krishna. Kumaramurugan, who is a "senior member of Tamil Nadu Congress", does not believe in metaphors. He is a literal man. His portrait of the Lord had all the requisite accoutrements of a calendar Krishna, including a pointy crown, bracelet, armband, garland and lipstick, but just in case there was any misunderstanding, the Lord's face had been refitted with that of Chidambaram. This was the first Lord Krishna in history to wear spectacles.

Kumaramurugan is not a man who believes in making mere claims. He offered three reasons why Chidambaram had become divine at the age of 66. I quote: "You disbursed educational loans...You are the one who can save the country from terrorist attacks...You are our God." Fair enough. Anyone who can provide school loans and save us from terrorism (except of course if you happened to be at the Delhi High Court in the same week) is clearly miles ahead on the road to divinity. Kumaramurugan also put other Congress divines into perspective. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were there, but looked like mere postage stamps on this huge celebratory envelope. In Delhi, the Gandhis get pole position in any poster or advertisement display. But we now know who is who in Chennai.

Obviously Kumaramurugan despises Chidambaram and wants to destroy him. He could not have created this poster out of love and admiration, could he?

Chidambaram cannot be blamed for the sins of his sycophants. The bizarre nature of Tamil Nadu politics, in any case, encourages hyperventilation from fans. Kumaramurugan may not actually next finance a temple to his Krishna, but embarrassment is not his problem. He flaunts ownership of the poster, and expects due reward in the form of a party position, or at the very least, public proximity to his personal god. What the Kumaramurugans do not understand is the difference between the culture of loyalty in a democracy and its alternative, dictatorship.

Adulation in a dictatorship tempts rulers away from reality, and ends up making tyrants out of leaders. A Gaddafi or an Assad genuinely begins to believe that he is indispensable to the nation, and criticism becomes either a foreign conspiracy or treachery. The police and the armed forces shift their focus from defence of the realm to defence of a megalomaniac. One of the more astonishing images to emerge from the people's uprising across so much of the Arab world was the sight of Syrian army units exulting with high fives in front of cameras, behaving as if they had just wrested the Golan Heights from Israel. All they had done was killed hundreds of unarmed Syrians in Homs. Assad has probably distributed hundreds of medals to honour this atrocity.

In a democracy, pomposity has only one destination: towards the sketch pad of a cartoonist. A caricature does not exaggerate, or it would not work; it captures the man the leader thinks he is, and then pricks the bubble with a sharp and painful nib. Kumaramurugan's Lord Chikrishna poster achieves the near impossible: it makes caricature unnecessary. Life has left art far behind.

A good politician knows how to make a cartoonist irrelevant. He understands that a sense of humour, like charity, begins at home. He laughs gently at himself long before others begin to laugh at him. Mikhail Gorbachev was a democrat trapped in a dictatorship. He would have done well in India, though.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

In the memory of millions

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (September 18)

The appeared for just that split second that television reserves for images it cannot fully comprehend. She was in the pavilion stand at Cardiff, watching as Rahul Dravid bounded towards the dressing room after his last one-day innings, with a spring in his jump that belied the fact that he was in the winter of his career. She held a placard saying, "I love you Rahul".

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bandwagon Politics

From Byword- India Today (September 16)

The relationship between an egg and a pudding is the definitive test within the art of cooking. A chef knows when to leave well enough alone. Overegging the pudding is not just a culinary mishap. It can ruin a great deal that has been achieved. Anna Hazare captured the popular imagination because of two ingredients in his menu. He addressed a pervasive crime. Corruption has seen many avatars in six decades of Indian democracy. It has now burst through the once elitist dam of cozy glad-handing between businessman and political don, and poisoned the people's river as much as the village well. It is no longer either exclusive or evasive. That is why the response cut across class, caste and religious lines.

It also bridged the partisan divide because Anna refrained from treating any party as holier than thou. Opposition colours fluttered more freely at the venue of his fast only because a ruling party does not protest against itself. A government bears the brunt of any crusade because power lends itself to corruption. It is difficult, but not impossible, to be corrupt when out of power. The tricolour that the young wore as a symbol of protest was therefore the khadi of the national flag, not the standard of the Congress. Conversely, you would not have seen too much saffron in the air if Hazare had been fasting at Cubbon Park in Bangalore.

This is the contradiction that threatens to skewer L.K. Advani's proposed chariot ride against corruption. It will be a journey without a specific destination. As an individual Advani can take legitimate comfort in the fact that he resigned from Parliament when the Narasimha Rao government accused him of taking bribes from a businessman at election time, and returned to the Lok Sabha only after he was exonerated by the courts. But he is not setting out in 2011 to vindicate his personal reputation. He is also leader of the BJP. He would not be so naive as to suggest that BJP has never touched any tainted money. And if he did no one would believe him.

As a political vehicle, BJP has gained much mileage out of the Anna campaign. But this is collateral benefit. The moment it tries to take ownership of honesty it is inviting trouble. The parties which coalesced into Janata benefited similarly in 1977 from Jayaprakash Narayan's movement in 1974 and 1975 but they were prevented from making their share of aggravating mistakes by Mrs Indira Gandhi, who threw their leaders into jail and surrounded them with the glow of temporary martyrdom. No one is going to grant opposition parties a similar favour in 2011.

There is the parallel danger of a yatra epidemic in Uttar Pradesh, where politics is on the verge of becoming a tour guide. As is obvious, these are road shows to raise electoral capital. Their nature is brittle. If the electorate is turned on by the sincerity of Hazare it can also be put off by the tokenism of any bandwagon.

Narendra Modi has found a unique reason for weakening his health by abstaining from food for three days. This will strengthen Gujarat, he says. The last time anyone checked, including with the Union government in Delhi, Gujarat has been pretty muscular during the decade when Modi ate three meals a day without a break for fast. If he wants to diet a bit now its purpose is personal, not regional. Word of caution: it is much more sensible to travel step by step from Ahmedabad to Delhi. When you rise on a pole vault you never know where you might land.

Is it possible that BJP leaders, convinced that the game with Congress is essentially over, have already begun to compete between themselves? That would be dreadfully premature. This opera aint over till the fat lady sings, and the lady has a title: Election Commissioner. There is always time in politics to make mistakes. Moreover, time is not neutral. It is generally biased in favour of the establishment.

The acquisition of power is also a process. The BJP should use time to consolidate alliances with past, present and potential partners. It cannot form a government alone. It needs to construct a maximal Bihar-style network of relationships driven by a minimum programme of good governance, which are sustainable only because they abjure emotionalism. The space for manouvre in democracy is never large enough to encourage undue optimism.
Moral science lesson number one: if you don't take the egg off the pudding, you will get egg on your face.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not very intelligent, Mr Chidambaram

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (September 11)

Calm down, everyone. Relax. Our invaluable Home Minister P. Chidambaram has finally found the answer to terrorism. Indeed, he did so on 13 July, after the Mumbai blasts.

Friday, September 09, 2011

For a Few Cusecs More

From Byword- India Today (September 9)

Dr Manmohan Singh, vegetarian by preference, went to Dhaka to eat some hilsa fish. He returned, alas, with a bit of ash in his mouth. But this failure to sign an accord over Teesta water is a story that makes no sense.

Failure, of course, is an orphan. No one wants paternity rights to a bastard. The blame game over the Teesta fiasco is already being played at a fast and furious pace with each player tweaking the rules from his or her vantage point. When Mamata Banerjee points, she does not do so with a mere finger; she flashes a full hand. Her aides do not whisper when they brief media; they shout when the news is good, and scream when it is bad. The truth is, or should be, an official secret but its versions are being fed to a starving media. The message from Calcutta is unambiguous; it was betrayed by Delhi. Mamata had agreed to part with 25,000 cusecs of Teesta water, but Delhi upped this to 33,000 cusecs. When Trinamool minister Dinesh Trivedi raised an objection in the Cabinet, he was brushed aside by Pranab Mukherjee.

This makes even less sense.

Anyone familiar with international treaties knows that the torture lies in the detail. The print is always fine. Diplomats hire smiles from plastic surgeons, and then fight like pit bulls in very slow motion over every comma. A pattern is etched onto grey areas, dot by dot. There is give and take till deadline. The Teesta waters have been floating across the Indo-Bangladesh dialogue ever since Teesta, or at least ever since Bangladesh was born in 1971. It took a quarter century of negotiations to sign the Ganga River Treaty in 1996; but the generation of Jyoti Basu and Inder Gujral went to Dhaka with clean ink because there was continuous consultation between Delhi and Calcutta. What was so difficult about maintaining similar transparency between Dr Singh and Ms Banerjee?

This treaty was not drafted by the foreign ministry; the Prime Minister's Office took ownership of the process, with National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon in charge of detail. He went to Calcutta twice in the last two months solely to brief Mamata on the sharing of Teesta water. And there lay the problem. It was not a conversation between equals. Menon was adequate when there was agreement; but when Dhaka wanted more, Calcutta was, inexplicably, kept out of the loop. Perhaps Menon thought that the pressure of a deadline in high-stakes diplomacy would persuade Mamata to be more flexible, always a risky manoeuvre. But negotiating with a mercurial CM were above Menon's pay grade. A bureaucrat can brief. Only an equal can persuade.
There seems, however, more to this episode than meets the eye, or ear. The fuss began before the catastrophe, when Mamata said she would travel independently to Dhaka. You float such political confetti only when you are itching to put some distance between Calcutta and Delhi.

It is always difficult to know if Dr Singh is crestfallen. His crest never moves, so how do you know if it has fallen? His voice gives even less away, when he chooses to speak. But you do not have to be a mind-reader to gauge a gathering depression. Unanswered questions, some born in the morning, others which are ghosts of crises past, are strewn around, a noxious debris sucking life out of this administration, event by event. The bomb that went off in Delhi on September 7 was not the first terrorist attack in the era of Dr Singh; but this was the first time that Rahul Gandhi was heckled after a visit to see victims in hospital. Delhi's question is basic: A terrorist bomb failed to go off in the High Court in May; why did Home Minister P. Chidambaram do absolutely nothing done to improve security? Alibis are melting in the heat of popular anger.

The mathematics has gone awry: things don't add up. Ever since UPA survived the Lok Sabha vote on the nuclear deal three years ago, the Government has insisted, despite dramatic TV footage, that no MP was paid to switch sides. If that is true then why is Amar Singh in jail? The Delhi police, which reports to home minister P. Chidambaram, believes Amar Singh paid money to MPs. On whose behalf did he do so? Amar Singh is not a philanthropist. If Amar Singh is guilty, he cannot be guilty alone. Is he yet another scapegoat in a lengthening queue?

Silence can stem a stain, but not erase it.