Saturday, September 29, 2012


 M.J. Akbar

It all began with Mamata Banerjee. With a single tug she set in motion
a series of reactions that opened up contradictions, fears, suspicions
and ambition that can only be resolved by another General Election.
There has been insufficient acknowledgement of her formative role
because the middle class, and its playground, the media, dismiss her
as a deviant when her core characteristic is independence. She knows a
basic rule of public life. The political clock is not set by the news
cycle. A sensible politician factors in the news story but worries
only about impact, which is an aggregation of interlinked facts that
slowly seep into the subconscious. A General Election is determined by
what becomes embedded in perception, not an evening’s flash. That
issue is corruption. Mamata Banerjee took command of vanguard space in
Opposition ranks when she decided that association with a tarred
Congress had become counterproductive. She said publicly what other
Congress allies are beginning to admit privately. Mamata is not
reticent: Her body language is often more descriptive than her
sentence. She is a high-voltage battery, ever ready. She did not bring
down the Government by withdrawing support, but she punctured its
confidence and set politics on the path to elections. Four days after
Mamata’s formal departure, Congress President Mrs Sonia Gandhi said
that the upa Government was stable. Within hours her ally in the west,
Sharad Pawar’s ncp, was destabilising the most important upa coalition
after Delhi, Maharashtra. A local Congress-ncp conflict that had
remained dormant for years erupted because the environment was no
longer in Congress control. Ambitions that have learnt to wait will
not remain quiet if opportunity becomes visible. On the same day, the
steadfast Congress friend in Tamil Nadu, dmk, told Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh through the latter’s emissary that it was not
interested in proposing any new names for inclusion in the proposed
Cabinet reshuffle. The dmk’s message was simple: The days of telling
us what to do are over; if you don’t listen to us, we have other
options. Within a week of Mamata’s move, the principal alliances of
the Congress were in disarray. The English language offers a
descriptive phrase: Coming apart at the seams. The upa was coming
apart at the beams that have held it up. The only chap hanging on
loyally to Congress is Lalu Prasad Yadav, and they didn’t even make
him a Cabinet minister in 2009. Everyone can see the writing on the
television screen, including Congress. When the drums of war rumble,
there is confrontation ahead. The thunder of electoral battle first
rolls out in advertising. Government media is already experiencing a
traffic jam of slightly over-cooked songs, reheated from 2009, which
seek to energise targeted Congress demographic segments: Muslims,
women and the more generalised rubric of the poor. On a parallel line,
Congress is trying to revive its “nuclear deal constituency” in the
urban middle class with a slew of economic reforms and decisions, some
packaged in misleading frames, to push a stagnant economy as well as
divert mass attention away from corrosive subjects like the coal scam.
Together, this is a pitch for Congress, not upa. upa has imploded, and
the Congress is trying to reset its electoral compass. For the formal
Opposition, it no longer matters much how long this Government lasts,
because if you cannot govern, then the longer you last, the worse it
is for your prospects. Congress needs time to change the discourse,
and would like to wait till the last minute. But the party is old
enough to understand that it cannot function with an uncertain
majority, or every crisis like the Ajit Pawar insurrection will
compound an image of corruption bracketed with political helplessness,
if not ineptitude. Its core contradiction has not changed with
circumstances; its allies occupy space once held by the party, which
the party would like to recover.  The departure of Mamata Banerjee
from upa cleans up  one such paradox, but even if the immediate cost
is high the party can always hope for reward when Mamata’s support
begins to deflate. But its relationship with ncp has fractured, and
sarcasm has entered the dmk refrain. A conventional belief is that bjp
lost in 2004 because its “India Shining” campaign finessed the plight
of the poor, and the poor taught bjp that they were still masters on
voting day. But the bjp lost that crucial battle long before polling,
when, in a display of hubris, they spurned their traditional allies—Om
Prakash Chautala in Haryana, Shibu Soren in Jharkhand and agp in
Assam. When the polity is as fractured as ours is, little drops make
the eventual ocean. Congress has lost one principal ally, and lamed
two others already. Those who are supportive in the survival game,
like Mulayam Singh Yadav or Mayawati, will be ferociously antagonistic
at the polls. If either the Congress or bjp wants to conquer in
General Elections tomorrow, they must stoop today.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The assault on co-existence

Byline for 23 September 2012
The assault on co-existence
M.J. Akbar

What is common between the criminal complaint against Rabbi David Goldberg for circumcising Jewish boys in Hof, Germany; the ban on minarets in Switzerland; the continual attempts by some European publications to offend Muslims; the attempt to convict a young Christian in Pakistan for blasphemy she did not commit; an attack on a mosque in Missouri, USA; or, most vicious of all, the recent film that injects lies and malice into public discourse through veins nourished by hatred?

Each one is not designed to destroy the existence of the “other”.
Their purpose is to poison co-existence, the fundamental basis of
civilised living.

Anger is not always illogical, but there is no rationale that can
justify each of these instances. Rabbi Goldberg was not trying to
circumcise Christians; he was practising his own faith. To target
minarets as a cultural crime in an age of skyscrapers is manifest
prejudice, of the sillier sort. Provocative European publishers are
not defending freedom of speech, which is their much advertised
explanation, since nowhere in the democratic world does the right to publish include the leeway to libel or defame, particularly when a lie can lead to public disorder. The Pakistani child was a victim, not a perpetrator — of fanatics who wanted to punish her and her kin for protecting Christianity in their theocratic environment. The bilious film about the Prophet of Islam was not made by a filmmaker, but by a bigot determined to provoke a violent reaction that would confirm in many innocent or na├»ve minds the image of Islam as a fountainhead of
violence rather than what the word actually means, which is peace. The barbarians who killed four American diplomats in Libya duly obliged: hatred breeds hatred in an escalating cycle.

Even the most dramatic example of pure, unadulterated terrorism, the destruction of New York’s twin towers on 9/11, was initiated not to destroy America’s existence, which is impossible even within the mindset of a maniac, but to breach an emerging international order founded on mutual respect, and the equality of nations. The planes that headed towards the White House and Pentagon were not ferrying troops who had been ordered to conquer Washington. Their purpose was
to generate fear, hostility and war between the two largest religious communities in the world. They succeeded, but to an extent far lower than the expectations of terrorist masterminds, and yet far more than the young 21st century could stomach. The price has been high. The Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 had a dual objective: to warp the India-Pakistan engagement, as fragile as it might have been; and to incite violence in India between Hindus and Muslims. It is
satisfying to report that the second wish failed spectacularly because Indians understood that such discord would mean a victory for terrorism.

The most interesting aspect of this worldwide shadow war is that both the self-appointed commanders and their terrorist troops are almost wholly civilian. We are witnessing a rare phenomenon: people outside the power structure, working largely (but not always) on their own, can do more damage to social harmony than powerful regiments led by dictators, Presidents or Prime Ministers. There are governments, of course, who are tempted to dip their hands in the sewer for political gain; and you can never rule out the unintelligent intelligence agency which believes in a strategy of destabilising civilian populations.

But governments have not, exceptions apart, been in the forefront of these battle lines.

Whatever their nature, despotic, democratic or in-between, governments know that fomenting terrorism debilitates the personal and institutional advantages of being in power through blowback damage.

Even when legitimate armies are put on the field, governments
calibrate the conflict. When governments fall into the grip of radical ideologues who have left common sense at the club bathhouse, the damage is startling, as was evident during President George Bush’s Iraq war.

The most dangerous of today’s conspiracies are being manufactured in small rooms lost in the labyrinths of a big city by men who will not become internationally infamous unless they succeed. We do not know how many 9/11s or Mumbai attacks have failed, but just the thought is sufficient for a shudder. Failure is not any hindrance to fanatics.

They are now being lured by the siren outreach of a miraculous
technology that continues to breed new tools by the day. Prevention is the full time job of innumerable police forces, while no one has any real clue about what might constitute a cure.

This war has to be fought where it is being incubated, on the street, and in the mind. We cannot afford politicians who seek votes from a sewer. This is a malaise, an infection, a plague, a crisis that demands leaders who maintain the sanity of good doctors in the face of havoc. Violence can begin with the word, and every word must be chosen with care.

Thunder from the East

Thunder from the East
On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 18, when a deceptive calm over Delhi had begun to sink into torpor, TV channels floated a story that the men in charge of the congress machine had yet again deflated a Mamata Banerjee insurrection, this time over the diesel price hike and FDI in retail. 

Politicians will plant a few weeds in the information jungle when they can; it is less understandable when media begins to
fertilise weeds. But the real problem is not a mistake, which can happen in any vocation. Our capital’s elite gets it wrong because it
is in the grip of those who look at Calcutta from Delhi, while real power has shifted to the grasp of those who look at Delhi from Calcutta. Pranab Mukherjee was ubiquitous to upa because he was that rare politician who could absorb the view from both directions. In UPA 1 the prime minister and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi outsourced political
management to Mukherjee; he brought the ship of state through some
historic storms because he never forgot his compass. Neither Dr Manmohan Singh nor Mrs Gandhi seem to fully comprehend the extent to which they have alienated allies as well as potential partners. Where an ego needed some massage, it was rubbed the wrong way. Where a
financial commitment could have been made with grace, it was made
with a growl. It takes unique ability to manoeuvre Mamata Banerjee and Marxists into an alliance, albeit unacknowledged, against the centre;
or force Karunanidhi to join a protest against his  own government; or turn CPI(M)  and BJP into partners in parliamentary inquiry committees
over the  2g scam. Gurudas Dasgupta, the veteran communist leader, actually thanked Mamata Banerjee on  primetime television. the
congress weakness is due not to the rancour of parties but the alienation of voters, fed up with unprecedented corruption and sustained inflation. Congress politics now revolves primarily around
the 750-odd men and women who are members of parliament. Other parties are more worried about the 700 million who are voters. When Mamata Banerjee sounded out her base, she heard the overwhelming view that the price of associating with congress now far outweighs the cost of leaving upa. If the congress had been more observant, it would not have been shocked when the Bengal ultimatum was delivered through a press conference. Till then, the mood in the prime minister’s office was actually one of self-congratulation, with much talk of Mamata as a package of disposable bombast. The flip side of overestimating your worth is that you inevitably underestimate others. no one is a patsy.
life has changed. congress hasn’t. at the moment of writing, Dr Singh and Mrs. Gandhi have a choice: they can either save their government
with genuflection through a partial rollback, or protect the government’s credibility. This might be the ultimate hobson’s choice, since governance is a mirage without credibility. Mamata has left open
a technical window through which she can return to government, but rhetoric on the airwaves indicates that the relationship will never be
fully repaired. Marriages do survive their crisis moments, but too much spouse-battering is taking place in this one. Even if upa manages
to scramble the necessary numbers during a problem in the next session of parliament, it will be a fluctuating advantage, purchased on daily
barter. it could be a demand-a-week story. taunts are already in  the air. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar used an eloquent term, jugaad, or the ability to “manage” through suitable compensation, to describe this aspect of congress core competence. An opposition leader can joke; it
doesn’t seem quite as funny when you are in office. No decision made by an uncertain government carries credibility; even a popular gesture invites the sneer that it is being done for partisan benefit. congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh was frank enough to admit that the
only realistic option now was a general election. One wonders if he is also optimistic. Congress is facing not only the opposition from traditional foes but also isolation from traditional friends. Mamata
Banerjee, Karunanidhi and Sharad Pawar have announced a first round of talks through their trusted nominees. You can be confident that they
will not meet to discuss t20 cricket. It is always one stone that sets off an avalanche. We do not yet know if fdi in retail will change the face of India’s economy. What is certain is that it has changed the face of India’s politics. My sympathies go out to the many mps who had been promised a place in government in the next reshuffle. It is
not the errant minister who is in danger, but the government itself.
To appoint new ministers today would be an invitation to a barmecide’s feast.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Another fuse in a firestorm

Byline for September 16, 2012

Another fuse in a firestorm

M.J. Akbar

There is just one more fuse waiting to be lit to turn the fires from Khyber to Maghreb into an unprecedented conflagration. A unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before United States votes to elect its next President on 6 November.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already done the unacceptable if not the unimaginable, by directly intervening in the American electoral debate with harsh criticism of Obama in an attempt to persuade American Jewish voters to support the Republican Mitt Romney. He has implied that Obama is compromising on Iran; implicit is the threat that Israel will be forced to go ahead during “the window of opportunity”, this election season, when Obama will not be able to stop Israel for fear of losing a core section of the Democratic vote. At one level, this is evidence of nervous thinking in Tel Aviv. It presumes Obama will win, for Romney’s victory would turn that slim window into a wide door, open for four years. Obama has remained cool: he has declined [at least so far] to meet Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month. Hillary Clinton said it bluntly: Washington is “not setting deadlines” for Iran.
The war over the war has turned intense, and it is by no means one-sided. Romney might want to rain brimstone right away, but Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose job it would be to conduct the battle, said, “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.” Bill Keller, former editor of New York Times, a newspaper that is supportive of Israel without losing its judgement or independence, argued in a meticulous column that there “is no reason to strike now. There are inspectors and monitoring devices at Iran’s enrichment facilities to alert us if Iran decides to start enriching weapons-grade fuel.” As Keller had pointed out in an earlier piece, the American-Israeli retaliation against a single Iranian nuclear missile would be incineration, and while Tehran’s mullahs might encourage suicide missions elsewhere, there is no evidence that they themselves are suicidal.
The most remarkable comment on this gathering crisis came from the floor of the Knesset, when Shaul Mofaz, Leader of the Opposition, asked Netanyahu: “Prime Minister, who do you think is Israel’s greatest enemy? The United States or Iran? Who do you fear more, Mr Netanyahu — Ahmadinejad or President Obama? Which administration is more important for you to replace — the administration in Washington or that in Tehran?” These questions made an answer irrelevant.
Many Israeli leaders are deeply worried that Netanyahu’s belligerence could dilute Israel’s most important asset, the tremendous goodwill of the American people. A survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found this week that 70% of Americans are against any unilateral Israeli strike; 59% would not want Washington to aid Israel in such a situation. Tehran is cool as it watches the biggest international coalition since the first Gulf War under strain at its sturdiest points. In any game of strategic nerves, the cost of miscalculation is prohibitive. So much of the outcome depends on who makes the decisive mistake. This game is being played close to the edge; anyone can fall off into a pretty deep abyss.
Those leaders capable of converting a crisis into an opportunity do not actually try very hard to extract political mileage; they stick to what they believe is the correct thing to do, and eliminate the fuss. The right thing is almost inevitably also the popular thing, although this may not be immediately evident. Obama reacted to the assassination of an American envoy in Benghazi in a manner he has honed over four years: he aims for effective retribution, even if it is a little delayed, not immediate rhetoric.
Libya, symptomatic of many parts of the Arab world, has become a mix of badlands, wasteland and the occasional oasis of hope. Obama will, it seems at the moment of writing, wait for intelligence to identify those who organised this attack on the American consulate, and use his forces to hit back when they are ready. Romney’s instant, virulent reaction indicated that he had made politics personal. His intemperate outburst will cost him votes that could have come his way in November. It is entirely logical that Romney and Netanyahu should be allies; they are pretty good at slapping down their own support.
The old jibe that war is too important to be left to generals might need updating; sometimes it is too dangerous to be left to politicians. The region between Libya and Pakistan is seething with intricate layers of anger and insurrection born of causes and fantasies that have suppurated over the last century. We are heading towards a very dangerous decade in which shadow armies will spread havoc among their own people as well as the rest of the world. We need, among the world’s leaders, the courage and clarity of fire-fighters, not adult children with a matchbox.

Sorry - have been a trifle tardy but the inputs will be regular now! Do keep sending your comments. Your reactions are important to me.


Friday, September 14, 2012

The Murder of Laughter

The Murder of Laughter
M.J. Akbar

The Raj froze laughter between the ruler and ruled

 Between the old world of Raja Birbal and the new age of Mahatma
Gandhi fell the shadow of the British Raj; and its stiff upper lip silenced, for a century and more, a creative bridge between ruler and citizen, humour. The bridge was unequal, but it existed.

The witty Brahmin, Birbal, was dining with his emperor when Akbar
the Great sniffed at a plate of brinjal. Brinjal, thundered Birbal,
was a vegetable from hell, unworthy of a monarch who was the shadow of
divinity on earth—how dare the royal kitchen serve such junk! Flay the
chef! A few weeks later, at another meal, Akbar found a dish of brinjal delicious. Birbal went into raptures that excelled one another in metaphor and rhapsody. Akbar reminded Birbal of his previous views. “Sire,” replied Birbal, “this brinjal is not my emperor. You are.”

 Anyone who thinks sycophancy is the point of the story misses the
point. The punchline punctures, if lightly, the ego of kings with a verbal stiletto. Birbal is the eponymous people’s hero because his anecdotes are comfort food on the table of power. Birbal is the most famous of an eastern tradition of courtiers and citizens, across kingdoms and centuries, who challenged the claimed omnipotence of rulers with the salutary barb of wit.

They used jest, but were not jesters; Birbal was one of Akbar’s finest military commanders who is believed to have died during the wars in Afghanistan. The stories around these popular icons, many apocryphal, were often moral fables or pungent reminders of a power beyond the realm of kings. Sultan Haroun al Rashid, the mightiest of Baghdad’s Abbasid dynasty, had a celebrated alter ego, Luqman, who was once seen rushing away with a log in flames. Luqman explained that he was going to hell. Why carry fire to hell, asked Haroun; there was enough fire there already. Wrong, replied Luqman: Each one of us
carries his own fire to hell. The Turkish lands of Asia had Hodja, who
laughed at wealth and authority. He was once invited to dinner by a
rich man in the city of Aksehir, and found no one paid attention to
him because he was in his normal clothes. He went home, changed into
finery, returned and found he was offered the best food. He dipped the
bottom of his fur coat into gravy and cried, ‘My dear coat, eat! This
food is for you, not me.’

 The more powerful the monarch the greater seemed the need for a
figure who could keep him close to earth. Muslim rulers were reminded
of an Arab saying, attributed to the Prophet, “Humour is to speech
what salt is to food.” Wit was classless, but it had to be delivered
with grace. As that great raconteur and journalist Abdul Halim Sharar
notes in his immortal tribute to Awadh, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an
Oriental Culture, “The greater a person’s wit, the more he will be
appreciated in literary and social circles.” It is axiomatic that wit
needs a target, but it must always wear the antidote of discretion.
Raja Bhoja of 11th century Malwa had a lower caste ‘Teli’ as his foil,
but if the latter lives on in memory it is because he used a pinprick,
not a sword. Wit is a reminder, not a rebellion.

 The meaning of servant changed with the arrival of the British, as
did the meaning of master. Pride of service was replaced by dry
obedience. Nawab Asaf ud Daulah of Awadh hired a cook who only made
lentils at the astonishing salary of Rs 500 a month. The Nawab always
had to comply with a service condition, that he eat the dal as soon as
it was prepared. Some weeks later, the cook produced his first
plateful, placed it on the dastarkhwan, and told the Nawab, who was
chatting. When after two reminders the Nawab did not appear, the cook
emptied the dal on a withered tree and walked out, never to be seen
again. Money was no substitute for honour.

Hilton Brown, whose anthology The Sahibs: The Life and Ways of the
British in India as Recorded by Themselves was published in 1948, when
the many odours of the Raj were still wafting through live memory,
notes that “Before he had servants—this is a thing one is apt to
forget—the Sahib had slaves...” and that a great deal of “solemn
discussion” from Waterloo (1815) to the Mutiny (1857) between
Europeans in India dwelt on “how far it was permissible, and indeed
advisable, to beat one’s domestic staff for next to nothing”. The
diarist Russell, writing in 1857, described this as “a savage,
beastly, and degrading custom” and noted that the perpetrator “had no
fear of any pains or penalties of the law”. To be fair, slavery
existed before the British arrived, and perhaps while a Nawab’s
whipping was as painful, a Sahib’s was remembered.

The startling difference between the British Raj and Indian
Raj is the utter absence of humour between ruler and ruled under the
British. There is no chapter on wit in The Sahibs. There are jokes
aplenty in British Life in India: An Anthology of Humorous and Other
Writings Perpetrated by the British in India, 1750-1950, With Some
Latitude for Works Completed after Independence edited by R.V.
Vernede, but Indians only appear when the Sahibs laughed at them, not
with them, although quite often fondly. Hence:

    Suleiman Khan was a zubberdust man, but fond of the ladies too.

    He’d an iron fist and a very long list of all the villains he knew.

    They came to no harm if they greased his palm, as sensible rascals did;

    But no ‘Pro Quo’ if a fellow said ‘No’ and failed to produce his ‘Quid’.

 There are fun and games, of course, in British India, particularly
between the sexes. There was much dancing, correctly described as the
vertical expression of a horizontal desire, when the fishing fleets
brought in another catch of eager women from ‘home’; and there was
sufficient horizontal expression in the summer capital of Simla for a
Vicereine to sniff that no one could be found sleeping with his or her
legitimate partner. Rudyard Kipling’s Mrs Hauksbee noted tartly, in
Plain Tales from the Hills (1898) that “take my word for it, the
silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever
woman to manage a fool”. And the Honourable Sir J.A. Thorne, ICS,
recalled, It turned to a kill, I intended a quarrel./Flirtatious young
miss! (Yet it turned to a kiss.)/She pouted—and this robs my verse of
a moral./It turned to a kiss; I intended a quarrel!

  The British were hardly humourless, but they reserved their wit
for Britain, where class distinctions remained rigid, but where life
was lived without fear. The first casualty of fear is humour. As
George Orwell, a Raj officer in Burma, remarked, “You cannot be
memorably funny without at some point raising topics which the rich,
the powerful and the complacent would prefer to see left alone.” The
guardians of the British Raj understood that it would be more easily
destroyed by ridicule than guns. It was not until Indians began to
rise again, in the early 20th century, that wit entered the political
dialectic. Indian poets, of course, continued to lance their lines
with sentiment against foreign rule; and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's
satire against the Tommy is lacerating. But this literature was
subversive, and always wary of censorship, which was a formidable
weapon in the Raj arsenal. How do you censor the Oxbridge-returned
leader of the Khilafat movement, Maulana Muhammad Ali, when he
cheekily asks the British why they educated Indians if they wanted
them to remain subservient. No force, as Mark Twain pointed out, can
withstand the assault of laughter.

    The savage cartoon is 18th century Britain's contribution to
political debate; and if vulgarity is an issue, then you have to take
a look at British caricature of its royalty. Those pamphleteers were
merciless. Why does the Indian ruling class, across party lines, react
with such outrage over cartoon and caricature? It cannot merely be
imploding self-confidence as defeat looms on the electoral horizon.
That would be human, and might even be easily explicable. It seems
more likely that while we fashioned our system from the Westminster
model, our rulers inherited their attitudes from the British Raj of
Calcutta and Delhi rather than the Indian pedigree of Mughal or
Maratha or Rajput.

    Our founding fathers could take a joke, because they joined public
life to serve. Their successors entered politics as a means to power.
They lost their sense of humour at the gate.