Sunday, November 27, 2011

Charge of the old guard

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 27)

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Pakistan's Toxic Brotherhood

From Byword- India Today (November 25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Curious Gamble of Rahul Gandhi

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 20)

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Gandhian Paradox

From Byword- India Today (November 18)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A soft hiss from the Mamata balloon

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 13)

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Beware of Dust Storms

From Byword- India Today (November 11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Don’t tell, don’t know

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (November 6)

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

Friday, November 04, 2011

A Word About History

From Byword- India Today (November 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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