Sunday, January 30, 2011

Gamble or be damned

Gamble or be damned
By M J Akbar

In India Today - Byword

Srinagar's Lal Chowk was a destination for the BJP's Republic Day agenda, but not an objective. The BJP was sending a message to India rather than Kashmir, which it did effectively enough thanks to the caravan of cameras that is in statutory attendance around any drama. Once the curious harmony of military drumbeat and popular-culture rhythm in the January 26 parade is over by noon, it becomes a slow news day. The BJP's tricolour wheeze got screen-to-screen coverage. Point made.

Parties in power often need the crutch of ambiguity; being forthright might be quite the wrong thing to do when you are trying to squeeze a negotiated calm out of ongoing confrontation. A Prime Minister like Dr Manmohan Singh has a natural tendency to rise above the normal play of interests. In fact, both Government and Opposition are acting out what is essentially a charade on Kashmir. Their play is tactical rather than strategic because, despite their differences, neither can see much beyond the present. The BJP is comfortable with a dead-end horizon, because it is fixed on the status quo as a solution, and will fight aggressively to project itself as guardian of this interest.

Dr Singh is uneasy about the inherent instability in irresolution, but is helpless for two reasons. There is no clarity about where to go, how to go and with whom to go forward. He is walking on a long, lonely road, with shifting and even shifty companions. He cannot afford to be certain about Pakistan, which must travel alongside, albeit at some distance, for anything to change for the better. With the best will, Pakistani leaders may be unable to cooperate on a route that has been waylaid by three wars, and is regularly invaded by pirates and terrorists.

Survival is the first duty of any politician, and this means that he cannot wander too far from the policy limits set by public opinion. But Dr Singh, like his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also has to assess and factor in the variables of managing his own party. The Congress is not interested in winning the Nobel Prize for Peace. It would much prefer another term in Delhi to a place in history.

A bad agreement between India and Pakistan is immeasurably worse than no agreement; and so far there has been no pact that has been equally cheered by both sides. The surface may seem placid in the event of a non-event, but dormant passions spit out like lava when agreement is reached through compromise.

Field Marshal Ayub Khan, author of the 1965 war, could not survive the Tashkent Agreement of January 1966 because he had promised his people triumph and ended the game with a draw. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, chief theorist of that war, became a hero when he betrayed his mentor, Ayub. Lal Bahadur Shastri would not have received too warm a welcome back home either in 1966; but he died suddenly just after putting his signature to the Tashkent pact. Bhutto made it known to Mrs Indira Gandhi at Shimla in 1972 that he would not be able to return home if he accepted the Cease-Fire Line in Kashmir as the permanent boundary. She conceded the point, with consequences that engulf and enrage us today.

There seem two unhappy options. Nothing can change in Kashmir except atmospherics. Or there is a "settlement" that either dresses up the generational Pakistani demand for the "liberation" of Kashmiri Muslims from "Hindu rule" with fudge; or changes the existing map in Pakistan's favour: try selling the first in the Pakistani bazaar and the second in an Indian mall.

Those who do not learn from history, we have been advised, are condemned to repeat its follies. India and Pakistan may be suffering from too much history. Generations change quickly in power; at best they last a decade. Each new incumbent, glowing with good intentions, hallucinates about writing the future on a clean page, and then inlaid stains within the paper seep through and blot the message.

Pessimism is boring when you are young, but at least it is not fatal. Optimism can be heartbreaking. Equally, it is arid and pointless to live without hope. So what do we do about this trap that has become coated with poisonous rust? Doing nothing is not an answer.

Maybe what India and Pakistan need in Delhi and Islamabad are not two dynamic politicians but two compulsive and courageous gamblers.

The many battles for Deoband

Byline by M J Akbar: The many battles for Deoband

One of the great follies of the contemporary world is the conversion of the priest, of any faith, into a cartoon character. And so the imam is caricatured with an elongated beard and twisted eye; the pandit has an exaggerated tuft, obese stomach and gloats; the Christian father wears a sanctimonious air barely disguising a leer. This nonsense is largely due to the decline of religion in the ebbing moral universe of modern man, and partly due to the existence of a radical extreme at the edge of every clerical class, which justifies violence in the name of a higher power.
Faith — mosque, temple or church — has been a traditional sanctuary of the people in their constant struggle against innumerable forms of autocracy and dictatorship that have been the tragedy of human history. The institutions of God provide a comfort zone to the individual persecuted by institutions of man, particularly during moments of distress. Faith is often a symbol of resistance, as autocratic Arab regimes are discovering today when the streets are finally alive with the thunder of long-overdue protest against smug dictatorships that confused their harsh intelligence services with intelligence.

Competent governments, whether of dictators or democrats, have understood the power of the clergy and chosen a dual response: repression of the radical extreme and a continuous attempt to co-opt the clergy into the establishment through a less than discreet combination of flattery and bribery. The real test for the clergy comes not during periods of relative calm, but during phases of social and political oppression.

If we want to understand the influence of the ulema in the life of the Indian Muslim, particularly in north India, then we must remember the sterling part they played in the age of decline, the 19th century, when every other of pillar of sustenance crumbled, either eaten by the worms of decay and decadence, or defeated by the rising force of British arms. It was the clergy that held the community together, even as its radical wing, led by the students, or taliban, of the seminary of Shah Waliullah launched a jihad for the restoration of political power. That war failed, but those who did not go to war provided a greater service through leadership at the micro level to a community that was under such economic and social pressure that it feared the loss not only of sustenance but also its most cherished elements of language and culture. Out of such traumatic conditions was an institution like the Dar-ul-Uloom at Deoband born nearly a century and a half ago.

Its founders refused to accept a single rupee as donation from the British; its small band of teachers and students ate what the local community offered. Mahatma Gandhi recognised not just the theological importance of this seminary but also the empirical influence of its grassroots connections. Deoband was the antithesis of the elitist, Nawab and landlord-dominated Muslim politics of the early 20th century.

Deoband is often demonised by a Western-influenced discourse. Yes, there is a fringe that has converted Deoband into a fatwa factory for regressive pronouncements; and some of its influences have been distorted to justify violence. But every great centre of education produces a few children who dishonour their intellectual parent. Deoband is a tremendous resource for those Muslims who do not have the advantage of birth or lineage. It is the hope and dream not only of those who want to serve Allah through the mosque, but also young men who see in its educational repository a chance for a better life. The place it commands in the affections of Muslims makes Deoband a power centre; and where there is power, there will be politics. What we are seeing at the moment is a political battle between factions, and the vested interests that feed off them, for the control of Deoband.

There are many reasons for the unrest generated by the appointment of Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi as mohtamim, or virtual vice chancellor. Vastanvi is a remarkable Maulana who started a school with just six students in a hut in a tribal region on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border in 1979, and built it into an institution with 200,000 students across the country. This is why he is the first person from outside the immediate UP region to be given this honour and responsibility. His presence promised the reform that students thirst for; but it also threatened to upset the cartel that has used Deoband to squeeze out personal benefits from Delhi and abroad. These deep-seated interests would have challenged Vastanvi on any pretext; they found an emotive one with the help of narcissistic, power-hungry journalists in their club.

Deoband is, as has happened before, at a crossroads. If Deoband has become the property of a clerical group that wants to exploit this great name for its own greed, then Vastanvi will be driven out. If Deoband remains honest to the ideals of its founding fathers, then it will lead the way to educational reform and open thought that can turn an underprivileged Indian Muslim child into a privileged adult.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Needed: A hawk who can sing

Byline by M J Akbar: Needed: A hawk who can sing

Salman Bashir, Pakistan's foreign secretary, became fleetingly famous in Delhi when, after the last round of talks with his counterpart Nirupama Rao, he curled a lip and dismissed India's carefully prepared case against the Lashkar e Tayyaba, mentor of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, as "mere literature". Press reports indicate that he will be the next Pak high commissioner in India. Is that good news or bad?

Normally, hawks are not the best occupants of an embassy designed to either sow or cultivate that elusive and sometimes hallucinatory crop called peace. But since abnormality is the normal state of relations between India and Pakistan it makes sense to take a less obvious look at this appointment.

There are some indications that there could soon be a mild thaw on the Indo-Pak iceberg as both nations realise the futility of behaving like schoolchildren who have lost their marbles. At the moment of writing former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri is on an aggressive rapprochement mission in Delhi, in the fertile company of his friend and peace-activist Mani Shankar Aiyar. Kasuri has been repeating his claim that if the lawyers movement had not derailed Pervez Musharraf in March 2007, he would have invited Dr Manmohan Singh over to Islamabad for a long chat and a grand finale marked by a settlement on Kashmir, with an option for a review of the treaty after 15 years.

Foreign ministers tend to be far more optimistic after they leave office, but we should not discount such a confident assertion. A little buzz has risen that the next round of talks at Thimpu might produce the opening for larger initiatives. India's home secretary G.K. Pillai told an audience in Delhi last week that paramilitary forces should be reduced by 25% in the Kashmir valley. It is true that within 24 hours he was hopping on his other leg, claiming that Pakistan had not done anything to bring the perpetrators of terrorism to justice, and was in fact indulging Hafiz Saeed and his like. But this sort of dance is familiar in the subcontinent's rhetoric: one leg moves deliberately to a different beat from the other.

One reason for Khurshid Kasuri's confidence is the fact that he was foreign minister of an Army regime. It is axiomatic that the Army will be guardian of hawks, so if the Musharraf-Kasuri Kashmir plan had the approval of general headquarters, then there is a chance that, at least in theory, it might walk. Alas, time is the enemy of theory. Pakistan has changed since the high noon of Kasuri's political career. Its extremists have shifted the discourse, most notably and recently through the assassination of Salman Taseer. It is unnecessary to name names, but Pakistan's liberals are in obvious retreat, because the state's security structure can no longer be guaranteed to protect. This is not all. There is widespread popular support for crucial, if not all, aspects of the kind of Islamism propagated by the Jamaat e Islami. Some sane commentators are articulating the thought that the fringe has morphed into the majority. There may be some exaggeration in this assessment, but the base of the fringe has visibly broadened. This is evident not only in the hero-worship of a murderer, but on television talk shows where the middle class sits in the audience.

Will the merchants of peace be able to persuade this decisively influential segment of Pakistan's political class that the "Jihad" in Kashmir should be abandoned before that "final victory" when their fantasy of a Pakistani flag over Srinagar comes true? India-Pakistan relations cannot be structured through a blindfold, and even a marginal glimpse will reveal the interventionist power of this lobby. Governments cannot negotiate peace if their political class is not ready for it.

Any Indian or Pakistani envoy posted in Delhi or Islamabad must have the qualities of Janus, the Greek god whose two faces could look in different directions. He must have the capacity to calm tensions with his host, and the credibility to convince his own nation that he is not selling his people short. There is always the possibility of a slip betwixt cup and lip in such appointments, but if Salman Bashir does reach Delhi, he would be perfectly suited to do the more important of his two responsibilities: reassure his audience back home that Pakistan's interests are in capable hands. If there is going to be talk of peace, then Bashir needs a stronger shield protecting his back than the one protecting his front. This is an era in the India-Pak dialogue when we need that unusual bird, a hawk who can sing.

We know that Basheer can be a hawk when he wants to fly up. We will find out in Delhi whether he can sing as well.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fig Leaf

Fig leaf
By M J Akbar

Third Eye (Byword) - India Today
January 21, 2011

Government is instinctively equated with power; and we expect the powerful to fall with a thud like an oak tree that makes the earth quiver. The ambience of authority makes us oblivious to another possibility. A government can also fall like a leaf. The time between twig and turf can stretch beyond the laws of gravity as the leaf is tossed by gusts of wind, or even driven up by continual storms. The turmoil of movement creates the illusion of life, but the truth is that the leaf is dead the moment it drops from the tree. Descent may take time, and burial even longer, but the fact of death cannot be changed.

The life of a government is measured by the gauge of credibility. It would be altogether too dramatic to write an obituary of the Manmohan Singh Government so soon. It may not be dead, but it was getting discredited. A double squeeze, of inflation and corruption, is sucking the breath out of this coalition. These two angry constituencies are not necessarily the same, although there is of course overlap. But the poor who are comparatively indifferent to corruption, dismissing it as an exchange of wealth within a broadband to which they have no access, are in despair over the escalating price of their basic needs. And the better off, who are comparatively indifferent to inflation, describing it as the inevitable price that an economy must pay for growth, are livid at the blatant loot that seems to have become a way of authorised life in Delhi.

A government might be able to handle one monster, but a combination of two leaves little room to manoeuvre. The urban middle class, Dr Singh's strongest support base, cannot quite get the logic of a reality in which the price of food rises by 30 per cent and the number of troops in the Kashmir warzone is reduced by 25 per cent. The middle class would much prefer the reverse.

The voter cannot understand what is happening because no one in the ruling class bothers to explain any statement or decision. If a big wheel like Home Secretary G.K. Pillai had some private information about a matching and verifiable downscaling of Pak forces on the other side of the Line of Control before he announced a unilateral reduction as part of a larger peace deal, he did not let us know. Instead, within 24 hours Pillai was standing on his other leg, accusing Pakistan of soft-pedalling on anti-Indian terrorism.

The two don't add up, unless I have lost my ability to count. Anything can happen when you live in Delhi.

Our human tendency towards drama has stretched the meaning of anarchy into the realm of confusion, violence and mayhem. But the pristine meaning of the word is more relevant: "lack of organisation and control, especially in society because of an absence or failure of government". The prime minister obviously cannot admit this in public, but he was responding to a growing perception of "absence or failure" when he decided that a reshuffle was necessary. This is too early for a normal shuffle; a mid-term correction should take place in the middle of the five-year term, not after just 18 months. A climate of crisis, and the hope that Dr Singh would reassert control of the ship of state, created expectations that would have been always difficult to honour. In the event, it was a bland sideways shuffle, rather than slash and burn of the ineffective and corrupt. But hidden in the seeming nonevent was a sharp message written with a scalpel. This shuffle has separated cronies from capitalists. That is the meaning of Murli Deora's shift from petroleum to corporate affairs. This first step needs to be supplemented by a great leap forward.

Every deal in a coalition involves give and take. Has the prime minister given more than he has taken? No one has been dropped; upliftment was cosmetic. Praful Patel, for instance, may have risen in status but dipped in influence. The most optimistic pro-prime minister gloss on the exercise is that this is a lastchance saloon before the real cull begins. Well, some of the big boys in this UPA have shot their way to survival before, and they will not go down without putting some lead into their opponents.

The leaf is still trembling on the tree; and it is in Dr Manmohan Singh's ability to ensure that it gets new life or breaks off. But he does not have much time.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A sudden policy shift

Byline by M J Akbar: A sudden policy shift

The British Raj was the high noon of bureaucracy. The British sepoy armies might have won the day from Plassey to Seringapatnam and Alwaye, but it was the pre-1857 “writer” and post-1857 Indian Civil Service Sahib who converted a day into two centuries. No army can preserve victory; that is the responsibility of the civilian servant of the state.

Every empire becomes a fiefdom of the bureaucracy. The “qatibs”, or scribes [equivalent to the writers who are remembered in Calcutta’s seat of government, Writers’ Building], were so powerful that they successfully resisted the new technology called printing for fear that it would replace their work. The price was eventually paid by Ottoman society, for it could not benefit from the information revolution wrought by the printing press. Nearby Europe used printing to disseminate knowledge down the class stratifications, generating the industrial revolution that made Europe master of the world by the 19th century.

A bureaucracy prefers a single source of authority, and unfettered freedom to create and implement policy in the name of that authority. Bureaucrats constituted the Viceroy’s Council when the British Raj had unchallenged power. There are rules of course, and a good officer is scrupulous in adherence because confusion is anathema to his profession. This is where democracy becomes a bit of a problem.

Democracy devised a check: policy was the prerogative of the elected. The bureaucrat had responsibility without the power to offer or devise a solution. He could take his revenge through deviation, delay or prevarication but he could not supersede the minister. Nor could the minister behave like an autocrat. There is always accountability, internal and external. Policy in theory travels from minister to Cabinet; and Cabinet is a discordant chorus rather than an inspiring solo.

What do we make of, then, a bureaucrat being nominated to announce a major policy shift in one of the most sensitive problems facing the Indian state, Kashmir? On Friday it was Home Secretary G.K. Pillai who told a seminar, to which media had been invited, that government plans to cut paramilitary forces in the valley by 25% in one year, and offer unilaterally multiple-entry, six-month travel permits (not Indian passports, but specially designed permits that might leave the nationality question vague) to Kashmiris to cross the Line of Control into Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. This in effect allows anyone in Kashmir to go to Pakistan since there will be no restrictions by Pakistan on further movement. The Army chief, General V.K. Singh, who is the principal effective guarantor of security in Kashmir, was not informed that such a proposition was on the verge of implementation.

Normally, such an important swivel should have been announced by Home Minister P.C. Chidambaram, or even Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. There is only reason why they did not. They were using Pillai to test the waters of public and political opinion before the ship of state could be turned towards a different direction.

There is only question to ask, and it surely must be wandering through General Singh’s thoughts: have the twin threats of terrorism, much of it Pakistan-funded and inspired, and intrusions by elements of the Pak army reduced by 25%? Other questions emerge from this. What evidence do we have of any change in Pakistan’s covert policies towards India? Relations, bolstered by back-channel talks, between India and Pakistan were improving until the terrorist attack on Mumbai. Delhi demanded that the sponsors of this terrible carnage, sitting pretty in Lahore, be held to account. Pakistan snubbed the thought. It has done nothing. Should we conclude, therefore, that the UPA government has decided to forget Mumbai and resume the pre-Mumbai equation with Pakistan? The UPA may be entirely rational in conceding defeat in the stand-off against Islamabad, but confession and clarity before the Indian people would help.

Or is this the start of an effort to change the primary subject of national discourse from corruption and food-price inflation? Rising prices, particularly when coupled with unemployment, are the most serious danger that any government can face. Even Arab dictators and monarchs are discovering that the people might learn to live with autocracy but they will not tolerate a government that cannot guarantee price security of essential food. In our country, anger against corruption has been supplemented by rage against the tyranny of onion prices.

The bureaucratic British Raj began by provoking a terrible famine in Bengal, between 1765 and 1770, that is estimated to have taken the lives of one-third of the population. The British left in 1947 after another catastrophic Bengal famine which destroyed the fictions of good governance that colonisation had created. Democracy does not have much tolerance for fiction. If the new policy towards Pakistan is being floated on the fiction of possible peace, or even as a diversionary tactic, it will extract a terrible price on UPA if another Mumbai or Kargil happens.

Bureaucrats do not lose their jobs. Politicians do.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Praetorian Guard has risen

The Praetorian Guard has risen
By M J Akbar

Third Eye - India Today
January 15, 2011

The fall of the Roman Empire can be attributed to the rise of the Praetorian Guard. The glory of Rome was rooted in democracy, a Greek idea which Rome converted into a variable political virtue which lasted precisely because it was variable in an age when arbitrary dictatorship demanded either obedience or subservience. Rome evolved from the control of the Senate to the grip of the palace, but its Caesars began to crumble once the mercury of human nature became more corrosive than the fragility of institutions.

The instruments of state might respect an Emperor who delivered stability and lucrative power, but once the ruler became counter-productive or unstable, a liability rather than an asset, respect turned to contempt. The army was in charge of the state's security, which was convenient for the Emperor, since that kept it out of Rome. The security of the Emperor was guaranteed by a local, professional force known as the Praetorian Guard. It was a matter of time, and not too much time either, before the Guard became the power behind and in front of the throne. The Ottomans had a similar force in the Janissaries, who were the guardians of the Turkish rulers: wisely, they were men picked from conquered lands rather than locals, so they could be loyal to just their ruler rather than clan, tribe or faith.

Empires are dead, or at least increasingly untenable; but even a modern polity needs a Praetorian Guard. In India we call it the Special Protection Group, created for a select band of ruling class VIPs rather than just a dynasty. Pakistan has its own and more appropriately named Elite Force. The job requires grit and courage, because implicit in its discipline is the compulsion to act as a human shield between the assassin and the leader. What happens when the shield becomes the killer?

What persuades a man to turn his gun upon his benefactor? In the case of Rome it was political power. There is a more troublesome reason now: ideology.

There have been two instances of ideological assassination in India, the death of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi died because he chose to challenge secession in another country; Indira Gandhi because she was determined to save her own nation's integrity. A desire for a theocratic Sikh state was compounded by anger against Mrs Gandhi's decision to clear the Golden Temple with the help of the Army. But India had diversity, space and a non-negotiable commitment to democracy that helped contain the Sikh insurrection.

The crisis in Pakistan is far more dangerous. Its nationalism is defined by religion rather than ethnicity. Its sovereignty lies in the will of Allah. Liberal Pakistanis often argue that the people do not vote for Islamist parties, but that is self-delusion; the majority believe that the country needs a theocratic law to protect its identity.

Perhaps those Pakistanis who do not want to see their nation slip into a descending spiral of extremist madness need to eliminate the more disturbing truth from the discourse. The danger to Pakistan lies not merely in the fact that a 21-year-old called Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri killed Salman Taseer with the calm demeanour of an executioner doing his duty to a higher law, but the fact that all his colleagues were complicit in the crime. It was collusive and collective. He had informed his fellow bodyguards of his intentions, and their response was admiration. He was neither stopped before the deed, nor brutalised after it. He went to prison like a bridegroom rather than a criminal.

Significant sections of influential Pakistanis threw rose petals in accolade. It is perhaps understandable, if not justifiable, that an imam could not be found to lead a funeral prayer, since the clergy believe Taseer was an apostate. But the political class, exceptions apart, did not have the guts to appear at his funeral. It is almost certain that Qadri will be treated as a hero in prison rather than a criminal, and that the judicial system will try and be as lenient to him as it can.

This is the crossroads moment for Pakistan. Evidence suggests that the traffic is increasing on the road towards a theocratic revolution that will eventually consume its children in sectarian civil wars. Courageous Pakistanis like the former PPP minister Sherry Rehman know that they have already run out of time, but they are being isolated by those who think compromise can buy them a few more years in power.

We are seeing, unless we are lucky, the future of Pakistan on the face of Malik Qadri. The Praetorian Guard has risen.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Before the court of public opinion

Byline by M J Akbar: Before the court of public opinion

At some point, when the wound begins to hurt, the narrative in a scam story arcs towards the bizarre. You can be almost sure that the change in trajectory has been propelled by some lawyer trying to be a judge.

A lawyer’s training is conditioned by loyalty to the client; a judge must rise above his background and become a servant of the law instead of the cheque book. On Friday, Kapil Sibal gave a grand press conference to declare that his predecessor A. Raja was totally and indisputably innocent in the telecom scam that has disabled Parliament and rocked the country. On the same day, in the same city, Delhi, yet another judge said in open court that there was sufficient evidence to maintain a complaint against Raja. Special CBI judge Pradeep Chaddha, while admitting Subramanian Swamy’s petition seeking Raja’s prosecution, said, “I have gone through the complaint and the bunch of annexures ... and I am of the view that this complaint is maintainable and the proceedings will continue.” Courts, high, supreme and special, have seen the record and found a basis for prosecution. Sibal, being a modern Gandhian, can see no evil, hear no evil and will speak no evil unless it is about the Opposition, in which case he can be vituperative.

The only concession Sibal made over this prearranged handout of licences on a first-come-first-served basis, was that there might have been a “procedural lapse”. That is an elegantly discreet description of bribery which should find a place in a quotation book.

If Kapil Sibal believes what he says, he should send in his resignation immediately so that Raja can be reinstated. Why was Raja dropped from the Cabinet, at such political cost, personal anguish and Karunanidhi family heartbreak if he was innocent? At the very least Prime Minister Manmohan Singh owes Raja a grovelling apology. Raja should in fact sue Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi for libel, since their decision to wrench him out of the office he coveted amounted to, by Sibal’s interpretation, defamation and humiliation on a national scale. Obviously, Sibal was either on holiday or so immersed in his public service duties that he was totally oblivious of media when the Radia tapes took complete control of airwaves and print. Or, perhaps, again like a good lawyer, he had no interest in any fact that would be relevant to the prosecution.

Since Sibal will still need a job after resignation, he can easily step into a vacant home ministry. P. Chidambaram will surely now have to resign. Chidambaram, after all, sent a letter to the Prime Minister accusing Raja of malpractice, not mere “procedural lapses”. A letter emerges from a conscious decision to place a view on record, so Chidambaram must have felt very strongly about what was happening. Nor is Chidambaram ignorant of the law; by any account he is as good a lawyer as Sibal, if not better. So the only conclusion is that Chidambaram was consciously misleading the Prime Minister, on a matter of such public significance, possibly for partisan reasons, and therefore must be held accountable. Indeed, there is a strong rumour doing the rounds in Delhi that Chidambaram could lose his portfolio in the next reshuffle; so maybe these little dots scattered across the capital’s landscape do connect after all.

Something clearly also needs to be done about this pesky Comptroller and Auditor General, Vinod Rai who refuses to keep quiet even when someone as self-important as Sibal delivers an obiter dicta. Rai insists, even after the Sibal intervention, that the treasury suffered a massive loss, and that a proportionate benefit went to private sector telecom players. And then there is the insufferable judiciary, which remains coolly indifferent to the pressure tactics of such majestically powerful ministers. Surely there must be a way in which judges like Chaddha can be transferred to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Sibal has eliminated the distance between the Congress and the DMK’s spectrum sale at highly discounted prices. For some reason, an impression had been growing that Mrs Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister wanted to increase this space. Clearly, that impression was inaccurate. It is inconceivable that Sibal would have gone public without clearance from both the PM and the party president. The DMK-Congress alliance can now march shoulder to shoulder towards electoral triumph in the next Tamil Nadu Assembly elections using the spectrum scandal as a mark of pride rather than a sack of defacing coal. There is no question, either, of government seeking any compromise with the Opposition during the Budget Session. If Raja did no wrong, why should there be an enquiry?

When a good lawyer gets a bad case his instinct tells him to shift the narrative. Political lawyers believe that they can manipulate the court of public opinion, but the people see all the evidence, not just some of it, before they reach a decision. The public is an excellent judge.

Ghosts do not die

Ghosts do not die
By M J Akbar

Third Eye - In India Today
7th January 2011

Ghosts do not die. That is the power of a phantom. You can bury the Bofors body to the chanting of the CBI's fraudulent funeral rites, but its restless spirit keeps rattling through the haunted house of the Congress Party's premier family. The latest rattle, in which the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) confirmed that illegal kickbacks amounting to Rs 41 crore were indeed paid to Italian middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi, and at least some of the money transferred to a Panama bank account, has numbed the Congress.

Dr Manmohan Singh, after wafting for six years as Mr Benefit of the Doubt, has slipped into a trap he unwittingly set for himself when he sought to rise above the more recent stink surrounding his Government. On December 31, his office publicised a new year resolution to "cleanse" the Government. The challenge came immediately, when the Bofors story broke. One thing is now very clear: the broom begins with Bofors. The prime minister can hardly roll his sleeves to scrub out the DMK corner but ignore the carcass under the Congress carpet.

Ghosts do not die

Ghosts do not die. That is the power of a phantom. You can bury the Bofors body to the chanting of the CBI's fraudulent funeral rites, but its restless spirit keeps rattling through the haunted house of the Congress Party's premier family. The latest rattle, in which the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) confirmed that illegal kickbacks amounting to Rs 41 crore were indeed paid to Italian middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi, and at least some of the money transferred to a Panama bank account, has numbed the Congress.

Dr Manmohan Singh, after wafting for six years as Mr Benefit of the Doubt, has slipped into a trap he unwittingly set for himself when he sought to rise above the more recent stink surrounding his Government. On December 31, his office publicised a new year resolution to "cleanse" the Government. The challenge came immediately, when the Bofors story broke. One thing is now very clear: the broom begins with Bofors. The prime minister can hardly roll his sleeves to scrub out the DMK corner but ignore the carcass under the Congress carpet.

The problem before Dr Singh is that he declared Quattrocchi innocent and has presided over the gradual dilution and elimination of the case against Quattrocchi.
Contortions can so easily lead to self-inflicted pains. The CBI has twisted itself into so many knots that it has no option except to take an utterly brazen approach as it continues to protect the Bofors guilty. On January 4, its lawyer P.P. Malhotra told a Delhi court that there was "nothing new" in the ITAT order. The CBI did not say that there was "nothing true"; it merely said there was "nothing new". "I am not disputing what the tribunal has said," asserted Malhotra, acting on his brief. If the CBI is not disputing the tribunal then it agrees that a crime was committed by middlemen with links of personal friendship to the powerful Gandhi family. Since when has time become an alibi for innocence?

The problem before cleansing-crusader Singh is that he personally declared Quattrocchi innocent and has presided over the gradual, step-by-step dilution and elimination of the case against Quattrocchi, to the point that in September 2009 his government told the Supreme Court that it had abandoned prosecution. In June 2003, Quattrocchi's bank accounts in London were frozen under pressure from Delhi. In January 2006, the UPA Government intervened to reactivate these accounts, permitting Quattrocchi to withdraw the Rs 21 crore stacked there. In October 2008, attorney general Milon Banerjee advised the CBI to withdraw the Red Corner Notice against Quattrocchi. Each of these decisions required Dr Singh's concurrence.

Is it any wonder that benefit has finally begun to delink from the doubt?

Since bad news always brings a couple of companions, we also learn that P. Chidambaram, then finance minister, wrote to the prime minister within a week of the A. Raja rip-off, pointing out that what the telecom minister was doing was blatantly wrong. The prime minister's response was silence.

Silence became the theme in the first week of 2011, interspersed by torrid cliché. Someone should tell Congress spokespersons that this is not a dead horse being flogged. This horse is alive. It can kick back.

There is a murmur building up in Delhi that the prime minister has discovered the determination to act; and that the Government will introduce legislation in the next session of Parliament to curb corruption. Curious. Is corruption legal under our current laws?

2G is a scandal because Raja twisted the rules to dispense his largesse. Bofors became a sensation because the law of India was broken to fatten middlemen. We do not need more laws. We need political courage. This has a practical meaning. The Government can start soaping the system by forcing Raja to put into the treasury what he made in backhanders from the 2G scam. There might be a few disputes over the quantum of bribes, but nothing that a friendly chat with DMK patriarch Karunanidhi can't settle. Plus, the prime minister can order his investigative agencies to tell us what they probably already know: the names of owners and beneficiaries of the Panama account and other Bofors accounts. That will calm the ghost a bit.

Dr Singh reads Urdu, so there is a fair chance that he is familiar with Urdu poetry. Two well-known lines about the marketplace of life bear repetition: Kaise bazaar ka dastoor tumhe samjhaaoon, Bik gaya jo woh kharidaar nahin ho sakta. (How shall I explain the law of this market? He who has been sold cannot become a buyer.)

Dr Manmohan Singh has the chance to go down in his nation's history as either a colossal waste of a promise, or as the exorcist who rid India of the ghost of Bofors.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Double Face Cream

Double Face Cream
By M J Akbar

Third Eye: India Today, December 31, 2010

Democracy is a structured, intensely competitive business that trades in the affection, apprehension and anger of its base commodity, the voter. Parties have to deliver a profit and loss account at least once every five years, and sometimes at midterms. If success is the ultimate elixir, then the punishment for failure is ego-numbing depression. (Despite being continuously in office in some of the most important states, the BJP has still not quite pulled out of the slump into which it disappeared after the defeat of 2004.)

A party needs a chairman/president, members of the board, chief executives for its various operations, a fertile breeding ground for ideas and plans, continuous management and occasionally reinvention of tested, traditional supply lines, functionaries and liquidity. The terminology may vary just a little (working committee instead of board of directors) but the responsibilities are similar. Without cash, the party machine shudders to a halt. Money, said the song, makes the world go round; and politics is a particularly thirsty world.

Even Mahatma Gandhi needed money for his brand, Congress. His prescription was market-driven. He organised liquidity during his first great insurrection, the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement, from membership fees, famously four annas, or one-fourth of a rupee. Congress members were shareholders in his freedom enterprise. The four-anna member can, however, be notoriously demanding about how his four annas are spent. Gandhi's credibility kept Congress liquidity flowing. In the quarter century between Khilafat and his assassination, there was not a single charge of corruption against Congress, a privilege not shared by other parties. Of course, Congress has more than made up for lost opportunity after Independence, which brings us to the nub of the modern dilemma.

Today's politics cannot be sustained by shareholder subscriptions alone. The demands and costs of marketing have exploded. But while conventional industry can go to a bank for legitimate capital, political corporations have legislated themselves into the grey area of hypocrisy. They first sold the fiction that donations from the rich were impure, as if the impoverished had any surplus left. The great Indian middle class, unsurprisingly, is passionate about democracy, but wants someone else to pay for its pleasures. Black money rushed in where white money feared to tread. It has now become synonymous with the accounting system of democracy, elections.

The opposite of corruption in politics, therefore, is not honesty, but hypocrisy.

Let us take a look at two self-evidently honest contemporary politicians. Both are utterly indifferent to personal wealth. Both sit at the top of their pyramids, even if one of them presides over a largish 3-D triangle rather than Giza on the Nile. The two politicians are clearly Dr Manmohan Singh and Mamata Banerjee. Dr Singh revels in clean hands. That, however, begs a follow-up question that no one asks. If Dr Singh does not do so, then who collects money on behalf of the Congress? Party treasurers are fund-keepers; they are not fund-collectors. The pipeline may not go through Dr Singh's drawing room, but there are other transit junctions; and the power of government lubricates the process even if the prime minister is not a direct beneficiary. He knows that some of his Cabinet ministers, not all of them from DMK, rake it in by the sackful. Is a blindfold the new symbol of probity?

In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has become the cat who has just been introduced to the cream. She has not rushed out to buy dozens of silk sarees and kilogrammes of Kolkata's famous golden jewellery. She treats such excesses of wealth as pockmarks, not beauty spots. At most she might have treated herself to an extra pair of tweezers. But she needs money to defeat the Left Front in the coming Assembly elections. Passion needs the momentum of cash. The surest sign of her return to power is the fact that Kolkata businessmen who have fed off Left Front largesse for three decades, turning public land into private wealth, are now queuing up to serve the Mamata cause. She is not so foolish as to spurn them. The Left Front is dealing with an unfamiliar quandary: when a moneybag tells you he only has a wallet, you know you are in electoral trouble.

The existentialist dilemma before Indian democracy is stark: it cannot co-exist with financial honesty. It does not matter if you are personally incorruptible; you have to be institutionally corrupt in order to engage in the business of democracy. The moral code of elections is uncomplicated: Don't ask. Don't tell. And for God's sake don't get caught.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

No year is an island

Byline by M J Akbar: No year is an island

No year is an island. A sequence of events will always demand its consequence, without respect for something as transitory as a calendar. Neither time nor logic pauses on 31 December and takes a holiday on 1 January. Sleaze was the theme of 2010; it has already oozed into the building drama of 2011. The link is Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s brief statement on the eve of 2011: to “cleanse” governance. New Year resolutions, traditionally, are known to have a short life. If the Prime Minister thinks that this too is a promise designed for amnesia, then his government will have an equally short life. Indians are angry. So far this anger has not turned destructive. Beware the day it does.

The cynic has a right to ask: what was the Prime Minister doing for six years? He talks of cleansing the government, but who has been in charge of this government? Surely Dr Singh was not referring only to Opposition governments and handing out good character certificates to his own coalition? A revealing aspect of “sleaze 2010” is that the bulk of theft has taken place in Delhi, compared to which Mumbai and Bangalore are really small potatoes. Why did Dr Singh permit wholesale loot by UPA ministers? He has been in power from 2004; bandits became billionaires under his watch.

Dr Singh’s statement is a sort of confessional, but the Indian voter is not a Catholic priest, who will forgive colossal sin just because the penitent has bared his heart in confession. The voter wants accountability in political life, and has seen nothing but tokenism. The much-vaunted raids against scam-scarred politicians were little short of another scam, since the culprits have been given more than sufficient time to destroy the evidence and fudge the clues. “Let us,” says the Prime Minister, “dispel the air of despondency and cynicism.” But who and what is the source of the Indian’s despair? It is the Government of India that has made the Indian cynical.

This cynicism inevitably also became the prevailing mood in government. We watched, in 2010, a deeply fractured system turning upon itself. Some people at the highest levels of authority leaked what are now famous as the Niira Radia tapes because they could not stomach, anymore, the smug satisfaction on the faces of highway robbers. The Opposition had very little to do with any of the revelations that have shaken the Singh administration to the edge of instability. It was a wing of government that provided details of the colossal and wide-ranging malfeasance in the Commonwealth Games to the media. How can you read about the various levels of loot, from construction deals to toilet paper, and not become cynical? It was the vocal Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who halted the Lavasa township project despite the fact that Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is closely connected to Lavasa. Sharad Pawar has said publicly that Lavasa is close to his heart. His critics believe that Lavasa is close to his wallet as well. Once again, it was not the BJP or the Shiv Sena that put Lavasa at the centre of public discourse, but a UPA minister.

Dr Singh is sincere in his intentions; but is he capable of delivery? The people have had enough of good intentions. They want accountability and insurance against further loot. The contradictions in the Prime Minister’s stance are evident. When he waves his big stick, he must first strike against his own colleagues. Can he do that and hope to survive? He is, of course, trapped. His personal image has raised expectations which he has not been able to fulfil, at least as far as corruption is concerned. If he does not act, the last chance to save his reputation is gone. If he acts, his government could be in serious peril. There is sudden momentum in the drawing rooms of Delhi, as politicians discuss new options in an uncertain Parliament. The government has, foolishly, gifted a disunited Opposition the opportunity to unite over the demand for a joint parliamentary committee investigation. The JPC is slowly becoming a symbol of government’s evasion. It is not widely known that Dr Singh would have happily agreed to a JPC. He has been prevented by his party. In the process, the Congress has weakened its own Prime Minister and strengthened the Opposition.

The government should consider itself lucky that the people are only cynical. They are increasingly linking exorbitant inflation, which the government has been unable to curb, to corruption as well. What is mere cynicism and anger today could become rage tomorrow. Democracy has inbuilt valves for the release of rage, but it is unwise to test the tensile strength of these valves too often. If government behaves like an immovable object, the people will, sooner rather than later, turn into an irresistible force.