Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two and Only

Two and Only
By M J Akbar
By word : In India Today
March 25, 2011

Bob Hope, that great, late Hollywood philosopher, once described diplomacy as the art of describing Jane Russell without moving your hands. Such wisdom cannot be fully appreciated without a fond knowledge of Jane Russell's vital statistics, and Bob Hope had plenty of that. Jane was an actress who could, to put it mildly, stretch a blouse, and turned picking up unnecessary items from the floor into a tour de force: camera and cleavage had an excellent working relationship. Bob Hope used to introduce Jane Russell as the "two and only".

The art of India-Pakistan diplomacy is in quite the opposite mode: all hands and no Jane Russell.

India and Pakistan do not talk to each other; they talk at each other. Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Basheer will confirm this truth when they meet again in a few days. The great secret of Indo-Pak talks is that there is nothing left to talk about.

Both countries are fully conscious of basic realities: that war is not an option for conflict resolution between nuclear powers. They also know that a frozen stalemate breeds seismic trigger points that can quickly go out of control, and escalation could suddenly take a quantum leap toward bristling missiles. They realise, even if they will not publicly admit it, that the geography of the Kashmir map cannot be changed and all rhetoric is designed for domestic sentiment, not international hard talk. This is more relevant to Pakistan than India, since India is content with the status quo and will accept it as the basis of an agreement. Pakistan cannot, officially, do so, but the much-whispered "Musharraf formula" recognised, in effect, that the only solution is dissolution of claims and institutionalisation of ground reality, perhaps by tweaking a phrase or two in any pact. Six decades of declared and undeclared war have not changed the boundary by six inches; and six more decades will not either. We do not have a signed piece of paper between India and Pakistan yet because the boringly obvious, that peace is the shortest route to muchneeded prosperity, is insufficient as a means of persuasion.

It would be a good idea, therefore, if Rao and Basheer stopped wasting time on bilateral issues. They could use the opportunity for social pleasantries, and there is always a decent government budget for interesting menus; the crisis that damaged, beyond repair, the Agra summit between Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee began over a breakfast that included eggs with a French name I can't pronounce. But since foreign secretaries meet for more than a gourmand's breakfast, here is an unsolicited suggestion.

They might have something useful, tangible and doable for their political masters if they set an agenda for an adjacent objective: how to convert SAARC into an antipoverty mechanism, and a fulcrum of ideas that establish dynamic economic relations through flexible, if not free, trade in goods, services and finance. India and Pakistan have trapped the SAARC nations in the vicious circle they have created through their partisan conflicts. As the old sufi saying goes, when you are caged by a vicious circle, draw a larger circle. SAARC is the larger circle through which the theme of the next decade can become a priority: the economic uplift of the hundreds of more than half a billion people crushed below the poverty line.

A second thought, worth considering over eggs and toast. There is a nuclear crescent arcing through the whole of Asia. Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Japan and Russia are nuclear powers. Japan does not possess nuclear weapons, but bombs are not the only danger, as should be obvious now. Radiation has no boundaries. Surely the moment has come for a summit on nuclear safety, and why should such a proposal not emanate through India-Pakistan collaboration? If these two antagonists make common cause, they will help create conditions for a new environment over far larger space than their own territories.

Existing disputes, however visceral, however old or new, do not have to become obstacles to cooperation where this is possible. India and Pakistan do not have to agree on an old sore like Kashmir, or a fresh spat like Afghanistan in order to eradicate poverty or protect the environment. All this, alas, is day-dreaming. The establishments of Delhi and Islamabad retreat into the comfort zone of the predictable at the first sign of a new idea. An open mind comes laden with risk, but risk can be minimised with thought and preparation.

As Bob Hope might have said while introducing this subcontinent to the world, India and Pakistan are the "two and only".

Cool Domestic Happiness

Byline by M J Akbar: Cool Domestic Happiness

The British existed in India for over two centuries. They should have co-existed. They would not have needed a Prime Minister in 2011, David Cameron, to fiddle around with ideas like Gross Domestic Happiness, his latest barometer to gauge the welfare of society. Indians have long preferred GDS to GDP: Gross Domestic Self-satisfaction. A 19th century Cameron would have caught on to the fact that life is something more than a mere industrial revolution.

GDS cannot be either measured or implemented by governments, whose only obsession is to boss around or pocket paybacks whenever possible. Indians do like a bit of authority, but, alas, only in areas where they don't get any, like municipal services. When it comes to pleasure, they don't hang around waiting for permission.

On Thursday 24 March, when India defeated Australia in the quarter finals of the World Cup, an estimated fifty per cent of the country's cricket fans took a half-holiday. This estimate is mine, based on empirical evidence collected from morning traffic in Delhi. There was no snarl on the roads, just a grudging smile. On Wednesday 30 March, when India plays Pakistan in the semi finals, the roads will be beaming with joy, since 90% of the fans will stay at home. Most of them will begin their half-holiday at 10 am, arguing, quite correctly, that it is anti-national to waste as precious a national resource as petrol at post-Libya prices just to show your face for a few minutes in the office. I can proudly lay claim to the proposition that the half-holiday is an Indian invention, particularly one that begins at 10 am. A full holiday to watch cricket on TV is for wimps. Strong men stick to half-holidays.

Prayers will be offered, and emotions invested in victory, because we Indians take our cricket-nationalism very seriously indeed. But that is not the only spirit that will consume fans, or many fans will consume, on Wednesday. The moment the last ball is bowled, there will be a frenzy of conversation since India is a nation of analysts. Emotional Pakistan will be elated or depressed, but India will analyze whatever the result, whether over tea or something more sensational.

The good news, however, is that India and Pakistan no longer treat cricket as an existential conflict. One of the most moving moments of my life came in Lahore in 2004, when the joy of an Indian victory in a one-dayer soared at the sight of young Pakistani fans waving the Indian flag as a gesture of friendship. May God ensure that on Wednesday Pakistan succumb for less than a hundred runs, and Sachin Tendulkar alone scores that many to win and get his 100th 100 simultaneously, but just in case God is in a different mood, I hope Mohali and Chandigarh will display the sportsman's spirit that turned Lahore into a magic city in 2004. It would be too depressing if the culture of our subcontinent became hostage to political conflict.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has seized the moment by inviting Asif Zardari and his technical counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani to Mohali. "Cricket diplomacy" is a bit of a misnomer since nothing actually moves on the diplomatic front as a consequence. Rajiv Gandhi invited General Zia ul Haq to Jaipur in 1987; and Dr Singh was host to General Pervez Musharraf in 2005. Later, Dr Singh declined a reciprocal gesture. The first did not lead to a breakthrough, and the second did instigate collapse. But governments are only one part of the India-Pakistan equation. Friendship between the people is far more important than friendship between two governments. Cricket builds relations at the broad, popular base, even if the apex of the pyramid is withering.

Cricket-chemistry is such alchemy on the subcontinent precisely because India and Pakistan have equal tubs of talent. Their individual and collective behaviour is visibly different. India is a professionally inter-woven unit; while Pakistan gives the impression of being a collection of temperamental mavericks. But environment, and opportunity, could make Pakistan's seeming weakness into an asset; when such talent is watered by passion, it can blossom. You can never tell on which day who will become the genie in the Pakistan bottle.

India, on the other hand, revolves around four batsmen and one bowler: Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan. Yuvraj is on song, but the defining difference is Sachin, who, after two decades at the crease, has become the coolest, most disciplined genius in the history of the game. We will not be privileged to see his like again. Sachin Tendulkar has nothing left to prove, but he does have something left to say: that when the history of the game is written victory at Mohali on 30 March 2011 will be among his laurels.

That would be the ultimate in Cool Domestic Satisfaction.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Le Carré & His Music of English English

Byline by M J Akbar: Le Carré & His Music of English English

When John le Carré writes, the intelligent reader listens. His prose is a chamber of echoes, its crosscurrents eerie despite being leavened with wit: the laughter is touched by the menace of threat, a demon in on a private joke. Sometimes the joke is a little obvious, but only if you haven't missed it; paradox is routine in le Carré's English English. Peregrine Makepiece, do we have here? Surely an all-round amateur athlete of distinction and until recently tutor at Oxford who does Most Serious climbs for recreation, with a sparky long-standing girlfriend Gail, should be the more traditional Makepeace. The author dangles the joke a bit, noting that Peregrine, a worthy upper class moniker, actually derives from a Methodist rabble-rousing prelate, thus establishing class, a vital component of the le Carré cast system. No explanations are deemed necessary for the surname. You can decide, and then change your mind through the narrative, into how many pieces Peregrine will split before it all ends in the nebulous zone of moral ambiguity and hazy non-closure in which the le Carré population has wandered ever since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

This was actually le Carré's third novel, but the first for most of us who became fans in college and are heading towards our own twilight withthe author still as company. Nothing ends in le Carré. The last sentence is a door ajar for the next book. The final pronouncement in Our Kind of Traitor is a gem of the ouvre: "No group has claimed responsibility". Someone will, but perhaps through a seemingly unlinked echo in the 23rd book.

Le Carré does treachery well. Born in 1931, he was in his teens when Stalin switched from foe to friend during the Second World War, a conflict that would have destroyed, had it gone wrong, all the good that Britain stood for, values and civilisation, while preserving the injustice of brutal colonisation; and then became Evil Incarnate in the Cold War that followed. The romance of shadows edged him into the British Intelligence services, where he picked up a basic lesson: loyalty has little to do with virtue. Treachery could even be a higher firm of virtue, if one were to believe the Cambridge lot of spies, the most persuasive of them being the extraordinary Kim Philby, a mole who rose to head the anti-Soviet division of British intelligence and became the inspiration of both brilliant and awful spy fiction. As Philby pointed out to my friend Phillip Knightley, the star of British investigative reporting in an era when the Sunday Times still believed in the genre, you did not sell out for something as shoddy as money. There was, in any case, more money in a capitalist homeland than in Soviet Russia, whose moveable pleasures ran a short distance through a dacha, a wife, some vodka and a remorseless bureaucracy.

Le Carré begs to differ from Philby, but being an Englishman, not by much: duty is the more honourable virtue. Once you join a side, you stick to it. This is war. The best soldiers are schoolboys. The finest boy is The Honourable Schoolboy.

Le Carré hit a poor [I can't get myself to use 'bad'] patch when the certain uncertainties of the Cold War were destroyed by the defeat of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were a worthy enemy, deserving of legitimate and illegitimate confrontation. Soldiers play to win. Spies play to continue. Victory ends this game, and soldiers retire to rest and recuperate. Spies are lost without a chessboard of knights with guns and bishops with poison and kings with double faces.

It is not easy to find a second enemy in one lifetime, even in a life as long as le Carré's. He is too astute to take comfort in black and white lines, even when he deals with arms smugglers or terrorists. A Most Wanted Man, perhaps his finest portrait of terrorism, was also A Most Tortured Man, brutalised by his base before being launched into the unknown.

The central genius of le Carré's superb imagination is of course George Smiley, a child who slipped into seniority without quite negotiating the passage of youth. Smiley's torture was viscerally internal as well as public knowledge, the adultery of his beautiful, aristocratic wife Ann with a man who may or may not have been the most dangerous mole in British history. Persistence, not deception, is the armour of the quality spy, and who can blame Ann for periodically abandoning a social-misfit-bumblebee for the suave self-confidence of a traitor? Smiley is the tinker whose diligence at the sparking machine saves the day, even if he loses the night in the process. The last torture of Smiley is that he can never be sure if his victory was personal revenge or national service.

E.M. Forster, another Cambridge fixture, famously said that if he had ever to choose between betraying his friend and his country he wished he would have the courage to betray the latter. But that sounds like a literary conceit. One way out might be to toss a coin: after all, as many mistakes have been made in the name of patriotism as in the cause of evil. George the Plod is a natural hero in a plot where no medals are on offer, and the price of failure is either death or, worse, hopeless obscurity. Smiley lives long after Smiley's People, an omnipresent shadow hovering through the culture of every le Carré book, a constant reprimand to those whose thrills are shaped by thesis and antithesis. The difference between Our Kind of Traitor and Our Kind of Hero is only a matter of luck, isn't it?

There is music on every page of Traitor, in rhythm and deflation of phrase and cadence, in both the tiny conflicts of an oxymoron and the mighty decisions that sieve the difference between success and failure in life. Gail's "father, a sweetly useless actor, had died prematurely of alcohol, sixty cigarettes a day and a misplaced passion for his wayward wife. Her mother, an actress but less sweet, had vanished from the family home when Gail was thirteen, and was reputed to be living the simple life on the Costa Brava with a second cameraman". Not the first, naturally. Such details have little to do with the nudge of the narrative. But this is literature, not a screenplay; irrelevant to the story but essential to the atmosphere. This is the sphere in which le Carré excels. From here, thoughts vaguely masquerading as questions loom: did the West win the Cold War because it was ruthlessly amoral, or did the Soviet Union lose because it was ruthlessly ideological?

The tension of dilemma between character and belief is always fascinating, since both are inconstant, which is what The Constant Gardener discovered. That however might be the one war, located in Africa, between Pious Crusader and Evil Drug Cartel, in which le Carré came dangerously close to taking sides. Even elsewhere, le Carré is not averse to cliche in characterisation. And so the heavy in Our Kind of Traitor is muscular, erect [in a non-sexual way], bald and flaunts a diamond-gold-Rolex. But he also ties his grey tracksuit with a bow at the midriff, so we have been saved from inanity at the last minute. The Big Baddie, Mr Dima, Old Russia manners and New Russia wealth, has probably been designed for the movie that will inevitably be made from this book.

Richard Burton was the Spy who Came in from the Cold, and established a line that was perfected by Alec Guinness as Smiley in the BBC series: grey men who walked across the lonely landscape of white. Until there came a spurt of red, and the protagonist was dead, killed by his own mistake. The destiny of the spy is anonymity, but save John le Carré for literary immortality.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The terminal patient needs a doctor

Byline by M J Akbar: The terminal patient needs a doctor

The habitat of a government may have relocated from a palace to a hospital, but don’t start the funeral prayers too soon. The fate of Dr Manmohan Singh’s coalition will not be determined by the number of wounds on its body, or indeed on the body politic, nor by the toxicity of the environment, but by the circumstances of a moment which has not yet arrived.

The medical report of UPA2 would, in normal circumstances, demand emergency health bulletins. One of its legs, DMK, has gangrene. The only solution to gangrene is amputation, but the Congress has chosen to put band aid instead. The suicide of Satchik Batcha, the pauper-to-prince bagman who became conduit and beneficiary of A. Raja’s stolen goods, has added a sinister and fatal dimension to the sores oozing out of DMK’s bone marrow. Gangrene will spread as the system works its way through the suicide.

Congress, bathing in antiseptic to prevent that contagion, has been diagnosed with tubercolosis in its lungs by Dr Wikileaks. All the familiar ingredients of this historic malady have been found in the reports sent by the American embassy in Delhi to the State Department in Washington, and revealed to the world through internet. Names become almost irrelevant when the pattern is so set: a central figure whose principal contribution to the party has been as a cash reservoir for political transactions, an all-purpose middleman who could not resist flaunting his treasure chests to US intelligence officials, and then lazy denials without even the strength of a whimper.

As if all this were not hopeless enough, an obstinate sister from Bengal has chosen just this time to do her little bit: instead of bringing fruit and flowers to the patient, Mamata Banerjee has inserted a little knife into a vulnerable tendon. She has decided that the Grand Old Party is worth just 64 candidates out of 292 in the Bengal Assembly elections, take it or leave it. In order to swallow your pride, you must have some pride left, and Mamata Banerjee has drained the pride out of the Bengal Congress. Her calculation is self-serving, which is the only logic that works in politics. She does not want to be dependent on the Congress to form a future government. The Congress will win between 30 to 40 seats in any case; in an alliance it might get a bit more in such an equation. There is not much going for it. An alliance only benefits Mamata, for its places her victory beyond doubt.

I have no idea whether the Prime Minister believes in astrology or not, but no conjugation of planets and demons could have inflicted more misery upon him. For some months now, news has become a four-letter word for the Congress. But such is the paradoxical behavior of the planets that the very stars which are destroying the Congress image are preserving the life of this government. Dr Manmohan Singh’s government will survive this and even worse because there is no alternative alliance possible in this Parliament, and no MP wants a general election so soon.

Precisely because the crisis is premature, Dr Singh has an opportunity to fight his way out of it. When you have nothing more to lose, the only serious option left is going for the gain. It is too late now to reverse the alliance with the DMK, but another crossroads will come after the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, which the DMK is almost certain to lose. This gives the Congress a reasonable opt-out: rejection by the voter will confirm the immorality of the alliance. Any threat by the DMK to take revenge by bringing down the government is meaningless, since it cannot do so until a widely disparate Opposition finds a common reason for doing so. Narasimha Rao, aided by a similar House, survived for three years with a minority without a jitter.

But survival must mean something more than bobbing about on a raft in the middle of a clueless sea. Dr Singh has to use this year, and there may not be much more time than that, to fill the gap in governance that has developed, and convince India that he is not paying mere lip service to probity in public life. The first is easier than the second, since elements within his own party and alliance are corrupt. But if he does not act against them, whatever be the price, his injured credibility will suffer beyond repair. Governance needs a resurgence of ideas, and the will to reform that has been strangely absent from his agenda after his re-election. Why this has happened is a mystery beyond the comprehension of this columnist.

Dr Manmohan Singh has a doctorate in economics rather than politics, but this is precisely what he needs. Politics has brought the government to hospital. Only economics can get it out of there.

An appointment with death

An appointment with death
By M J Akbar
Byword - India Today
March 18, 2011

It is facetious to attribute Hiroshima to human nature and Fukushima to nature. Nature was the trigger, not the gun. Nuclear power was devised by man. It was a wartime invention, a consequence of the Manhattan Project in which British and American scientists collaborated to fashion the ultimate weapon of mass destruction during a conflict that had already sunk to unprecedented levels of degradation and slaughter. Nuclear power was not created for the electrification of France, Japan or Jaitapur. It was designed to kill, and continues to do so with periodic ruthlessness.

We fall in love with the monsters we create. There is always a flaccid excuse on display: Dr Frankenstein is ever advertising his monster as a robot which will look after babies in peacetime-until the monster fulfils its destiny by destroying its creator.

Many fictions were needed to foster the image of nuclear energy as a peacetime boon, for the good reason that its true potential lay in destruction. The mushroom cloud was and is a symbol of magnetic horror. The task before the nuclear industry's publicity machine was a familiar one: to sell the notion that this man-eating tiger could be controlled. There was money in the deception, for an industry was being fashioned out of opportunity. Big suits appeared with generous budgets. We expect profit to be amoral. The tipping point comes when profit slips into the irrational. If there is profit in danger, we exploit danger; but laws are enacted precisely because profiteers rarely know when to draw the line against their own pockets. The biggest fraud was to sell nuclear plants as benign energy, when the atomic source had the elemental power of havoc. The image of this industry was described through details of the cage, not the tiger.

There remained the problem of an accident; the evidence of Three Mile Island in America and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union reiterated the fear. Accidents were dismissed as too rare to worry about, and those who protested were caricatured as leftists with a regressive agenda, or pseudo-academics, or perennial trouble-makers. The rare person who broke ranks within this mammoth industry to tell the truth was sacked. Dangerous facts were submerged within a mess of detail, an expertise that corporates excel at. Japan's power companies cheated on their own people. Japan sits on four tectonic zones; and tsunami is a Japanese word. Reactors are built along the coast so that seawater can be used to cool them. Experts have repeatedly warned that nuclear plants in Japan are akin to a kamikaze terrorist waiting to explode. Even the dark memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not prevent Japan's power companies from taking a self-destructive risk.

True, there is risk in any endeavour. No one wants an accident, least of all owners of nuclear plants, but it is necessary to work out the calculus of a mistake. A dam might be risky, but its collapse can do only so much damage. In a nuclear crisis we shift to a different dictionary. Nations have long known that a nuclear war will wreck victor and vanquished almost equally, and poison the world, which is why the prospect of a holocaust established the paradox of hostile peace between America and the Soviet Union and gave us the acronym, MAD [Mutually Assured Destruction]. In a miracle of manipulation, the nuclear industry has managed to sell "peaceful nuclear energy" as something different from the energy of weapons. It is the same energy, being put to different use; radiation is no less devastating because it has come from Fukushima instead of Hiroshima.

The nuclear industry has successfully minimised, in the public consciousness, the consequences of an accident. Radiation became just another whiff of smoke, possibly hazardous in the estimate of the clean-airwallahs, but nothing to distract us from the television serials we shall see with more electricity. The majority of Indians remain indifferent to the prospect of a nuclear plant at Jaitapur, or the fact that seawater seeped into Kalpakkam, near Chennai, during the last tsunami. Do we need a Japan 2011 to wake us up? This chain reaction of explosions in Japan has already imperiled tourism, aviation, agriculture… you could reach the end of this column simply by listing broken businesses. I have absolutely no doubt that when corporate honchos and their friends in government decided to build nuclear plants in Japan, they sold it as the cheapest, safest panacea. No one mentions seismic tremors in the promotion literature, even if Jaitapur has been hit by an earthquake recently.

China has suspended all new nuclear facilities pending a fresh look at safety regulations. Perhaps the industry is too large to be killed, and must only be sent to hospital for recuperation. We learnt nothing from Japan in 1945; we are unlikely to learn anything in 2011.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Congress needs Prozac

Congress needs Prozac
By M J Akbar

Byword - In India Today
March 11, 2011

It seems reasonable to suggest that any political organisation with both Stalin and Napoleon on its frontlines, as DMK can boast, should make short shrift of a party with a mere Gandhi at its head. But the Karunanidhi vs Sonia Gandhi sideshow within the larger drama of the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections was always a no-contest. Bluster is hopeless against cool. And when Mrs Sonia Gandhi decides to be cool, polar icecaps break into envious applause. Karunanidhi did not melt because Congress generated extra levels of warmth; he froze when Delhi lowered the temperature. Sonia Gandhi doesn't mind exaggeration, which is after all a normal ploy in the competition for political space. She drew the line at blackmail. She also knew the answer to two questions: Who had more to gain? Who had less to lose?

The DMK's implied threat, to withdraw from the UPA, was always pointless because no party wants another General Election so soon, which is the only possible consequence of destabilising Dr Manmohan Singh. An alternative government within this Parliament is impossible, for the very reason that has created distance between the Congress and the DMK: corruption. The BJP can hardly hug the DMK after targeting A. Raja and the Karunanidhi family as the epitome of evil. There is no support for a no-confidence motion. The Government's majority will be tested, if at all, in 2012. Nor can DMK fight an Assembly election alone. Such adventurism could drag it down to single digits.

Karunanidhi had nowhere to go except back to Congress. Partners understand the occasional tantrum. The art of politics is tested in the management of a tantrum; you need to punish the prodigal, but not humiliate him too much. Mrs Gandhi measured her response carefully, stepping between indifference and accommodation. The political pirouette was played out with finesse, with a cameo role allotted for the official Congress counsellor for marital disputes, Pranab Mukherjee.

The bad news is that while the alliance might survive, the relationship is over. DMK and Congress are now travelling in opposite directions, dexterously evading a collision. There is nothing sentimental about the rupture, although Karunanidhi's grievance is personal.

He believes that he brought Congress to power in 2004, and that debt can be repaid only with a blank cheque. Congress did compensate with delay after Raja looted the treasury, but the Supreme Court ended such generous back-scratching. Perhaps Karunanidhi thinks that a clever government ought to evade a court's orders. The prime minister does not know how to, and the Congress does not want to. Sops offered to calm nerves, perhaps in the form of a deal over CBI's pursuit of the Karunanidhi family, will not survive the scrutiny of Parliament or the Supreme Court. Moreover, this spat, coming on top of 2G corruption, has ravaged this alliance's credibility. If DMK-Congress lose in Tamil Nadu, the equation alters. The Congress will need DMK in Delhi, but not be able to reciprocate in Chennai. How long can you walk on a one-way street?

It is ironic that Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who can play the macro game well enough, should flounder at the micro level. At times she seems to understand her allies better than her party. Power is normally an aphrodisiac for a party; in the case of Congress, it has become a depressant. Once the Queen of the Gangetic Belt, the Congress is sagging again in Uttar Pradesh, close to negative territory in Bihar and at the whim of its own byproduct, Mamata Banerjee, in Bengal. The Brahmaputra is kinder to Congress fortunes, but that is fringe comfort. After all the huff and puff in Tamil Nadu, Congress will contest only 63 seats out of 234 in Tamil Nadu. Its allies are bargaining for a greater chunk within the UDF in Kerala. Omit Assam, and a startling fact emerges: the Congress is contesting less than 30 per cent of the seats in states that send over 100 seats to the Lok Sabha. This is not a statistic that will encourage the Congress to contest the next elections alone. If the party cannot do this after a decade in power, it will not be able to do so in the foreseeable future.

Its only strategy is dubious. Build no edifice of your own, and wait for others to collapse. The flaw is obvious. There are other players. Laloo Yadav was replaced by Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and the Left is being upstaged by Mamata Banerjee in Bengal. The BJP is on the move in Orissa, and inching back to visibility in Uttar Pradesh. Jagan Reddy is the flavour of the moment in Andhra Pradesh. The Congress clearly has two problems: one with its foes, and the other with its friends. If it does not create some distance from its friends, it could be outdistanced by its foes.

Stars and Style

Byline by M J Akbar: Stars and Style

Style is the yeast of leadership. The league rounds of this World Cup Cricket are not designed to offer much by way of excitement since it would require too much stupidity on the part of the Biggies not to qualify for the knockout stage, which is when the mercury will start rising. England, possibly in honour of its long sporting tradition, is trying very hard to fail, but I suspect that it might very well fail to fail. I hope Bangladesh marches into the quarter-finals, precisely because it is the very opposite of England: its spirit is greater than its ability, unlike England, which brought along quality to the Cup but mislaid its spirit somewhere on the flight to the subcontinent.

The one fascinating aspect of this tournament so far is the difference in the management style of its captains. The test of a captain lies, obviously, in adversity, and Bangladesh’s Shakib al Hasan is blessed with the courage of self-belief. He could have fallen into that worst of all traps, sulking self-pity, when angry fans broke his windowpanes after his team’s pathetic loss to the West Indies. Instead, he picked himself and the team up, and led them to a famous victory against England. It does not actually matter now whether he goes into the next round. He has restored his nation’s pride. Bengali fans are right. They do not expect Bangladesh to win the Cup, but they will not tolerate a team that betrays its honour.

The surprise is Shahid Afridi, who could easily join Pakistan’s Foreign Service after this swansong. The man who has tweaked a ball or two in his time, has flowered into a diplomat. He soothed ruffled feathers after defeat against New Zealand through a brilliant strategic pincer movement: he invited the huge Pakistani media contingent for dinner with the players. Mollifying the messenger is the best treatment for the ache of bad news. Afridi is clearly aware that contemporary Pakistan has only two powerful institutions, the Army and the media. The Army has only cursory interest in cricket during wartime, so an alliance with the media is sufficient for crisis control. Pakistan remains the contrarian’s favourite; and if Afridi can handle his temperamental eleven with the kind of aplomb he has shown off the field, then watch out for the Greens. Predictably Pakistan’s erratic, slippery-fingers wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal has induced the best joke so far: “What is Akmal’s favourite pick-up line? Can I drop you anywhere?”

In contrast, Mahendra Dhoni is so laidback he could have been training in a sauna. Dhoni is proponent of the Yawn School of Business. When asked why India had made such heavy weather of defeating less-than-ordinary sides like Holland, he replied with a verbal shrug. India was winning, wasn’t it, and that was good enough for him. Well, he might lose when there is no second chance left. It may not be much of a problem for him personally, since the advertisement deals are done, cheques are in the bank, and he probably thinks that the Great Indian Public is fickle in its affections anyway. Somebody should tell him that the symbol of India is the elephant, and while the elephant treads with a light step, it also has a long memory.

The captain who really knew how to lie on his back was the incomparable Viv Richards, but he had a few advantages over Dhoni. He was a genius with the bat. He was fearless [he disdained a helmet, trusting his eye and instinct instead]. And he had a set of bowlers who could break your hand when you were looking and crack your head when you took your eye off the ball. Dhoni has fashioned half a team for this tournament, just a set of brilliant batsmen, on the assumption that opponents will get themselves out. We shall see what we shall see.

The finest gentleman ever to captain England was surely Colin Cowdrey. In his last match as captain Cowdrey walked to the pitch for the toss, dressed in immaculate whites. And waited. Richards sauntered up twenty minutes late, wearing a T shirt and bandana in more colours than a rainbow would dare to advertise. The coin was tossed. Richards won. Richards looked at the prim and proper Cowdrey and asked the Englishman what he wanted to do, rather than exercising his right of decision. Once Cowdrey had recovered, he said England would like to bat. Okay maan, said Richards, you bat.

The West Indies won that Test match by ten wickets. That is why it was Cowdrey’s last match. And that is why few lovers of cricket can remember Cowdrey, and no one has forgotten Vivian Richards.

Style is an art, particularly if it can be complemented with swagger. But style is not a substitute for substance.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Mercury Rising

Mercury Rising
By M J Akbar

Byword - In India Today
March 4, 2011

When you buy tickets to a circus you expect to see a few clowns. A clown is not a fool. It is far more difficult to make people laugh than to annoy them. A good clown must silence his ego, for he has to reduce himself to the lowest common denominator to maximise the laughs. He is a professional. But he is also, inherently, a character, or he would be just another diligent accountant, trapped within the limitations of safety-first. It is this characteristic that impels him to leap into the unexpected.

Sports, it was drilled into me at boarding school, builds character. Judging by the opening bouts of the cricket World Cup, sports builds characters. Perhaps it is the panorama, the scale on which a game that began on a village green, with the pub as the sole source of entertainment, is being played. A cricket star now lives in a universe second only to the football idol, with money to match. Money has this curious propensity to travel in two directions simultaneously: it goes to your head at a much faster pace than it travels to your bank. This heady feeling is even more seductive when you are young. Talent is best nurtured in incremental steps; the happiest god is one who has reached divinity through stages. The sudden transition from obscurity to hero-worship can easily breed illusions when you are in your early twenties. You lose the difference between a tantrum and an honest expression of emotion within the hothouse of intense competition. Stardom can be contagious. Even a starlet like Billy Bowden, the pesky umpire from New Zealand, gets affected, searching for the bizarre within the fine print of cricket legislation.

I was quite determined to be sceptical about the 2011 World Cup. The geopolitics of the tournament, spread across the realm of the British Raj, seemed more interesting than the game itself. You could see, for instance, how far the two wings of the Pakistan of 1947 had flown apart. Bangladesh has the worse team and the better environment. The playing fields of Pakistan are lost to those for whom war is sport, rather than the other way around; Pakistan has become, by common consent, too dangerous for recreation. The ruling planet of Pakistan is now obviously Mercury; mercury has entered the bloodstream of its players. Shoaib Akhtar might have been Shoaib Akhtar irrespective of which country he played for, but a Kamran Akmal is either above or beyond the law. I never fully understood the meaning of the phrase 'on a wing and a prayer' until I saw Shahid Afridi praying with soundless lips at a crucial moment during the match with Sri Lanka. Divine intervention worked that day, but the Lord surely cannot be biased, no matter how fervent the appeals to Him.

It is predictable to report that the hook returned to my cricket-hungry soul during the brilliant tie between India and England. But that was a game that exposed the weakness of two self-appointed triumphalists: neither have bowlers who can survive much daylight, and there is a lot of sunshine coming. Tidbits during commentary were amusing, but not entrancing. I was pleased to learn that Imran Khan banned hamburgers and never forgave anyone who got out to Kapil Dev. But that was not worth a wait.

Epiphany came during a match whose tickets were safe even from the gluttony of the BCCI and its multiple parasites. Ireland is not going to win this World Cup, but Kevin O'Brien's innings against England had the majesty of a rebellion against centuries of colonisation. It was the Easter Uprising all over again as Ireland resurrected from 111 for 5 to 293 for 6 by the 45th over. Ireland believed in themselves, which is always the true starting point of a sporting miracle. When they touched 300 for 6, the World Cup became a holy grail. If W.B. Yeats were alive he would have written an ode to O'Brien. When the unknown John Mooney backed away and smashed a four through cover, English captain Andrew Strauss's stiff upper lip crumbled. Story over, although we still had to wait for Mooney to hit the winning four in the last over and raise a triumphant yell. The magic of sport lies in the triumph of the unexpected.

Stiff upper lips are not quite the fashion in cricket anymore, although the game remains a preserve of the Commonwealth. There is more than cricketing skill on display, of national purpose. A post-war bounce is on parade in Sri Lanka, as it places its newest city on the world stage. Bangladesh is determined to prove that 40 years after independence, it is one of the big boys. Multi-ethnic Canada is visibly as colourful as the Commonwealth. The clowns are pickle at the feast; the main meal is wonderful cuisine. Time to share the joy.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

I regret to inform you...

Byline by M J Akbar: I regret to inform you...

Friday the Fourth of March should be declared the International Day of Regret by the United Nations. Regrets flooded Saturday's newspapers, in stories from east to west; it came in many forms, from eyes-lowered-acknowledgment to muted-murmured-sorry to the antithetical no-regret accompanied by a brash to-hell-with-you.

The most creative instance was surely that of Bangladesh cricket fans: they did not quite rue stoning the West Indies team bus after their side was hammered into oblivion; they merely regretted the fact that they had got the wrong bus. What they wanted was to throw some accurately-aimed stones at their own players. They atoned for their mistake by breaking window panes of their captain Shakib al Hasan's home. That should put Hasan in a good frame of mind for the next match. To be fair, Bengalis don't mind defeat; they just can't take humiliation, whether in Dhaka or at Kolkata's Eden Gardens.

The most ingenious example was from the London School of Economics, which had, in its infinite wisdom, awarded a doctorate to surely the most intellectual thug of the 21st century, Saif al-Islam, the second son of Muammar Gaddafi, in 2008. Saif's supervisors detected neither irony nor plagiarism in the Saif thesis on "The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions: from 'soft power' to collective decision-making?" Don't miss the deliciously academic question mark at the end. The director of LSE, Howard Davies, has resigned, but can probably expect to head the Saif Conglomerate of Universities for Economics and Mercenary Operations just as soon as Saif has reconquered Libya. It was, but naturally, a complete accident that LSE got a 1.5 million pound donation from Saif's dad soon after the doctorate, since British institutions can never be accused of corruption. London must be full of people nostalgic for the old days: this was exactly how it happened during those good old days of the Raj, when the British gave a gong to natives and took the jewels in return. The natives, however, have got cleverer. Saif actually gave only 300,000 pounds of the promised 1.5 million. He must have learnt something about economics at LSE. Regret, though, is not in his DNA; his father Muammar has at various times imagined himself as either the Queen of England or the Prime Minister of India, but is really a French Bourbons who, famously, learnt nothing and forgot nothing.

But the real market for regrets has surely opened in India. There is explicit or implicit regret wherever you look. The disgraced Chief Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas must be seething with them; if he had quit in the first week of December he would have lost his job but not his grace. That is not a bad trade-off. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still has the quality to dignify regret, which is why his acknowledgement of responsibility for Thomas' appointment received such a civil response from the BJP leader of the Lok Sabha Opposition, Ms Sushma Swaraj. But Dr Singh has not revealed what he truly regrets: that his leadership is under question today because he has been misled by his own side. He signed off on the decision, but the choice was not his. He would not have dismissed Ms Swaraj's objections as politics if his own civil servants had briefed him better.

Two points arise. First, is regret sufficient? In the case of Thomas, yes, since the CVC has not done anything to besmirch the CVC's office. The real problem before the Prime Minister is that the list of things he should regret during the tenure of the UPA2 government is slicing off its credibility, day by day, both in sequence and consequence. What he should truly regret is that a man like Hasan Ali Khan, fingered by Indian police for stashing away 8 billion dollars in Swiss and other banks on behalf of an elite bunch of crooks, is still breathing free air. Khan has the mysterious ability to fall ill whenever the police want to question him; and the police have the even more mysterious desire to accept Khan's word for it. Khan used this excuse again about an hour of his latest meeting with the Enforcement Directorate, and the very solicitous police officers agreed. There is something deeply rotten in the system.

The saddest non-regret is surely from those leaders of Pakistan who have chosen silence as their response to the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the Cabinet, killed for his views on the blasphemy laws. According to Ahmed Rashid, the doyen of Pakistani commentators, army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani refused to condemn the killing of Salmaan Taseer, former governor of Punjab, for similar reasons, because there were too many soldiers under his command who sympathised with the assassins.

That is the transition of regret to fear; how long before fear mutates into dread?