Monday, May 13, 2013

The price of ‘corrugance’

The price of ‘corrugance’
M.J. Akbar

Someone described BJP’s drubbing in Karnataka as an innings defeat. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The game has changed.An election used to be a test match. It is now a protest match. 

The fulcrum of this anger is corruption. All else pales. Shed a tear then for poor Suraj Singh Thakur, Mumbai president of the Congress student organization NSUI, who was suspended merely for dancing drunk and naked late into the night, encouraged by the throb of a DJ’s beat at the end of a strenuous three-day conference on ways and means to save the nation. All that Thakur did was dance, albeit drunk and nude in equal proportions. Alcohol is no longer a hanging offence in Congress. For many future stars rotating in the highest orbits, Congress is now a party that begins at sunset. 

Thakur must be bewildered at the Congress definition of crime and punishment. He sees half the Congress Cabinet caught with its pants down, exposed by CAG, CBI, a vigilant Haryana bureaucrat, or indeed the Italian police chasing bribes to Indian politicians in a helicopter deal with more zeal than any Indian policemen has displayed, and sees evasion to protect the mighty. Law minister Ashwani Kumar, who perverted the CBI investigation into the coal mines scam and subverted evidence submitted to the Supreme Court, is forced to resign with the greatest reluctance. Kumar was trying to erase the trail to the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, the very summit of government, and the government is still in place. It is not until tapes surface of railway minister Pawan Bansal incriminating himself with astonishing abandon that he is forced to quit. Poor Thakur must be wondering, in his few sober moments, whether there is any justice in politics. 

Actually, there isn’t. But there is justice in an election. Statutory warning to all ministers, prime or lower down: voters do not punish young men drunk on student spirits. Voters punish older men drunk with power. The story from Karnataka is of a Congress victory. The moral of this story lies in BJP’s defeat. The humiliation of the party’s former peacock, the chief minister who triggered a selfdestructive avalanche, B.S. Yeddyurappa, is particularly instructive. He imagined he was going to become CM again. He has many years of contemplation ahead. 

He was trapped in a suicidal pincer of corruption and arrogance. The syndrome is so widespread, across party lines, that we might need a word for it: “corrugance” would do. More names keep getting added to a long list: Bansal and Kumar are only the newest. Corruption kills; arrogance insures a long burial. This was fatal to BJP in Karnataka; it will be deadly for UPA across India when a general election comes. The voter is especially unforgiving when governments permit theft of natural resources, the people’s wealth, by cronies. The BJP’s collapse began with the rape of mines in Bellary. 

It was an early scandal of the BJP’s tenure, but people did not forget, just as voters will remember a long UPA litany . UPA sanctioned loot of resources on an unprecedented scale: in spectrum, mines, or agricultural land gobbled up through shady private deals. The BJP lost the confidence of Karnataka long before it was whittled into a minority in the legislature. Ditto, UPA in Delhi. His personal credibility is shattered, his government’s reputation is an embarrassment, his party has become a national joke, but Dr Singh continues, primly, in office, hoping for a chance reversal of fortune through a spin of cosmic lottery. But there are no miracles left in God’s cupboard for the corrupt. 

The Indian voter has more patience than the Indian temperament would suggest. Even a fog at the top will not deter the voter from locating his destination. The Congress did not have a candidate for Chief Minister in Karnataka during the campaign. It did not matter beyond a point. It will not matter beyond the same point when India votes. The Congress vote in Karnataka did not rise by much; the BJP vote collapsed. 

Across the country, the BJP is rising only marginally, but Congress is falling with a thud. Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh have an additional problem. In Karnataka BJP operated from ground level, full of the usual slosh and pitfalls. Dr Singh and Mrs Gandhi opted for the moral high ground of saints. A fall from such heights is that much more shattering. Dr Singh, after claiming honesty as a first principle, permitted corruption in order to sit in the PM’s chair. This is betrayal, too. His ebbing admirers want him to resign. He believes he can squeeze out a few more months of power through sustained indifference. 

The Congress is lost in the debris of a vote factory built on sand. UPA is dead. India needs another government, born through the labour of an election, immediately.

No country for confusion

No country for confusion
M.J. Akbar

The results of the Pakistan elections should be far less important
than the fact that elections are taking place. There will always be
theorists who find comparisons between the past and present
irresistible. It is possible, for instance, to see faint ghosts of
1970 and 1971, albeit in a reverse mirror image: a new West and East
Pakistan emerging, with Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa
gravitating towards dissension and bulwark Punjab holding up central
space. In this scenario the Pakistan of 1947, halved in 1971, is being
reduced to a mere Punjab in the teens of the 21st century.
Elections can trigger, or accentuate, seismic faults if sectarian
passions find a correlation with geography. The decisive phase of the
Bangladesh liberation movement began with a general election that
confirmed that East and West Pakistan were politically split. Zulfiqar
Ali Bhutto, founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, argued forcefully
after the verdict that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League had no
moral right to rule the West because its mandate had come solely from
the East. Awami League had an arithmetical majority in the national
legislature, not a political one.
Bhutto was right. By the same token, his PPP had no claim over what is
now Bangladesh since his party was not even in the contest in the
East. Of course Bhutto could never extend, publicly, the logic of his
But two contemporary realities make disintegration virtually
impossible. Pakistan has a strong nationalist institution in the armed
forces. Even in 1971, Bangladesh could not have been born without the
defeat and humiliation of the Pak armed forces in a war against India.
East and West would have had to find a different solution, but that is
another story.
Second, Tehrik-e-Taliban and its allies do not represent a threat to
the geography of Pakistan. They are challenging what they believe is a
wishy-washy compromise that currently passes as the ideology of the
state. They want a hardline Islamic Pakistan, not a divided Pakistan.
They believe a Sharia-driven Sunni Islam can check sub-nationalism.
They do not want to drive the Baloch or the Pathan away; if anything,
their dreams are expansionist, seeking ideological territory in
Afghanistan and then an alliance with compatible Sunni movements and
militias further west. If they have an enemy within the folds of
believers, it is the Shia, who they condemn as heretics.
The Taliban has begun military operations against two sectarian
parties: the MQM, the front of North Indian refugees, and ANP [Awami
National Party] of the Frontier. The third enemy is PPP, which is
likely to become a Sindh party after this poll. The Taliban is not
talking about merely defeating them in elections. It is seeking to
eliminate them physically. Over a hundred died, and more than 300 were
wounded, during April alone, when campaign season began. At its end,
former PPP Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani’s son, Ali Haider Gilani, was
kidnapped in Multan. As Ahmad Rashid, the renowned author and
journalist, put it, the “polarisation, murder and mayhem” are
In a land where peace is news, a large island of calm will inevitably
invite questions. Strangely, or perhaps logically, there is little
violence in Punjab. Most observers attribute this to an implicit
understanding between the principal adversaries for power in Punjab,
Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan’s
Tehreek-e-Insaf. Even if this were true, this is only a very small
part of the story.
The Taliban and its friends are wiser than we imagine. This is so
obviously a tactical decision, not a strategic one. Taliban and
Company believe they can seize the surround, providing them with a
larger operating base for the final phase in their war for the control
of Pakistan, which will take place in Punjab. Neither Imran nor Nawaz
is a Taliban ally. For this election, the democrats [Nawaz and Imran],
and Taliban are using each other as a cat’s paw. Their turn will come
after the elections.
The extremists have also sharpened their appeal by exploiting a
fundamental weakness of Pakistan’s democratic parties, their
collective capitulation to feudalism. Pakistan has never had genuine
land reform. Bhutto, who flirted with socialism, tried, failed and
abandoned the thought. Islam plus land is a powerful slogan for the
peasant. The New York Times quotes Maulana Abdul Khaliq Rehmani, a
candidate of the Ahle-Sunnat wal-Jamaat, a legal offshoot of
Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, telling a rural rally: “Feudalism has
paralyzed Pakistan.” He also adds, for good measure, that “Islamabad
is a colony of America.” The Jamaat has put up 130 candidates, and
less than ten might win; but they are sowing seeds for conflicts
within the near future.
The most ominous result for Pakistan would be a confused legislature.
It would encourage the worst instincts of the army and inspire hopes
among extremists that their gun-stoked theocracy is the only option
that can bring order to the country. This is what makes results more
important than the polls. Whoever wins, should win big.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

India has never seemed as helplessly weak as now

India has never seemed as helplessly weak as now
Hell has more definitions than heaven , possibly because more of us expect to end up there than in the other place. A cynic described hell as other people. Men of religion generally promise hellfire for the wicked, an image that rather contradicts the doctrine that the body is terminal and soul eternal. A soul can't get roasted in flames, can it?

One much prefers the blind poet Milton's insight. Heaven is order, he wrote, and hell chaos. By Milton's standards, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh has already gone to hell.

Chaos is the wild weed rooted in corruption. Like an untamed cancer, chaos has destabilized the coalition, corroded governance beyond repair and perverted foreign policy. In 2009 allies were clamoring to attach themselves to Congress. Today the only ally left is Sharad Pawar; even the ever-reliable Dr Farooq Abdullah seems to have turned wobbly. Since UPA continues to survive in office like a patient spread across a table, it has become evident justification for euthanasia.

An indecisive Prime Minister spreads uncertainty along every artery of power. He does not speak, and when he does silence seems the better option. He appears to suggest that cliché or evasions are a solution. He demands justice from Pakistan after Sarabjit's deliberately authorized murder in a Pak jail, unable to comprehend that India is still awaiting justice for Hafiz Saeed, mastermind of the Mumbai terrorist attack. Pakistan will do nothing beyond raising the occasional flurry of dust; and Dr Singh is unlikely to do anything after the customary waffle.

India has become a joke in the Maldives, a foe in Sri Lanka, a doubt in Bangladesh, a shrug in Nepal, a snigger in Pakistan and a taunt in China. Every neighbour has tested Delhi and discovered that this government walks on its knees. India has never seemed as helplessly weak as now. Foreign minister Salman Khurshid thinks China's incursion into Despang is acne which will disappear - perhaps after an application of a multinational cream. Has no one briefed him or the PM about Chinese revenue officials trying to extend their jurisdiction into Ladakh, or the significant possibility that the area may be rich in un-mined uranium?

The Prime Minister has become either the target of dark outrage or the butt of black humour. The insulation that protected him while colleagues were falling on either side in the many corruption battles, has been ripped off by the coalmines allocation scam. The government has only one strategy for all the riveting scandals that have gutted its credibility: the purchase of time through delay or deception. Law minister Ashwani Kumar is caught tampering with the evidence to be presented to the Supreme Court, and gets a ringing vote of confidence from the Prime Minister. The only time Dr Singh shows any determination is when he is defending the indefensible. Additional Solicitor General and CBI counsel exposes the lies of Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati in a public letter, and Vahanvati laughs all the way back to his handsome bungalow in Lutyens Delhi to await the next set of cheques for his services. Laugh if you must, but it does seem entirely appropriate that this legal conspiracy against the Supreme Court began to unravel when Raval encountered Vahanvati in a cloak room. History is never made in a toilet, but farce is.

A question is often asked, and never adequately answered except in a partisan sense: why is UPA2 so precisely the opposite of UPA1 in its management of authority and public environment? India's Marxists believe that UPA lost its harmony once it began reading from a non-Left hymn sheet. That is at best partly true. A second view is that after nine years, every dubious chicken is coming home to roost: decisions like Commonwealth Games extravagance and the telecom scam were made in the first term. A better explanation is that hubris turned virtually every problem at this government's doorstep into a larger crisis. This arrogance was born of a belief, widely bandied about after victory in 2009, that UPA would remain in power for another 20 years because a broken Opposition had disappeared. Whenever your upturned nose comes in the way of your eyesight, you cannot see the obvious. When Opposition parties fade, the people become the Opposition.

A fundamental requirement of any democracy is anger management. Instead of calming periodic outbursts of anger on the street, sometimes led by mavericks, senior ministers went out of their way to provoke the people with insults. Voters were initially puzzled. They expected balm, and got astringent. Slowly their bewilderment consolidated into wrath. An increasingly defensive government sought refuge in belligerence. Ministers can laugh at the people and get promoted by the Prime Minister for their weird sense of humour, but in democracy the last laugh will always be with the people.

Hell is many things. It is also the final resting place of the impotent.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Anwar’s moment


Anwar’s moment

M.J. Akbar

In Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s campaign is on song,
sometimes literally so. He does tend to remind his massive rallies
that it’s “Now or Never”. Even if everyone does not catch the
allusion, no one misses the message. Maybe Anwar has at long last
found time for a snatch of song after having suffered years of
soul-searing, unbelievable injustice and political barbarism, because
the mood around him is so buoyant.
I write this on the eve of what could be Malaysia’s most breathtaking
election result in 56 years of history as an independent republic.
Better men than me have tempted fate by making unnecessary
predictions. So let me just quote that ubiquitous taxi driver, the
first and last resort of any hack in search of an election forecast.
There are two remarkable things about Kuala Lumpur, he said, as I
settled down in his vehicle outside the Mandarin hotel and nudged
forward a conversation: the city’s infrastructure and the taxi
drivers’ brain. I bowed in homage.
The government, he continued without much need of a further prod, had
an overwhelming majority in the number of flags and buntings that
pockmarked the capital. Anwar had the votes. He laughed with some
gusto at his own joke, doubtless not for the first time. There were 30
taxis in his pool, he explained; only five or six drivers were with
the ruling party. The rest were with Anwar. How did they express their
solidarity? They could not refuse a passenger at the hotel, but if
they saw one flagging a taxi outside one of those sparse government
public gatherings they just drove on. Let the chap walk. More
What about the growing talk that government agents were offering 500
ringit [about $160] per vote? “I will take the money,” he chortled.
“After all, it is my money. They took it from the public. But voting
is private.” The laugh lowered to a meaningful chuckle. Then he added
a caveat. He was only talking about Kuala Lumpur and adjacent
provinces. He did not know what was happening elsewhere.
Anecdotal evidence is in favour of Anwar Ibrahim. International
television channels like CNN and BBC, which prefer to be circumspect,
are beginning to broadcast that this election could lead to the first
ever change in government. Anwar’s theme is precisely that: change. He
has tapped into many levels of discontent, not the least of them being
anger against perceived corruption. There is a palpable sense that
enough voters are simply tired of the establishment, even when they
are not particularly angry over any specific issue.
The establishment will not surrender without a last-ditch stand, in
which every weapon from its well-stocked political arsenal will be
brought into play. The air is rife with talk of desperate measures.
Planes, say some, have been chartered to bring voters loyal to the
government to hop and jump through marginal constituencies, to cast
bogus votes. There are substantive rumours that mercenaries from
Bangladesh have been mobilized to add to their numbers. Each whisper
builds resistance among genuine voters. It is not as if government is
bereft of genuine support. The country’s ethnic divisions are sharp:
Malay, Chinese and Indians who were brought in by the British as
labour for plantations. In a quaint move, these Indians recently
petitioned the British monarch for compensation to atone for the sins
of her ancestors. Queen Elizabeth maintained her stiff upper lip, but
you get the point. Indians, exceptions apart, remain at the bottom of
the economic pile, but have still not been persuaded that they need to
challenge the establishment. They will decide, said a wealthy
entrepreneur, in a typically Indian fashion: on Saturday night.
Voting starts on Sunday morning. By Sunday night the Election
Commission will announce which of the two antagonists needs
prescription drugs for deep depression.
If the opposition is optimistic it is largely because of a new
demographic is going to play a crucial role, the first-time voter. Add
this lot to the second-time voter and you get the powerful vanguard
that is building momentum for Anwar Ibrahim’s call for change. Its
enthusiasm has become infectious in the cities; and there is reason to
believe that it is seeping into rural areas as well. This identity
operates outside traditional ethnic constituencies. Its momentum is
Malaysia is not alone; a similar phenomenon is at play in elections
that will sweep across from south east Asia to Iran in the next 15
months. Youth power is rarely good news for the establishment. Imran
Khan’s success in Pakistan will be properly measured only after the
results are in, but if he is going somewhere it is only because the
young are travelling with him. When India votes, the young will make
the difference. It is a fallacy to suggest that the young vote only
for the young. They vote for whoever can promise a better future. That
is the only meaning of change.