Sunday, January 27, 2013

Low expectations an advantage for Rahul

Low expectations an advantage for Rahul

27 January 2013
The Times of India

The destiny of the Nehru-Indira family seems to move in twenty-year cycles. Its journey in power began on June 15, 1945 when Jawaharlal Nehru was released from his last spell in a British jail and Mahatma Gandhi immediately began to manoeuvre his heir towards centre stage. It ended on May 27, 1964 when India’s first Prime Minister shut his eyes for the last time. 
Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi joined government in 1964 and was assassinated in 1984, but there was a more significant political parallel. Her domination did not begin in 1966, when she became Prime Minister, but in 1969, when she split Congress and took control of both party and government. Her grip over Congress survived the hiccup of defeat in 1977, and she was back in power by January 1980. The family lost control, first of government and then of party, after Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat in 1989, and his tragic assassination in 1991.
The family was unable to occupy the Prime Minister’s office, despite electoral success in 1991, 2004 and 2009. After two decades, the Congress met at Jaipur to declare that this quasi-barren spell is over. There will be only one fountainhead of power, Rahul Gandhi, for the foreseeable future. Manmohan Singh is the last non-family Congress PM for as long as Rahul Gandhi chooses to remain in politics. Pranab Mukherjee was prescient. He shifted residence to Rashtrapati Bhavan at the right time. Some ambitious hearts in the higher echelons of the present Cabinet have probably suffered a silent attack, but they must reconcile their dreams to reality: there is space for eminence in Congress, but none for pre-eminence.
Rahul Gandhi has always had as much power as he wanted to exercise. The difference after Jaipur is that the Regent, Sonia Gandhi, will start to fade from decision-making. Sonia has not withdrawn fully only because she is still uncertain about her son’s ability, as if it was a puberty transition rather than an adult transfer of power. Rahul Gandhi may have stepped into only one of the two shoes his mother wears, but there is no confusion over who will be Congress candidate for prime minister in the next general elections, and indeed in the elections after that, irrespective of victory or defeat. Merit, or its absence, is never an issue when you have been anointed with a divine right to rule. The chorus of hallelujahs at Jaipur is an obligatory requirement.
If there is a law of averages then Rahul Gandhi is possibly headed for better things. He has had such a miserable record so far, the nadir reached in Uttar Pradesh, that his fortunes surely must improve at some point. He could, in the short term, also become beneficiary of a fine paradox. So far the wrap of glamour has raised expectations that were clearly beyond his ability. But once expectations are lowered, even ordinary statements begin to sound above par. That is a distinct advantage when you need to reinvent yourself. The old avatar, in which Rahul Gandhi could disappear for weeks on holiday while rage against rape swept the streets, will obviously no longer do. He will be obliged to answer awkward questions on Telengana, or why Akbaruddin Owaisi can get bail but not Jagan Reddy.
There are solutions; Congress is not devoid of talent. Rahul Gandhi should take tuition from Ghulam Nabi Azad, party general secretary in charge of Andhra Pradesh. Azad had a superb explanation when asked why the Congress had backtracked on home minister Sushil Shinde's promise to announce a final decision by January 28. “When one says tomorrow,” said Azad, “it does not mean tomorrow morning. When one says one week, sometimes it is two weeks.” Or possibly months.
Brilliant. A politician must treat words as slaves, not as masters. Azad should also open classes for Digvijay Singh, who addresses Osama bin Laden and Hafiz Saeed with all the respect due to owners of vote banks, and Shinde, who believes that India has become victim of “Hindu terrorism”. If the BJP gets elected, the party will doubtless send formal thank you letters to Singh and Shinde.
Every succeeding cycle offers diminishing returns. Jawaharlal led the Congress in three general elections and never lost any. Indira Gandhi lived on a roller coaster. She swept to a delirious victory in 1971, collapsed dramatically in 1977 and fashioned an amazing resurrection in 1980. Rajiv Gandhi had a steamroller triumph in 1984, and then ebbed to defeat in 1989. 3-0; 2-1; 1-1: the scores tell the story. It is unwise to predict results of any election that is still a year away, but Rahul Gandhi just might have to begin life at the top with an electoral setback. His choice in 2014 will be between a ramshackle coalition, or a period in opposition. That is when the Congress will know whether the heir is also a leader.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why was Bose diminished on Republic Day?

Why was Bose diminished on Republic Day?
M.J. Akbar

We measure power through size. Check any political poster. The boss gets the biggest face. Others in the pecking order descend  till the miniature at the end.

Why was Subhas Chandra Bose struggling among the also-rans in the Bengal Republic Day tableau?  Swami Vivekananda, understandably, had pride of place.  But it might have been better to keep Bose out of the jumble rather than literally reduce his stature.  If Bengal forgets, how long will India remember the only Indian to head a government of united India?
Bose declared independence before the British gave it in 1947. His government in exile did not have Gandhi's sanction. It fought on the wrong side of the Second World War: but it was a proud and free government whose contribution to our freedom has been reduced by the domestic political forces he challenged.

Bose is an embarrassment to Congress because he challenged Gandhi, and was a powerful parallel  icon to Nehru. Bose asked Indians to give him their blood, and he would give them freedom. Gandhi promised freedom without violence. Gandhi refused to join the British  war effort in 1939; Bose went a step further, and led Indian troops on the side of the Germany-Italy-Japan axis. However,  their horizon, freedom, was the same.
More than six decades later the argument might seem pedantic, and yet it is worth revisiting. Invaluable Indian blood and treasure helped Britain win the first world war. After victory, Britain reneged on its commitment to Indian self-rule within the empire without batting an eyelid.  Instead of dominion status, Indians got vicious brutality at Jallianwala Bagh and the pernicious  Rowlatt Act.
It is not generally known that Gandhi was not a pacifist: he served on British frontlines in the Boer and Zulu wars in South Africa, and was very eager to lead a medical unit to the killing fields of France in 1914, at the onset of the first world war. In 1918, Gandhi worked so hard as a recruiting agent for the British army, urging Gujaratis to prove they were not "effeminate" by picking up a gun, that he almost died of exhaustion. Farewell bhajans began to be sugn before he recovered. Gandhi lost hope in Britain only he felt betrayed.  
Britain had as much to protect in 1945 as in 1918. London knew that its empire would unravel at the point where it had begun, in India, once India became independent. What pushed Britain towards the exit gate? Of course there was the irresistible momentum of Gandhi's nationwide struggle. But the British had faced this challenge before, in the non-cooperation movement 25 years before. The significant difference  was the nationalist  sentiment unleashed by Bose among Indians in uniform. Bose's Indian National Army [INA] showed them where their national loyalties should lie. Bose's war also inspired the young to surge beyond the confines of Congress.

Even Gandhi, who only had faint praise for Bose in a 1945 obituary ["Subhas Bose has died well. He was undoubtedly a patriot though misguided"], had to admit in an article published on 15 February 1946, "The hypnotism of the Indian National Army has cast its spell on us...[Netaji's] patriotism is second to none...He aimed high but failed. Who has not failed?...The lesson that Netaji and his army brings to us is one of self-sacrifice, unity irrespective of class and community, and discipline..." When the British put three INA officers - Shah Nawaz, a Muslim, Sahgal, a Hindu, and Dhillon, a Sikh - on trial for sedition, India exploded in wrath.  Nehru said on 24 December 1945, "The INA trial  has created a mass upheaval."
Bose broke the backbone of British rule when he destroyed trust between the British Raj and its  armed forces. The eminently sensible Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander in chief, accepted that any extreme punishment for INA officers would make governance impossible, because Indians adored them as national heroes.  This, he said, was the "general opinion held in India, not only by the public, quite a considerable part of the Indian Army as well".

Subhas Bose's contribution  to the formation of a Republic of India was no  less than that of the very greatest of our founding fathers. Bose proved in practice was an Indian secular state would be. At a time when the Muslim League was in ascendant, he had the love and trust of Muslims. He lived his dream of gender equality when he set up the Rani of Jhansi regiment, under the fiery and beautiful Lakshmi Swaminathan. When Bose told the Japanese he was setting up a women's-only force, they thought he was joking. I do not believe Bose could have fought alongside Hitler, who advised the British to shoot Gandhi dead, and resented the Japanese advance  because he thought Asia  was being lost to white Europeans. Hitler was an undisguised racist, as were all Nazis.

Perhaps India can survive without Bose. But such amnesia will only diminish  India.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wanted: A magic wand from Jaipur

Byline for 20 January 2013

Wanted: A magic wand from Jaipur

M.J. Akbar

Ambition is a perfectly legitimate gene within the political DNA. Without ambition it would be almost impossible for anyone except a saint to suffer the dross, ennui and heartless envy of foes and friends that consume so much of a politician’s time. The glamour of attention and the pleasures of power are a mere ten per cent of this business. But ambition has its conditions. There is a good reason why the world frowns on naked ambition. It looks ugly. Ambition always needs a tailor who is a master of masks.
One of the more interesting developments of the last three months has been a flurry of media reports promoting Finance Minister P. Chidambaram as a future Prime Minister; and they meant the near future, not a distant one. Even as sage an international magazine as the Economist felt the urge to push this candidature. This reflected clear disappointment in Dr Manmohan Singh’s second term; many of Chidambaram’s cheerleaders were flag-wavers of more liberalisation in economic reform and thought that Dr Singh had lost the will to push this agenda significantly forward.

But there was also a growing feeling that Rahul Gandhi, the nominated heir, had not risen to the occasion offered by history. His inability to articulate policy or lead debate seemed to be the only explanation for absence from discourse. Confidence in Chidambaram was also an implicit vote of no-confidence in Rahul. Rahul Gandhi did not help his cause by disappearing from public view, apparently on a long holiday, while the iconic youth movement against rape and lawlessness filled Delhi’s streets.
There is no capital in the world that excels Delhi in the art of gossipy analysis. Self-appointed pundits began to whisper about an emerging formula: Rahul Gandhi would make Chidambaram his Manmohan Singh. He would emulate his mother, stay to the side of a Prime Minister as the political power and last word, but leave the ardour and responsibility of day-to-day executive management to Chidambaram. As options go this certainly seemed to have its merits.

The “chintan shivir”, or think-tank conference, in Jaipur should kill such entertaining chatter. The first and lasting message of this event is that while the Congress may have much to think about as it heads towards another election hour, there is one subject now closed for discussion. Rahul Gandhi will lead the party in the next campaign, and thereby claim the prime ministership if the electorate makes this a possibility. Rahul Gandhi dominated the poster space at the gathering, and all the rustle directed at media indicated that there was nothing to discuss.
The message came from the very top. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s political adviser Ahmed Patel does not give interviews; and in any case does nothing without clearance from Mrs Gandhi. In a rare interview Patel made it clear that the future of Congress belonged to Rahul Gandhi.
It is possible that such clarity broke a heart or two in the upper echelons of Congress; but it will reassure the majority of the party. The Congress did not become a family organisation only because the family wanted this. The party has also forgotten, willingly, internal democracy. Nor are there any smoke-filled rooms where a caucus can ponder choices. Congress leaders dismiss non-family suggestions with contempt. Their argument is that family is the only factor which keeps Congress united. They shudder at the disarray below during Narasimha Rao’s time at the top.

The timing of the Jaipur convention invites other questions. Is the Congress preparing for a 2013 general election, possibly along with elections to those states where they are due this autumn-winter? There is no point wasting momentum in the long calm before a storm; you might lose the sheen by the time the real test begins. Rahul Gandhi has so far been packaged for short bursts interspersed by fallow spells during which he lowers his public presence, or even disappears. Perhaps that is a demand of his personality. The demands of power do not permit such luxury, but that is something that Rahul Gandhi will have to deal with after the general elections.
Mrs Gandhi has confirmed that her son will be the pivot of the next campaign by asking Congress to concentrate on the young and the middle class. These are the electoral constituencies which are most likely to be amenable to Rahul Gandhi at this juncture of his career. If Rahul Gandhi cannot get their vote, then the story is over before it has begun. But this is also the vote that has drifted away, thanks to stalled economic growth, rising prices, corrosive corruption and the havoc perpetrated by criminals and rapists in Delhi. The Congress hopes that Rahul Gandhi will somehow manage to deflate the overwhelming anger. That will however require a magic wand. Are any such wands left in the Congress kit box?

We will know in about six months. Till then, enjoy your chatter about politics.

Is nuclear capability being used as a safety net?

Is nuclear capability being used as a safety net?

20 January 2013
The Times of India
Ever since India and Pakistan confirmed, in 1998, what the world knew, that they were both nuclear weapon powers, there has been a paradoxical calm in the background each time the foreground has lit up with fireworks on their hot-and-cold frontier. This stems from an ingrained conviction that since full-scale war has become too dangerous neither country will tempt fate beyond manageable provocations.

The evidence since Hiroshima deserves a thought or two. Nuclear power has not prevented conventional wars from changing the destiny of nations and shape of maps. Atomic bombs sat idly in megapower arsenals while war crawled to victory or defeat through its independent quagmires. Nuclear weapons have only established a contradiction: they are too powerful to be potent.

Just five years after Hiroshima, Korea went to war with itself, and America's nuclear domination could not ensure victory for its troops or prevent bifurcation of Korea. France tested its bomb, ironically, in the Algeria Sahara on 13 February 1960. It was four times as powerful as that which flattened Hiroshima, but it made no difference in colonialism's bloodiest war: Algeria defeated France and became independent on 5 July 1962. Nuclear might did not prevent America humiliation in Vietnam or a Soviet catastrophe in Afghanistan . Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands despite Britain's nuclear missiles. In 1973, Egypt and Syria were aware that Israel had the ultimate weapons of mass destruction, but went ahead with the Yom Kippur offensive. The Pakistan army attempted its daring gambit in Kargil after the nuclear race with India had been well and truly launched.

In fact, our subcontinent induces a perverse question: has the reassurance of nuclear capability become an encouragement for military mischief? Now that it is certain that there cannot be another 1971, when defeat split Pakistan, does this tempt the more radical or ultra elements in Pakistan , within and outside the army, to test the limits of conventional conflict?

Such questions become acute at a time of disarray in Islamabad, such as now. Events have unhinged the principal verticals of the Pakistan establishment — an elected executive, the self-perpetuating armed forces and judiciary — from any common mooring.

Pakistan's current dilemma is not a disoriented democracy but a dysfunctional state. To lose one Prime Minister on a corruption offence, as President Asif Zardari has done, might be a misfortune, but to lose two within seven months is, as they say, distinctly careless. Zardari can hardly afford to be careful about corruption, otherwise he would have to go before the electorate took any decision. His first Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was sacked by the Supreme Court for refusing to reopen corruption cases against Zardari. The second, Pervaiz Ashraf, has just been convicted of receiving kickbacks while handing out contracts for Rental Power Plants. Interesting as this is, the more point is elsewhere. Zardari has, so far, shrugged off the court order.

If the Supreme Court is not the last word in law, then there is no rule of law. Authority in Pakistan is not interlinked through the clauses of a Constitution in which supremacy of sectors is defined. It is a long-established fact that the armed forces run an independent empire, and the cursory interface with government exists largely for notional purposes. The most powerful intelligence agency, ISI, is not run by the elected government, but the army. ISI intervenes where it wishes, and operates its own security and foreign policies. Zardari did make an attempt to bring ISI under his control but he was slapped down sharply. He did not try again. Inevitably, the common speculation when a silver-tongued maverick like Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri storms political citadels is that he is the vanguard of a "soft coup": "Soft" means an indirect takeover, as opposed to the pistol-waving sort last seen in the heyday of Pervez Musharraf.

The Army is divided about the best strategy for Pakistan. Pragmatists, led by the chief General Ashfaq Kayani, follow the American prescription of concentrating on the western front. Ideologues, conversely , believe they share some common cause objectives with those America considers terrorists; terrorists are at best an irritation, India is the true enemy. This debate has frayed the Pak army's unity under command, and spread into the political discourse as well. But politicians are second-class citizens when it comes to India policy.

Is there a pattern in the strands spread between cantonment and street? Talk of a "soft coup" did not begin in Delhi. But a coup needs justification. The army does not disguise its contempt for Zardari, or its lacerating confrontation with the judiciary; nor do summer elections offer any great prospect of stability. A nuclear safety net eliminates the possibility of any existential threat if things go wrong, and confrontation along the Indian border raises the need for armed forces at the centre of power.

As theories go, this is perhaps worth a ponder..

No year is an island

No year is an island

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the pulpit

Byline for 13 January 2013

Guardians of the pulpit

M.J. Akbar

It is silent. It is complex. There is unease but no outcry. There is diffidence, and uncertainty because it seems to carry sanction — not of faith, but some of the faithful.

The culture of the Indian subcontinent has been inevitably influenced by the spirit of the oldest of the world’s dominant faiths, Hinduism, and its last, Islam. Religion begins as a social revolution, a liberation movement against existing inequity. Religion is inspirational in the voice of prophets and the sermons of saints. What it becomes, centuries later, in the control of its self-appointed guardians is another story.
On 2 January, the Delhi edition of the Times of India tried to rescue one such narrative from the many layers of fog we use as a blindfold. Kamini Lau, an additional sessions judge, denied anticipatory bail to a certain Maulvi Mustafa Raja, who abetted in the abduction of a young girl by the accused, Nadeem Khan, by performing a nikaah between the two although Khan was already married. The ceremony did not have the girl’s consent, and was conducted in the absence of her parents. The Maulvi argued that Muslims were permitted four wives. Judge Kamini Lau noted, forcefully, that Islam permits polygamy under certain conditions but does not encourage it; and no nikaah can be legitimate without the woman’s consent. She added that Muslim countries such as Turkey and Tunisia had made polygamy illegal. She could have also said that the present Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, widely described as “Islamist”, had also made rape within marriage a criminal offence, and awarded life sentence for “honour killings”.

Kamini Lau did not mince her words. Nadeem Khan had raped the girl, and Maulvi Raja was accessory to the crime.

Perhaps the court order was as clear as it was because the judge was a woman.
It is axiomatic that religions have differences, or they would not be different. But every faith has one thing in common. All priests are men. Religious law and practice is determined by men, whether a faith believes in monotheism or polytheism, whether it worships the divine as an image or as a spirit. Only a man becomes a Pope, Shankaracharya, Dalai Lama or Shaikh ul Islam; and only men are in their robe-clad armies. There has been some reform in patches; but the Church of England was unable last year to permit women priests to rise to Bishop. A faith may split into sects. Sunni and Shia may quarrel till eternity over the successor to the Prophet, but it is the men who do the quarrelling.

Behind this bias is a conscious or subconscious conviction that women are inferior; and, in its more basic form that semen is profound and powerful, while menstruation is unclean. Sex is a gender right, a form of domination. This bias has slipped into more than one religious text.
All doctrines understand that law should be adjusted to circumstance. Islamic law specifically accepts this evolutionary process. Would religious law have evolved differently if women had been high priests? Hinduism permitted unlimited polygamy in India and denied inheritance until the reforms pushed through in 1955 by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru against strong opposition from within the ruling party, in legislation known as the Hindu Code Bill. When Nehru was asked in 1962 why he did not attempt reform on polygamy in Muslim law, he replied that the time was not right in the mid-50s. The time was not right in the 1980s either when a widow from Bhopal, Shah Bano, demanded a pittance from her ex-husband as maintenance after divorce. The court granted her this pittance; Parliament overruled the court.

The high priests of Islam have never had a problem tweaking a religious injunction when they want to. The specific punishment for theft is cutting off the hand. No mullah or politician in India leads a mass agitation to insist that every convicted Muslim thief should have his hand chopped off. But ask for reform in laws to ensure equality for women, and Muslim politicians will suddenly declare that Islam is in danger. It is not Islam which ever has been, or ever will be, in danger; but male hegemony is hopefully under threat.

There is nothing exclusively Islamic about male prejudice. Listen to some Hindu savants rise from their pseudo-yogic perch to preach that women must share the blame for rape. They are joined by a politician like the Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi; what unites them is not shared faith but shared prejudice. When they blame the West, they are not fearful of geography; they are terrified of modernity. Modernity is not singing English songs and wearing jeans. That is a cartoon view. Modernity is equality, political and social.

India has taken only the first steps towards that horizon. The churn, conflict and vicious rhetoric prove that conservatives will not surrender their stranglehold easily, and they still control the pulpit and the propaganda. Change is visible, but the long war has merely begun.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Leave it to God

     Byline for January 6th, 2013

Leave it to God

M.J. Akbar

The most intriguing international story of 2012 was the election of the new Egyptian Coptic Christian Pope. His name need not detain us. It is the method that matters; the process is ennobling precisely because it is humble. It leaves the last word on the subject, the final choice, to the Almighty speaking through a child. Coptic elders put together a short list for Pope, write the names on pieces of paper, and put them in a chalice. A blindfolded child then picks a name, and that is the end of all controversy.
It seems to me that the three most powerful organisations in India, the Congress Party, the BJP and the BCCI (which may not control India, but does own its most valuable asset, cricket) should immediately adopt the Coptic method to solve their biggest problem. All three have leadership issues, and do not know how to sort them out.
The BJP, unsurprisingly, has twice the problem. It needs, immediately, a president, since it is split between those who want to retain Nitin Gadkari and those who would much prefer him to concentrate upon the problems of Vidarbha. I gather Coptic elders narrow their final list to three names. The BJP could be allowed to keep six names in the chalice, since it has more high priests than the Copts. A blindfolded child could then do the honours. No one can accuse the child of either bias or rigging.
Then comes the bigger hurdle. Who shall be the BJP’s choice for Prime Minister? This is more complicated, as the whole NDA alliance will have to be involved, explicitly or implicitly. NDA leaders do not limit their suspicions to human beings. They are wary of God as well, just in case God does not agree with them. If that child, for instance, picked up the name of a certain person from Gujarat,  not only would the NDA shiver but at least one party would take the matter to the Supreme Court, arguing, quite forcefully that neither the child nor his presumed mentor, God, was on the voting list.
The Congress would have an easier time with the concept. For starters, it could be sold with due sanctimoniousness to an obliging media. If the last mile can be attributed to God, it absolves the High Command of responsibility, always a welcome factor. The child would also have an easy time, since there would be only one name in the chalice. There may be as much ambition lurking in the breast of many a Congress leader as there is in BJP, but Congressmen are not so stupid as to make any public show of secret desire.
But there is a more troubling scenario possible. It could become a life-threatening dilemma if the chalice was discovered to be empty, with no name in it. This could easily happen. Rahul Gandhi might be too busy holidaying to bother about becoming candidate for PM. Some of his loyalists, however, explain that he is only building up energy for a general election, and when the moment comes the chalice shall reveal its single choice. They may well be right.
The BCCI’s crisis is even worse than the BJP’s. Not only do they need a captain, they need a new team. M.S. Dhoni might survive the greatest licking ever seen against England and Australia, but being punctured by Pakistan is a different matter. Dhoni should have seen those pompous, stupid ads before the series: lose to anyone else, but not to Pakistan! Indian cricket has learnt to like cool, but this is frigid to the point of impotence. Back to Cairo, then. We should get the simpler bit out of the way. There seems to be only one player who can be confident of retaining his place, Virat Kohli, so better give him the captain’s gong without fuss. To find a dozen-odd chaps to help him lose the next series is more onerous. Perhaps we could try an Indian variation and put choices into categories: first, pace, seam, spin; and then anyone who can bat anywhere in any circumstance since a fixed position is too much of a luxury. We need a flexi eleven. The present selection committee would include their own edgy spin of regional quotas and present five options for each spot in the team into the chalice. After that it would be left to the blindfolded child, and God. It would be laborious; and BCCI certainly has enough funds to pay the child merited overtime. But it would be less rancorous. And it would certainly produce a better team since there is no way any combination could be worse than the current lot.
Of course Sachin Tendulkar would always be chosen automatically, irrespective of age and form, depending on His own will. After all, God cannot select God.

You can expect an Xmas tree, not a budget

You can expect an Xmas tree, not a budget
M.J. Akbar
06 January 2013
Nothing quite grips human ambition as forcefully as the allure of luck. Even Napoleon wanted lucky generals in preference to merely brilliant ones. Logic is not an impediment; superstition leaps across paradox. In Bangkok, Thais pray at the Tree of 100 Corpses for a number that will win the lottery. Many Chinese gamblers believe in the glorious tradition that red underpants bring fortune in a casino. They also avoid the main entrance, and postpone their date with the table if they encounter a monk or a nun on the way. This last bit makes sense. God wants us to lose money paying taxes, not rolling dice.

Elections are always a gamble, and this year, Indian democracy will become the most active casino in the world, with 10 assembly polls. The stakes will vary: a lifetime's earnings at roulette, medium-sized bets at blackjack , and lots of zing at pinball machines. Perhaps Indian politicians should switch to red underpants. It can't hurt. And if they are careful, no one will notice.

The monster question is whether 2013 will include the next general elections: that three-card flush played mostly blind, with unlimited stakes, at an exclusive high table.

Most of us take a quick look at rickets in the UPA coalition and come to the wrong conclusion. Allies will not determine the date of the next election. They are all suffering from fifty shades of impotence. Mulayam Singh Yadav is becalmed in a self-constructed prison; Karunanidhi may be teetering on the edge of a cliff, but believes this is still slightly better than a coffin in an abyss. Sharad Pawar is neither here with the Congress nor there with the Opposition, so the Congress treats him with either an indifferent shrug or a patronising pat.

An internal debate is raging between the Diehard School of Survival and Pragmatists who are more keen to minimize losses, since there is little question of maximizing gains. The Diehards have one good argument.

In February, finance minister P Chidambaram will present a Christmas tree rather than a budget. There will be gifts galore for the electorate, all manufactured by the Great Santa Claus in treasury who signs IoUs with the abandon of a bankrupt who has nothing further to lose. The point they make is that the voter will take a year at least to unwrap presents and smell the coffee, so wait till 2014.

Pragmatists point out that time is a treacherous ally. They worry that the voter might discover that the Christmas tree is sparkling with tinsel rather than gold. The first of the bonanza series, the direct-cash-transfer scheme, is already suffering from over-exposure and undernourishment . Cash sticks at every stop between source and destination , which is why America gives nearly 50 million citizens food stamps, not cash. But this methodology cannot possibly serve Indians below the poverty line. The day India’s banking infrastructure includes the half billion under or around the poverty line, we will also have eliminated poverty. Poverty is the absence of surplus. Nor do IoUs work each time. IoUs need to be backed by credibility.

Pragmatists want a general election after the Karnataka polls, where Congress should do well; and before elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, where they see little hope for it. The ruling party could seek a mandate even without passing the Budget, which would relieve it of the onerous necessity of wooing both Mulayam and Mayawati. The median date would be a September-October election.

Diehards warn, ominously, that only Indira Gandhi succeeded in a pre-emptive election, and as far back as in 1971. Atal Behari Vajpayee called an election six months before it was due for all the right reasons, quite forgetful of the fact that the wrong ones are scripted in subdued fine print, waiting to surprise you on polling day. Wait till the end; who knows when, and why, luck could turn.

Neither side of this argument has, however, yet begun to address a more significant problem in Congress. Unlike 2009, there is no continuity in the narrative this time, either in leadership or policy. 2009 offered the image of Dr Manmohan Singh, the promise of electricity through the nuclear power deal, and greater overall prosperity. Each turned out to be mirage. Rahul Gandhi was meant to have occupied the space vacated by a vanishing Singh; instead, he too vanishes whenever there is a crisis. Instead of an economic policy programme that needs a mandate, we have last-minute shopping from a tawdry sale.
It needs more than luck to elect a vacuum.