Saturday, May 28, 2011

Many degrees of separation

Byline by M J Akbar: Many degrees of separation

Uncertainty is the chaotic force-multiplier of insecurity. That is the only explanation, if there is one, for a curious statement made by Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani. When Gilani clambers aboard, he does tend to go overboard with a consistency that is clearly becoming a comfort to foes and an embarrassment to friends.

Pakistan's foreign policy is guided by professional diplomats who have, in a sense, no option except to be exceptional, given the scale and continuity of the challenges they face. But when politicians rush into space where diplomats fear to tread, there is a lot of cleaning up to do for the service.

Gilani topped off a four-day visit to China with a claim that will surely enter the history books. Pakistan and China, he said, were "like one nation and two countries". We shall not discuss the fine distinction between nation and country, except to note that the Prime Minister could have easily interchanged the terms without significant loss of meaning in his personal political dictionary. For mere outsiders, a question is inescapable: has Pakistan re-positioned itself as the new Hong Kong?

Beijing has not let us know whether it has accepted this generous offer by the world's most powerful Islamic republic to become an associate member of the world's most important atheist state. But it has given a "back-present" to Gilani of 50 fighter jets, which may or may not be a symbol of shared nationalism.

Perhaps there was a spirit of competitive genuflection in the Gilani delegation. His defence minister Ahmad Mukhtar told media on his return to Islamabad that his government had gifted an entire naval base to China, at Gwadar, on the mouth of the Gulf. His exact words left no room for confusion: "We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar." He added that China had been invited to manage the port's commercial operations as well, despite the fact that a Singapore company has a multi-decade contract for doing so. When Mukhtar gets generous, Singapore become irrelevant.

Similar passion and clarity were missing in the Chinese response. Jiang Yu, a spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry, responded with a far less dramatic "...I have not heard of it. It's my understanding that during the [Gilani] visit last week this issue was not touched upon." Since the time of Confucius the Chinese have given us so much wisdom that it is perfectly likely that they, rather than the Americans, warned the world that there is nothing called a free lunch, or indeed a free naval base.

Pakistan has sought to outsource its security from its inception. This was understandable, since fear of a larger neighbour was a logical outcome of partition from India, which could not, and cannot, accept a two-nation theory inspired by the thesis that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together in one country. But the premise has taken a total somersault from what it was in the 1950s. The meaning of security has altered completely. The threat to Pakistan is not India-centric any longer. India has become a status quo-ist power. It will not surrender any part of the geography it possesses, but it does not covet any more land, in Kashmir or elsewhere. India has not engineered the daily havoc that is Pakistan's narrative of 2011. India did not mastermind the attack on the naval base in Karachi. This is the first, but fourth such attack on the Pak navy, and military authorities have picked up and are interrogating their own navy personnel to find out more about previous assaults. Pakistan's crisis emanates from a civil war with organised militias who have launched a "jihad" not only against the United States and India but also against their own homeland in the belief that they can capture power in Islamabad and use the state's assets, including its nuclear capability, for their own ends. Such ends could easily include the "liberation" of China's sole Muslim-majority province, Xinjiang, from Beijing. As evidence being currently given in the Headley trial in Chicago proves, many of these "jihadis" have been nurtured by intelligence operatives in the Pak military who thought that such volatile double and triple games would never backfire.

Such contradictions have strained Pakistan's relationship with its oldest benefactor, America, to breaking point. Gilani's excitable formula is explicable only as an anxious attempt to switch security from an American umbrella to a Chinese net, if the relationship with Washington goes belly-up. History tells us that China is sophisticated enough to manoeuvre through nuanced degrees of separation or proximity. China's policy towards lands south of the Himalayas is unlikely to be either open-ended or inflexible. Tactically, it will play with options. But its strategy will be guided by China's security interests, not Pakistan's.

The bottom line is a basic law of international relations. A sovereign nation cannot purchase security in the marketplace. Otherwise, it may remain a nation but it will be neither sovereign nor stable.

Friday, May 27, 2011

You can’t get bail at Guantanamo

You can’t get bail at Guantanamo
M.J. Akbar

Byword in India Today: 27th May 2011

The rich are, as was well said, different from you and I: they have more money. In India, they have more lawyers. Does this mean that they are also more guilty? The law must take its course; no argument about that. What happens, however, when law becomes part of the public discourse?

Justice is not merely judgment, but also process. If the process is flawed the verdict is vitiated. Courts accept this and warn against the inequity inherent in a ‘witch-hunt’ or ‘trial by media’. Civilised jurisprudence is based on evidence and statute, not individual or collective emotion.

Justice rests on a fundamental principle: you are innocent until proven guilty. No wrong can be corrected by an absence of rights. The concept of pro bono has been devised to help those who cannot afford legal counsel, so that they can defend themselves in a trial. A police charge-sheet is the start of a trial, not its conclusion.

If DMK MP Kanimozhi consults astrologers, then she has probably been told that every planet in her constellation has turned retrograde. In the summer of 2009 she was a queen in Chennai and a princess in Delhi. Today, she is defeated in Chennai and the most high-profile prisoner in Delhi. But she is in jail as an accused, not as a convict. There is a world of difference between the two. If she is found guilty after due process, the judges must send her to prison as long as the law permits. But until that decision is made, she is innocent. In the interim, custody can only be a minimalist option, for a special set of reasons, for a finite and reasonable period. Instead, the cbi is demanding, and getting, what seems to be turning into an infinite extension of custody. This is injustice.

India lives by a Constitution that guarantees life and liberty. Bail is not a gift from those who wield temporary power (fortunately, power can only be temporary in a democracy); it is a right. Otherwise, we are one step away from a police state, in which any citizen can be locked up at the arbitrary will of authority. This has happened before, during the Emergency. We thought it would never happen again.

The CBI wants all the accused in the 2G case be kept in jail indefinitely, despite the fact that their interrogation is over, or should be. The courts comply, citing two reasons. One of them is “gravity of the case”. This is inaccurate. As it stands, there is only the gravity of an accusation, not the gravity of the crime. Crime is yet to be proven.

There is more than one opinion about what happened.

The Government of India’s official stand, stated in Parliament by telecom minister Kapil Sibal, is that there was no loss to government.

We all want to, and must, end corruption. But should we destroy the legal process in this effort?

The CBI is selective. There is evidence that Congress ministers were complicit in the decision through which 2G licences were granted. No action has been initiated against them. There is, however, neither administrative restraint nor legal constraint against the DMK, an ally which has been turned into a scapegoat to appease an outraged public.

The second official reason for denying bail is that the accused might tamper with evidence, or pressurise potential witnesses. A. Raja and Kanimozhi were free for many weeks after proceedings began. If they did not tamper or pressurise then, how can they do so now? This excuse is too thin to stand without an artificial prop.

Indian courts honour the right to bail. Wazlul Kamar Khan, whose name was on home minister P. Chidambaram’s “Famous 50” list of wanted “terrorists” sent to Pakistan, has been given bail in Maharashtra. Terrorism, one presumes, is more worrisome than corruption, whichever way you want to draw the chart of judicial gravity. No one has called Raja or Kanimozhi a terrorist. Why should an accused in a terrorist case be given bail, but not them?

Very Important People get into trouble everywhere. The police are rarely polite; it isn’t in their training manual. But the law respects the rights of an accused. Former imf director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested from an airplane, locked up in a small cell and paraded before cameras, unshaven and haggard. He has been indicted on seven counts, including sexual molestation of a hotel maid. But he is out on bail. Recently, American billionaire Raj Rajaratnam became the face of financial corruption when he was convicted for insider trading. But the New York police did not seek to jail him before judgment.

There is one prison in the free world where you cannot get bail: Guantanamo, America’s preferred penitentiary for suspected terrorists. We are, fortunately, nowhere near that ominous stage yet. But the road to many destinations, including hell, can be paved with good intentions.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Capacity for Farce

A Capacity for Farce
By M J Akbar

Byword in India Today
May 30, 2011

The next time Pakistan foreign secretary Salman Basheer wants to rubbish any wish-list of terrorists sent by India's much-vaunted home minister P. Chidambaram, he needn't bother to describe it as "mere literature". Literature belongs to the realm of high art. He can dismiss it as Groucho Marx and ask for the next question at the press conference.

It requires some capacity to convert India's most serious problem into a farce, but the home ministry under Chidambaram has managed to achieve this. If you are in two minds about whether to laugh or cry at the expose that one of the persons on Chidambaram's "Most Wanted" list of fugitives allegedly given sanctuary in Pakistan, Wazhul Kamar Khan, is actually a zari merchant who has been living for years at Wagle Estate in Thane, next-door to Mumbai, some additional information should help make up your mind. The Mumbai police had pointedly told Delhi to remove Wazhul Khan's name, and added two brothers, Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, wanted in terror attacks in Varanasi, Ahmedabad and Pune, to the list. The Bhatkal brothers were not included. Maybe the home ministry likes symmetry, and two additions plus one deletion would have made the figure an untidy 51. Fifty is just so much neater.

Chidambaram has treated this blunder with familiar airy disdain. "I don't think," he said, "we should make a big issue of it. It is possible there could be an error or there could be two people with the same name." That misses the point. It is not India, but Pakistan who can make a big issue of this. Islamabad can ask India to circulate the document to its own policemen, with or without a snigger.

There is a third option apart from laughter or tears: anger. At the top of this "Most Wanted" list is Dawood Ibrahim, principal accused in the Mumbai blasts of 1993. Some Don Quixotes in Delhi even made fanciful noises about picking up Dawood in an American-Abbotabad style operation after Osama bin Laden was killed. But you don't need either the US Seals or Marines to pick up Dawood Ibrahim's brother, Iqbal Kaskar, from Nagpada, in the heart of Mumbai. Nor is it the case that while Dawood might be an international villain, young Iqbal lives in a Gandhian ashram from where he does gaon and dharma seva. Kaskar is just another goon. On Tuesday May 17 evening, at 9.15, he was shot at in Nagpada during an after-dinner walk in the company of his driver-cum-bodyguard Arif Bael (also known as Arif Jewellery and Abu Bakr) by two men in a drive-past motorcycle. Mr Jewellery did not survive.

Question: Why is Dawood's brother, a thriving member of Mumbai's underworld, almost certainly in criminal contact with the Dawood gang, not behind bars? It is as inconceivable that the Mumbai police were unaware of Kaskar as that the ISI had no clue of Osama bin Laden's presence. The ISI saved Osama because of some miscued double game. The Mumbai police protected Dawood's brother and his underworld operations out of nothing more dramatic than sheer greed. Law and order may be a state subject, but who rules in Mumbai? Congress and NCP.

Mumbai has become a well-organised jungle, with defined territories. Literally around the corner from Nagpada is the visible paraphernalia of a modern city: an imposing Mumbai municipality, next-door to a grand building that is headquarters of the country's largest media company, divided from a classic railway station by traffic jams and, just a sniff further, beautiful clubs and greens. The government winks at this coexistence of an urban world at its congested best and an underworld that conspires to erode the vitals of a nation. Why should it be surprised when terror is planned within such labyrinths?

All the sins of matsanyaya (law of the jungle) certainly cannot be laid at the door of Chidambaram. But he replaced Shivraj Patil as home minister in the wake of the ISI-planned terror attacks on Mumbai. Terrorism and its links with Pakistan, including through the Mumbai underworld, were his special remit. Chidambaram's USP was believed to be competence. But two-anda-half years later, a litter of mistakes is snapping at his heels. The mismanagement of Telangana, certainly his worst political misjudgment, began the series of miscalculations that have culminated in the overwhelming victory of Jagan Reddy, and could lead to the collapse of the Congress ministry in the fortress from which the party conquered Delhi. There is a new, if slightly subversive, view gaining ground in the capital: when cowboy Chidambaram draws his six-shooter, his own foot is in trouble.

If it was merely a question of Chidambaram turning into a laughing stock, it would be a personal tragedy. When India becomes a laughing stock in Pakistan, it is a national wound.

Claim Game, Blame Game

Byline by M J Akbar: Claim Game, Blame Game

When is a man at his most generous? When he wants to forgive himself, of course.

Home minister P. Chidambaram is in need of extra supplies of magnanimity. The "Star List" of 50 names he sent to Islamabad, charging Pakistan with giving these wanted terrorists sanctuary, has exploded spectacularly in his face thanks to some incisive reporting by the Times of India. One of these chaps is selling zari in Thane when not visiting court on the dates of his trial. Two more are far closer to the home ministry, since they are being hosted by the police in Hyderabad and Mumbai jails. A fourth, fortunately or unfortunately, is dead. And buried, along with the home ministry's credibility, in India. The home minister coyly attributed this to "human error" and asked us mere citizens to get on with life.

Is "human" sufficient mitigation for error? What would make an error unforgiveable in Chidambaram's estimation? Would it have to be as degenerate as "animal" error, or some savage "sub-human" error? The last time we checked the home ministry consisted largely of human beings, although a few did tend to sound more pompous than should be legally permissible. To err may be human, and to forgive divine, but this blessed advice does seem a trifle skewered when you are forgiving yourself. When does accountability kick in, or do we need something as tragic as the terror attacks on Mumbai [masterminded by Pakistan's ISI, if some of the evidence being given during a trial in America is to be believed] for a home minister of India to accept guilt?

Chidambaram has an extremely elastic approach towards crime and punishment, or error and consequence. He is clearly no fan of the American President Harry Truman who put a sign on his desk saying that the buck stopped there. The buck can stop anywhere it likes, as long as it is nowhere in the vicinity of Chidambaram's office. So far, a Superintendent of Police, a Deputy SP and a junior office have taken the rap. The first two have been transferred so that they can sleep on duty in some other corner of government. The junior officer has been suspended. At different times, Chidambaram has blamed IB or the Mumbai police. He has even, in a different context, blamed the Prime Minister.

Since error has clearly become a genetic disease in the contemporary home ministry, the much-vaunted CBI could hardly be immune from its toxic effects. Long years ago, when the Marxists were still a potent force in Bengal, a foreign mercenary flew into the state on a private plane that had apparently escapted the country's air defence system, and dropped arms in a district called Purulia. To cut a pretty long story short, the pilot Kim Davy, a Danish citizen, has given an interview saying that this was a Delhi plot to destabilize the Left Front government. Delhi wants to extradite Davy. When CBI went to plead its case before a Constitutional bench it carried an expired arrest warrant. This is not a screw-up on the scale of the "Star List" but it is certainly not an advertisement for efficiency. When the BJP laughed, as any Opposition party has a perfect right to do, Chidambaram accused BJP spokespersons of "monumental ignorance". The chaps who went to Denmark, he said, report to the ministry of personnel, which comes under the Prime Minister, and not him.

Go ask the PM to resign, in other words.

When Cabinet ministers slip from the claim-game to a blame-game, you know the rafters have begun to creak. You have only to contrast the array during UPA1 with the disarray now, and that will give you the clue to election results. Something seems to have been unhinged. Rahul Gandhi's advisers cannot even count correctly when he wants to raise the political temperature against Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Common sense would have told them that there is some distance between an inflamed accused made by agitators and reality. But the need for hype was so great that no one bother to check anything. End result: what could have been an effective riposte to Mayawati collapsed in its own contradictions.

The real issue is not that police or politicians make mistakes but the context in which you make them. When the home ministry was preparing a list to be presented to Pakistan, on a subject as vital to India's core interests as the sponsorship of terrorism by Pakistan, one has a right to expect that the police will not behave as if they are entering a First Information Report on petty theft on a sterile afternoon in a thana. This list could not have been passed without the personal clearance of the home secretary and the home minister. If it was, then they are doubly at fault. This is too important a document to be left to someone else's signature.

Dr Manmohan Singh's Cabinet is in slippage mode. If he does not intervene, it will go into free fall.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Last Train to Calcuttagrad

Last Train to Calcuttagrad
West Bengal celebrates freedom with Mamata's Electric win
By M J Akar
Byword in India Today
May 23, 2011

Democracy is about punctuation marks: disheartening semi-colons, dramatic exclamations and deadend full stops, not to mention expletives deleted. An uninterrupted 34-year sentence must, therefore, reach that moment when it seems like a prison sentence. On Friday the 13th-the Ides of May-Bengal celebrated freedom when Mamata Banerjee capped a quarter century of effort by sending the Left Front into opposition for the first time since 1977.

There is nothing in the history of international electoral democracy to match this Communist marathon. Its founding architects-Promode Dasgupta, Harekrishna Konar, Benoy Choudhury, Jyoti Basu, all dead-were imperturbable men. The cheroot-chomping Dasgupta ran his cadres as a parallel authority from the party office while the charismatic Basu governed from Writers' Building. Politics, they believed, was more important than growth, since the creation of wealth had to be subservient to its distribution.

They accepted imperfections within their thesis, but argued that they were trapped by the constraints of a "bourgeois" Constitution which they accepted once they had abandoned armed struggle as a possibility in India. Their initial impact was spectacular, particularly when they reversed the economic equations of agricultural Bengal. In 1793 the British had altered the landscape through the Permanent Settlement, which transferred vast landholdings from the old Mughal nobility to a new class of ghumushtos, the largely-Hindu middlemen for the East India Company. Nearly two centuries later, the CPI(M) gave Bengal a New Permanent Settlement through Operation Barga, which demolished the old order and empowered the peasant.

Dasgupta and Basu would have been calm on Friday. They had entered public life to serve, not rule, although once they got power they knew how to preserve it. But they would have been devastated by the CPI(M)'s spectacular hara-kiri: lured by false prophets, the party sought to take land away from the tiller in order to transfer it to industrialists. The CPI(M) fell on its own sword. Its bête noire, Mamata Banerjee, merely sharpened this sword from time to time.

Basu lived long enough to see his comrades lost in the fog of illusion after their phenomenal triumph in 2006. My last meeting with Basu, some months before he died, was almost too painful to bear, but he did convey, taciturn to the last, that his beloved party was on its way out. He implied, through heavylidded eyes sunk deep into a sallow skin-tight face, that this setback might even be salutary. But when the sentiment of association and affection is set aside, he must share part of the blame.

Basu's crucial error was his compromise with parochialism in order to sustain his vote base when his economic policies had exhausted their ability to deliver. This retreat was symbolised by his ban on the study of English at primary school level in 1982. He advertised this as a triumph for the mother tongue. It was nothing of the kind. It was a retreat into the narrow mind of regionalism by a party that had lost its imagination. Unable to create jobs, it sought to cynically exploit a barren emotionalism. By the time the decision was reversed in 1999, half a generation from the lower middle class and poor-or, those who needed English most for upward mobility-had fallen behind. Basu's own grandchildren went to La Martiniere, of course.

This ban came during precisely those years when the young began to recognise that English had become the language of aspiration in India; it was no longer "foreign". Modern jobs demanded, increasingly, English language skills. English, once guardian of colonial rule and its fauxaccented servants, has, today, been assimilated to such an extent that it is part of Bollywood's "Hindi" lyrics. The unique aspect of the "item number" Sheila ki jawaani is not that Sheila isn't going to give you her body (there was not much chance of getting it anyway), but that more than half the song is in English. Bengal's young paid a silent price so the CPI(M) could remain in power.

The second swivel-mistake was soft-secularism, the unspoken Leftist assumption that Bengal's Muslims- who constitute over 30 per cent of the state's effective vote- could be taken for granted if you protected their life without ensuring their livelihood. Muslims bought this shoddy deal for a long while, until the Sachar Commission report laid out facts of their unemployment levels in government jobs. Mamata Banerjee is the face of Muslim revenge. The Left bastion could not survive the collapse of its strongest pillar.

The Left ruled longer than it deserved to because cadres filled the chasm created by vanishing ideas and ideology. It was as if by the 1990s the CPI(M) had pawned its intellect, and begun feeding off diminishing returns. By 2000 it was dining off alibis. And yet the gold dust of electoral success persuaded them that power was eternal.

Mamata Banerjee has proved that even in Bengal power is terminal.

Alibis are balm, not medicine

Byline by M J Akbar : Alibis are balm, not medicine

One of the more bewildering aspects of electoral democracy is the mesmerising power of false comfort. It stretches from silly posturing to incomprehensible self-delusion, but nothing illustrates its meaninglessness better than the answer to an obvious question: what does a politician hope to achieve by denying a truth that is glaringly evident to everyone else, and will be officially confirmed within 48 or 72 hours? Nothing. Perhaps this cocoon of illusion is the last hope of the doomed, as they seek desperately to postpone the date of execution in the hope of some miraculous reprieve. God does not waste His miracles on political parties.

In the brief interim between the last ballot and counting, the Bengal CPI(M)'s state committee gathered at party headquarters and reassured itself that it was winning at least 150 seats, or just enough to get a majority. Then they went public with this claim, in language that was hectoring, bullying and arrogant, as if they had distilled their principal character flaws into one last broadside. The state chief Biman Bose, normally the most soft-spoken of men, promised that media would have to lick the spit they had hurled at his party after the results were known. Other leaders turned ballistic in the tirades against their object of hatred, Mamata Banerjee, heroine of the subaltern that the Left had lost. They were crude, sexist, tasteless. But this futile rage did serve to expose precisely why the CPM has lost power in Calcutta after 34 years. The party had become so blind and numb that it neither saw nor sensed that the ground had slipped beneath its feet. Unless there is some dramatic self-correction its behaviour in defeat could cost the CPM more than the defeat itself.

The Congress exercise in false comfort is far more subtle and effective. Unlike the Bengal CPM the Congress has learnt how to handle bad news. It hides the truth behind seven veils, and you can easily end up admiring the gauze. The facts are cold. Congress had a spectacular and well-deserved victory in one state, Assam, thanks to the splendid leadership of Tarun Gogoi, fared poorly in Kerala and was devastated in Tamil Nadu. The Kerala Left, led by the remarkable V.S. Achuthanandan, almost turned the tide by decimating Congress targets in the UDF alliance. Congress won only 38 of its 82 seats, and had it not been for the state-specific Muslim League's 20 victories in the 24 seats that it contested, the Left would have formed the government in Trivandrum. It was a consolidation of mosque and church that tipped the balance just barely towards the Congress-led UDF. In the old days a League leader Mohammad Koya would have demanded chief ministership as reward, and settled for Number 2 in the administration. But the League is now led by quieter types like E. Ahamed. Perhaps Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can say thank you by promoting Ahamed to Cabinet in his next shuffle.

In Tamil Nadu, the Congress won only five out of 63 seats it contested. The facile explanation will attribute this to association with the DMK. But the Congress has done everything it could to distance itself from DMK corruption, even sending A. Raja to jail. Its super-holy stance has been that neither friend nor foe would be spared. The voter can see through gauze much more clearly than the psephologist or a journalist. The flatulent cynicism of both these tribes is such that they spread the notion that the DMK-Congress might even win because of caste arithmetic and money power. In other words, these subsidiary ruling classes argued that the Tamil voter had been corrupted, and would therefore condone DMK corruption. This patronising view was an insult to the Tamil voter, who answered the insult by wrecking the DMK-Congress alliance.

Congress rode to 42 seats in Bengal on Mamata Banerjee's coattails, so any congratulations are misplaced. The Congress vote has declined across the country, apart from Assam. The electorate is hugely unimpressed by Rahul Gandhi's personally selected list of handpicked "youth" candidates, who were generally pulped. Achuthanandan's dismissive tag for them, of "Amul babies", will stick until they provide evidence that they have grown up. And Jagan Reddy's triumph in Andhra Pradesh is proof that the party has nowhere to hide in what used to be the party's fortress.

The one genuine bit of comfort for the Congress is the fact that its main opponent, the BJP, has been denied the consolation of even false comfort. It was minced in Assam and could not pick up a serious seat in Bengal or the South. New forces, regional and sub-regional, are rising to pick up the slack left behind by national parties. A process that accelerated in the 1990s has gathered fresh energy.

The big boys will recover, but only if they accept a basic truth: alibis are a balm, not a medicine.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

An Army wrapped in wool

Byline by M J Akbar: An Army wrapped in wool

The death of two birds with one stone is generally greeted with generous applause, notwithstanding the fact that the second casualty was an accident. What is useful in sport might be less fortuitous in other circumstances.

The four American helicopters which went for the final kill in the long hunt for Osama bin Laden achieved their primary purpose. The world is now busy sifting through the ruins of their second hit. For in the process they also crippled the credibility of Pakistan's most powerful institution, its Army, often described by its apologists as critical to national stability and even cohesion. All pretence and pretension is over; a fudge that the killing of Osama was some sort of "joint operation" was thin camouflage that has been torn apart by minimal public scrutiny. On 4 May Pakistan's information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan admitted in Parliament that American choppers had evaded detection by use of "map of the earth" flying techniques. If the Pak military did learn what was happening during the 40-odd minutes that ground operations took, there was too much uncertainty and confusion in its chain of command to fashion an adequate, or any, response.

Stark fact: the Pakistan Army is impotent before America.

Only the impotent resort to bluster. The Pakistan military rather pompously "threatened" America with "dire consequences" if it dared to violate Pak sovereignty again. America sniffed, not in sorrow but disdain, and sent Drones on Friday to hit targets in the Datta Khel area, killing 12 people, described naturally as "militants". Washington did not seek Islamabad's permission for renewed military action.

Less evident fact, but fact nevertheless: Pakistan's generals, who have controlled defence policy from the moment Ayub Khan became defence minister, whether through their own dictators or civilian politicians who took their dictation [except for the six Zulfiqar Bhutto years], have turned a national army into a mercenary force. Those who pay the piper determine the tune. Since Pakistan's generals have Urdu as their first language, they will not need an interpreter to understand Sahir Ludhianvi's evocative couplet: "Kaise bazaar ka dustoor tumhein samjhaaon, Bik gaya jo woh kharidaar nahin ho sakta [How shall I explain the logic of the bazaar? He is who has been sold cannot become a buyer]".

This is a variation, not particularly subtle, of the neo-colonial syndrome. Neo-colonization was honed and shaped by the British Raj on the Indian subcontinent through the princely states, so we have sufficient evidence from history. In essence, neo-colonization is the grant of independence on condition you do not exercise it. It is an exchange of security systems, where the superior power ensures the survival of an ally, while the ally protects the interests of the superpower in its region.

When, therefore, the Pakistan army feels the need for an alternative policy line which might be unacceptable to Washington, it is forced into double-talk and deception. The ISI must maintain distance and deniability when it nurtures assets it needs to use when its requirements are askance of American interests. This explains its relationship with outfits it has either spawned or fattened. That old codger Pervez Musharraf, whose most effective arsenal has always been stored within his vocal chords, has been trotted out to explain how Osama was living in luxury within smelling distance of the military. This is logical, since Osama made his home in Abbotabad when Musharraf was President. As attorney for the Army, however, Musharraf is hopeless; he thinks raising his voice, combined with a convenient memory, improves an argument. One story is too priceless to be ignored. Former Afghanistan intelligence chief A. Saleh recalls that when, four years ago, he told Musharraf that Osama was hiding in or around Abbotabad, Musharraf exploded, "Am I President of the Republic of Banana?"

The question is rhetorical. Dictators like Musharraf have turned Muhammad Ali Jinnah's Pakistan into a banana republic.

I wonder sometimes if Pak generals get more irritated by an Indian general's barb or an Afghan's taunt. Last Wednesday, General Zahir Azimi, spokesman for Kabul's defence ministry, publicly wondered: "If the Pakistani intelligence agency does not know about a home located 10 metres or 100 metres away from its national academy, where for the last six years the biggest terrorist is living, how can this country take care of its strategic weapons?" The whole of Pakistan, not just Kabul, is waiting for an adequate response.

The deterioration of the Pakistan army is not a consequence of financial corruption. That is a small part of the story. It self-destructive because there is complete absence of accountability. No one, either a wing of government or Parliament, can question its will to do what it wants. In the name of patriotism, it has declared virtual independence from the rest of Pakistan. The consequences are there for all to see. Instead of being an impenetrable wall on the frontier, the Pak Army has become a porous bale of cotton.

You can only sleep comfortably wrapped in cotton; a nation's guardians need to keep their eyes open.

Friday, May 06, 2011

With Friends Like These!

With Friends Like These!
By M J Akbar
In India Today
May 16, 2011

A lie is always a running invitation to a bigger lie. The Pinocchio school of international relations may begin as a clever little nose, but quickly elongates into an embarrassing self-caricature: the lie walks in ahead of you. Within hours of Osama bin Laden's death in a precisely planned operation that will enter intelligence lore, the Asif Zardari government had interred Pakistan's credibility with Osama's bones through a series of contradictory statements that did not even have the decency to adapt to emerging facts. Perhaps Pakistan believes that because it has become a battlefield, obfuscation is a legitimate tactic in the fog of war. As that brilliant doctor of human nature, Shakespeare, pointed out, what a tangled web we weave when first we set out to deceive.

Opportunism comes naturally to the Zardari establishment, and its knee initially jerked in a familiar direction, towards self-congratulation. The usual suspects rushed to television studios to declare that Osama had been killed in a "joint operation", the crowning glory of the long "war against terror". Envoys in London and Washington went into media over-drive. In London, Wajid Shamsul Hasan offered BBC a bluster-fib, unlikely to have been sanctioned by headquarters: that Osama had been lured into Abbottabad only a few days before, towards a trap with a splendid denouement.

The director of CIA, Leon Panetta, tore apart this fiction: "It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets." Separately, John Brennan, counter-terrorism chief in the White House, went on air to say, "It is inconceivable that Osama could have lived so many years without a support system." They could not have been more candid: America believed that Islamabad would help its ward, Osama, escape to another haven if told about the planned assault. The CIA knew that Osama had been living in Abbottabad, within sniffing distance of Pakistan's most important military academy, for about five to six years, ever since the house was built. Add two and two and you might conclude that the large home with high walls and barbed wire had been built specifically for Osama.

By Monday evening, Zardari was forced to admit that his spokesmen had been lying, and that "the events of Sunday were not a joint operation". Later, perhaps pressurised by domestic lobbies, he even charged the US with violating Pakistan's sovereignty. Here is a thought: sovereignty can only be violated if you have preserved it.

Zardari deliberately ignored a key question that has become a clamour. The ISI is not a stupid organisation. How come it did not know that the most famous face in the wanted world, a terrorist who provoked America into a major war (current cost, $300 million a day) was living, along with wives, a dozen children, and aides, for over five years at its doorstep? If Islamabad did know, as some voices now claim, why did Pakistan abjure its sovereign right to arrest Osama and put him on trial, instead of waiting for Americans to find out his whereabouts with inevitable consequences? The idea is redolent with possibilities. If the assassin of Salman Taseer was greeted with rose petals in Lahore and venerated across airwaves, how much adulation would Osama have generated during his trial? Pakistan could have repaid its national debt by charging an admission fee.

The pincer squeezes from both directions when you lie. The truth is uncomplicated. A few simple housekeeping questions will unravel it. Osama's youngest child, from his latest (Pakistani) wife, is two, and was therefore born in Abbottabad. Who were the doctors? Did his dozen children go to school or were they privately tutored? Who are the tutors? Did his wives visit relatives? Did the children never leave home? Where did they go? How did they get money for groceries? Not from a local bank account, surely? Who paid the electricity and water bills? In cash or cheque? Osama was a kidney patient, as Pervez Musharraf confirmed in 2002. How did he get medication? This is hardly an exhaustive list, but enough to prove that someone in power, most likely the ISI, gave Osama succour and protection. America has a hundred reasons to mistrust Islamabad, and this will imperil the relationship for the foreseeable future.

Till he hunted down Osama, Barack Obama was merely President; he has now become leader of his nation. He has legitimised the Nobel Prize for Peace he so foolishly took when he had done nothing to deserve it. But triumph creates as much space for mistakes as defeat. Osama was only the most septic symbol of the problem that has widened in the past decade. The true danger is not from individuals, or groups, but from an ideology that has acquired firm roots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is manifest in parties like the Taliban: a medieval interpretation of theocracy which seeks to seize power in both Kabul and Islamabad and turn the adjoining region toxic.

Obama needs to select his friends with as much care as he has chosen his enemies.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Her Kingdom has come

Her Kingdom has come
By M J Akbar

Byword:In India Today
9th May 2011

Now for the good news. If opinion polls are right, more than 60 per cent of India will be ruled by women of substance from the middle of May. Between them, Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee could preside over the destiny of Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, along with a part-share in Jammu and Kashmir and the North East. Add a supplementary, that BJP has chosen a woman, Sushma Swaraj, as leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and you have a burst of feminine power not seen in India since Razia Sultan sat on the Delhi throne in the 13th century.

Silly columnists rush in where angels fear to tread. Sensible angels don't make poll predictions. Alas, for journalists, no angels, this is a bread-and-butter requirement. Mamata Banerjee may be more wind than flight, but she will land in Writers' Building once results are declared on May 13; not as comfortably perhaps as she imagines, but still there. She has already acquired heavy-frame spectacles in the billboard image sprawled across Calcutta; if you want to be chief minister of Bengal, it helps to look like an intellectual. In Tamil Nadu, the polls are done. Jayalalithaa has gone on holiday and the Karunanidhi clan returned to family squabbles. No one can be certain of the Tamil Nadu result, but the theme of this series of Assembly elections is taking shape: if you are establishment, you are in trouble.

The Leftist rock in Bengal is looking more like rock salt; while the DMK is writhing in pain from different wounds. The Assam Congress, which began this campaign in a chipper mood, is now visibly distraught at the possibility of losing office. In all states, the Congress vote has dropped sharply from its 2009 levels because of the crime opera being serialised in media every day. But an intriguing variation has spawned an anomaly in Kerala. The Left has repositioned the contest as one between two establishments, the local Left versus the national Congress, and switching the question from 'Who is better?' to 'Who is worse?' But this is unlikely to prevent a Congress-front victory.

Men are psychologically destabilised by the thought of women on top. All through history, across nations and cultures, their contempt for women who aspire for power has been well-documented. They have repeatedly used doctrine and sword to keep the "weaker sex" in its place, which, in their world-view is ideally restricted to the pillow, their influence whispered into the ear, or stretched to seduction. The image is as old as Genesis. Eve initiated proceedings in heaven when she "tempted" Adam with her apple, but on earth it was Adam who occupied the temporal throne. A role reversal has been long overdue, but had to await the gender equality enshrined in adult franchise, a process which began through faltering steps, in the 20th century.

The first phase of feminine empowerment was marked by accident, opportunity and individual ability. Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir have been declared successful (by men) because they were re-imagined as proto-males, the only-man-in-the-Cabinet syndrome. When all three decimated foes in war with calm ruthlessness, men cheered them on as one of their own, implying that their success was due to a functional male gene in a dysfunctional female DNA. The sexism was unnoticed by one gender, and ignored by the other.

Democracy has at long last hit critical mass. Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee-or for that matter Angela Merkel-are where they are not because of genes, but by the collective will of an unsentimental electorate. How much real change will this represent in India? To suggest that women in power will be less corrupt is fatuous, and contrary to all prevalent evidence. Even Mamata Banerjee, who has spent decades suggesting that money was seriously injurious to her health, has abandoned pretence and is promoting a North Indian moneybag as an elixir of the Coming New Bengal Economy. Given the protection of privacy, such women would doubtless argue that they need cash for their counteroffensive in a hostile environment where gender bias starves them of resources. So will they, to use an apt metaphor, be merely cosmetic?

It depends on whether these women decide to behave like faux men, or whether they obey their natural instincts. A woman does not have to bear babies to be a mother. Men take pride in achievement; women take pride in feeding the family. Every member of a family is not an achiever, and will not bring the same amount to the kitty, but everyone has to be fed equally. It is, in essence, the difference between exclusive growth and inclusive growth. Men gave us the first. Women should give us the second.