Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Bush Fade

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ Akbar: The Bush Fade

The best thing about 2005 is surely the fact that it has reduced one year from the term of President George Bush. The wisdom of limits has sometimes been questioned, particularly when a sensible President like Bill Clinton comes along. But a George Bush always turns up to reinforce the merits of the law.

George Bush is not malevolent. I have this sneaking suspicion sometimes that he might even mean well. He certainly wants a theoretical democracy to prevail all over the world, for the commendable reason that with all its faults it is the most honest system of governance yet devised. He is simply a man of little understanding, which makes him a victim of the last thing he has understood. Sometimes this is in harmony with previous logic, sometimes in direct contravention, but once he is convinced about something it becomes a conviction, until the next thing he chooses to understand comes along.

His views are a slide presentation of shifting certainties. Because he is well-meaning he is totally sincere about each slide. He was as certain about the need to use torture in America’s war against terror before 10 December, as he was sure on the 11th that torture should, pace the John McCain amendment, never be a part of American policy. He does not abandon a past position; he simply forgets about it and seizes ownership of each defeat by reformulating it as victory.

He is not simple. That would be an underestimation. You cannot win two elections in America by being simple. But he is simplistic. He defers easily to those who prey upon his weaknesses with a simple ruse: they win his trust by applauding his horizon, and then map out highways that have little to do with objectives. Having led him to the centre of that inflammatory maze called Iraq, they are now charting non-existent escape routes booby-trapped with death. When a proper history of his years as the most powerful man in the world is written, it will be a long story of some success, substantial failure — but most of all a narrative of unintended consequences.

Bush was elected in 2000 to take America away from the problems of the world. Those were the innocent days during which he mispronounced "Musharraf". He was re-elected in 2004 to make America safe from the problems of the world. He will leave, in 2008, America more vulnerable to the problems of the world than it has been in a long while. On paper, he wants to change the Middle East by changing Iraq into a democracy. In practice, Iraq is heading towards what might be called a radical-democracy, where popular support has shifted decisively towards those who oppose American policy as well as American values. The one thing that Shias and Sunnis are now agreed upon in Iraq is that Americans must leave their land. Kurds support the Bush White House in the hope of achieving independence, or near independence, and that is not an option that anyone in the neighbourhood wants to hear about. Unless matters are managed with tact and intelligence, they could suffer the fate of the South Vietnamese. The radical-democracy syndrome is visible in Egypt as well, where President Hosni Mubarak opened a vent, possibly so that the West could see who would crawl out from the democratic woodwork. The only surprise when the Muslim Brotherhood got 88 seats in the legislature was why they did not get more.

George Bush and his fawn Tony Blair have now come to the end of their list of reasons for staying in Iraq. They now say that they must stay to train the Iraq Army so that it is able to fight the insurgency. In other words, they cannot pull out because of a problem that did not exist before they came. There was no insurgency before the Occupation. (The average death rate, by the way, is 30 per day; Iraqis also die, although there is reluctance to recognise this.) So we have the classic conundrum. American and British troops will not leave until the insurgency is controlled; and the insurgency will not end unless the Anglo-American armies go. Welcome to the near future.

Sometimes I wonder if policy-makers in Washington and London know what they are talking about. Every day you hear and read, from sources both civilian and military, that the Occupation forces must arm and train an Iraqi Army that can fight the insurgency after the Occupiers depart. This is the civil-war theory: after us, the deluge. This is a familiar of history: empire is always justified in terms of the good that it is doing (civilisation, trade, economic growth et al), and there is always going to be chaos after they leave, if the slaves have the temerity to ask them to leave. Winston Churchill kept harping on the chaos that would descend on India once the Haileybury and Oxbridge Sahibs left.

Let me suggest an alternative scenario. Once Bush and Blair get out of Iraq, if they do it on their watch, the insurgency will end. There will be some residual violence, because this messy war will have left deep sectarian wounds. But, sooner rather than later, the insurgency will be absorbed into Iraqi life, mostly into its politics and partly into its armed forces. We have already seen how Shia militias have become an element in Iraq’s politics and emerging power structure. Space will be created for the Sunnis as well, since common sense suggests that sectarian domination does not work. What, however, about unintended consequences? Will George Bush, over the coming two years, help create an Iraqi Army which could become the strongest Arab force in the region? Could such an Army become a formidable counterweight to Israel, particularly if it works in alliance with Iran? The days incidentally of the Iraq-Iran conflict, which brought such legitimate joy to Washington and London, are over.

Bush is doing Iraq’s Shias a favour they will never forget; has given Iran’s government a lifeline it will never acknowledge; and might have weakened Israel to an extent it will never admit.

It is remarkable that the Bush fade began so soon after the Bush pinnacle. Normally, a re-elected President has two years for a cruise towards history, free from the sinews of political compulsions. By the third year of a second term a President begins to look like the past rather than the present or the future, and starts his farewell visits around the world. In the case of George Bush, the American voter began to ask the very questions that he had ignored when sending him to the White House to continue his war. At the heart of this questionnaire was the most basic of all questions: Every war has a point, what is the point of the Iraq war?

Having admitted that all past answers were wrong, Bush is struggling to find a new answer. If all he can offer is a genie called an imagined Caliphate, then there is very little hope for sanity.

There was a poignant moment in the Bush year of 2005, widely publicised when some embedded but obviously disobedient camera captured a scrawl on a notepad. I can imagine the scene: a worthy but never-ending conference at the United Nations where protocol is in command. At some point, Bush sent a note to Condoleezza Rice wondering if there was any chance of a "bathroom break". I daresay nature doesn’t change its rules for the high and mighty. Presidents and Prime Ministers need a break as often as you and I. Bush surely wasn’t the first eminence to need one. Would Bill Clinton have sent such a note to Madeleine Albright? Somehow, I don’t think so. I rather see him as getting up, making a small but meaningful joke, and promising to return as soon as he could. Television news channels would not have interrupted their broadcasts to telecast this.

George Bush has confidence; you can see it in the arms that loop over on either side, rather than fall down straight, and there is just a hint of swagger in the stride and the eyes. But I am not too sure that he has self-confidence.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Tripartite Solution

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By M.J.Akbar: Tripartite Solution

Here follows a solution to the most compelling and complex challenge facing contemporary India.

SUGGESTION NO. 1: If Govinda can become a Member of Parliament, why can’t Sourav Ganguly? The Congress leaders of Bengal, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee and information and broadcasting minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi have expressed the deepest concern over his fate and future. The Congress has such a shortage of candidates that they put up the hapless Nafisa Ali from Kolkata, although the chances of any voter below 60 recalling that she was born in the city were as remote as the possibility of George Bush winning an election from Fallujah. While Govinda needed a Congress wave in Mumbai to defeat Ram Naik, Sourav Ganguly could generate a pretty strong tide between Narkeldanga and Garia on his own.

After all, it is fear of alienating the young voter in Kolkata on the eve of the Bengal Assembly elections that made Pranab Babu (whose knowledge of cricket, shall we say, is not quite up to selector-level) and Priya Da (whose knowledge of football has made India a tenth-rank world power in the game) identify themselves with the former captain of the Indian cricket team. The logic is simple: if Ganguly has become a vote-getter, let him get the votes for the party that needs them desperately in Bengal. Ganguly certainly isn’t much of a run-getter anymore, and, on the field, more of a run-giver than a run-saver.

It is obvious that Sourav Ganguly has reached his first midlife crisis, and requires both our total sympathy and what help we can provide. Since a sportsman’s working life is short, midlife also comes earlier. Ganguly is too famous to belong to the shadows. He needs limelight like a temperamental plant needs sunlight, or he will wither. There is no better limelight for him than membership of Parliament. In fact, after getting him elected (a Congress MP could always resign in the national interest to make way for Sourav), the Congress could turn the limelight into a spotlight by making him minister for sports. He could then use all the power and influence of office to get his friend and mentor Jagmohan Dalmiya re-elected as chief of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The other advantage is that neither Shane Bond nor Shoaib Akhtar will ever get elected to the Lok Sabha, so Sourav should shine in the House.

SUGGESTION NO. 2: The selection of the Indian cricket team, the only team that matters to India, should be done by the same process that is used to select Indian pop idols like the new Kashmiri role-model Qazi Tauqeer and the svelte Bengali girl Ruprekha Banerjee. We are a proud democracy, and once vox populi has spoken there can be no further argument. The Voice of the People is the Voice of God.

This would take reality TV into a new dimension and assuage the ravenous hunger of TV channels for ratings. In one stroke all TV channels could become profitable. It would also appease the insatiable appetite of mobile phone companies, since the poll would, naturally, be conducted on SMS. Any other form of polling would take time and have to be managed by the Election Commission. If the EC were involved, it would stagger voting into six phases over two months, and you don’t get that much time between matches. So, my apologies to the Election Commission, but there it is: what is good for Bihar may not necessarily be good for Indian cricket.

A television-SMS driven cricket selection process would have enormous beneficial side-effects. I have already mentioned that the channels would become profitable, but look at what it would do for politicians. TV channels would no longer need to hit under the belt of Nehru suits or under the folds of dhotis with hidden cameras to get the stings that drive up ratings. They would have neither time nor interest in exposing politicians, for cricket polls would bring in far, far more revenue. Consider the ad rates for a ten-second spot just after the DJ (yes, sexily-dressed disc jockeys would run the show, not news anchors) announced, "And the winner is…! But before we tell you the name, ek chota sa break..." Since selection is already all about frenzy, imagine the frenzy generated by election.

It would also be a well-funded election. All candidates would be backed by those industrial houses whose goods they sponsor. We are talking multinational money here, my friends; not something siphoned off for asking questions in Parliament. If Indian politicians think that their elections have become expensive, they should watch what happens when Hutch takes on Airtel in the cricket stakes. I can see advertising agencies, direct marketing firms, opinion pollsters and public relations agencies sprouting up just to get their hands on the additional business. There will inevitably come a point when the BCCI charges a royalty of one rupee for every vote cast. If there is money to be made, you are not going to be able to keep the BCCI out of the loot, no matter whether it is headed by Jagmohan Dalmiya or Sharad Pawar. Business is business.

If things go well, and there is no reason why they should not, cricket-elections could add one per cent to India’s economic growth, thereby enabling the government to fund the rural guaranteed employment scheme and keep the interest rates for pension funds at 9.5%. This would immediately stabilise the coalition government of Dr Manmohan Singh, and ensure that a Prime Minister as clean as him remained in office till 2009. I can see nothing but the pervasive glow of good news in my scheme.

SUGGESTION NO.3: Ramanathan Krishnan should be brought back as captain of the Indian Davis Cup team, possibly along with Naresh Kumar and Akhtar Ali in the squad. The most persistent reason I have heard for retaining the "Mahan Kalakar", as an MP described him, in the team, is that Ganguly was so brilliant.

Indeed he was. There are very few joys in my life as great as watching Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar in partnership at their best. It was magic. I think it was Dravid who described him as a god on the off-side. Trust me, those of us who have seen Ganguly at his best find it double embarrassing when Shane Bond turns him into a Jumping Jack, and every bowler who can pitch the ball short gets an extra nip when he sees Ganguly at the crease. Any player should hate the thought of television highlighting his follies on the news. It is not a pretty sight. It is also absolutely true that Ganguly was a great team leader once, and deserves every acknowledgement. I am very serious when I suggest that he must be honoured in some way for his talent and his contribution to modern Indian cricket. What he could not handle was decay, which is always slow, invisible to you but obvious to everyone else. The rewards of sport are commensurate with its demands and dangers. The worst wound to a sportsman’s mind is the stab of fear. Once that lodges in your subconscious, it destroys you. Instead of dealing with the problem, Ganguly sought to prolong his sporting life with politics in the dressing room and the boardroom.

Indian cricket has been jinxed with its captains. Kapil Dev hung around not for the good of the team but to beat a world record in a tussle between age and utility. Azharuddin needed a disgraceful scam to be thrown out, and brought shame to a game he had done much to glorify. The Sachin Tendulkars who can leave the captaincy because it is hurting their contribution to the team are very rare. When Sachin’s time comes to go, he will not wait to be pushed. He will not surrender the aura around his name for that one series more in which you tip over into an abyss. Even the most emotional of Ganguly’s supporters argues that he should have been treated better because he was so good. The "was" is subconscious but accurate.

No player is bigger than a national team. We have a team today that can over the next two seasons be knitted into a winner of the World Cup in the West Indies. Or we can shred it into pieces, as the West Indies did to their once-phenomenal side.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Unbroken Story

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ Akbar: Unbroken Story

It doesn’t surprise me that George Bush had a plan to bomb the Doha headquarters of the pesky Arabic news channel Al Jazeera back into the desert age. What shocks me is that he hasn’t sent Al Jazeera a thank you note after his re-election last year in November.

A victory that became comfortable after the results were in, obscures how close the contest was. For a couple of hours on polling day, the opinion pundits and television channels were preparing for a John Kerry presidency, and liberal gloating over the demise of Bush ended only around noon.

Democrats are now convinced that the critical factor that swung the election away from Kerry was the sudden and very mysterious appearance of an Osama bin Laden tape promising the usual death and destruction of America. It focused American minds wonderfully on all the potential horrors vital to the Bush cause; it was the kind of nightmare image that his most loyal ad gurus could not have paid enough money for. Where did the tape materialise? The usual route. Address of origin: Officially unknown. Address of destination: Al Jazeera. Impact: On all those little suburban homes in Ohio and Iowa that swung the vote away from war hero Kerry to war President Bush.

For many months before the election there was talk of a last-minute "October Surprise", possibly a quiet gift from President Pervez Musharraf to his friend and mentor Bush. Many thought that this would be either the arrest or the death of Osama. It turned out to be far more sophisticated: a tape that kept both of them in business. As the British tabloid, Sun, might have screamed if reporting such a story: "It was de Jaz wot did it!"

The White House did not quite deny the Daily Mirror story that the bombing of Al Jazeera was discussed between Bush and Tony Blair in Washington. It merely dismissed the thought as "outlandish". How far out of land do you have to go to be outlandish in a Bush conversation? Was the invasion of Iraq once outlandish? What is safe and credible and inlandish? That America doesn’t do torture? All those Abu Ghraib pictures must have been from Al Qaeda torture cells.

Actually it doesn’t much matter what was discussed. During times of war stress, all manner of things are discussed. It is much more important to note what has been done rather than what has been discussed. The Bush White House has ensured more than one "accident" in Afghanistan and Iraq to bully and threaten Al Jazeera. To its credit, the channel has refused to let its brow be beaten.

Blair’s response was a verbal grimace that said "Can we change the subject?" Fair enough. I daresay that while Blair did nothing to stop Bush from invading Iraq he may have laid a restraining hand when Bush prepared to invade Al Jazeera.

The British response to the Al Jazeera problem might be far more subtle, and therefore successful. Al Jazeera is launching an English channel next year and is, at the moment, busy hiring a clutch of ex-BBC types, including a few who have lost their credibility along with their teeth. This strategy of implosion seems infinitely superior to the tactics of explosion. Mumble and waffle, the staple menu of this crowd, inside the studio could damage the channel far more than crash and bang from the sky.

All the experience and evidence to the contrary fails to shake the conviction of governments that they can censor all the news all the time. News has this fascinating ability to slip around a corner and reach its target. There will always be one channel or newspaper or Internet avenue that refuses to close its eyes. The motives of media may not even be idealistic. It may do this for nothing more, or indeed less, important than commercial success. Better reporting means more viewers/readers; which means more revenue. Al Jazeera is in demand because it repeatedly brings you the stories that the Occupation forces in Iraq want to hide. The day this stops, Al Jazeera will wither. Audiences are far more loyal to content than to brand. Brand helps, but is no substitute for content. If the English Jazeera takes a different editorial line, it will become as forgettable as any establishment channel.

The subtext of this story is the remarkable ability of Osama bin Laden to pop up where he wants and return to hibernation in some remote, or not, corner of the world that shall forever be Al Qaeda.

As we noted, his tape turned up just in time to influence the fate of George Bush last year. How did that tape travel from wherever Osama is holed up to the offices of Al Jazeera in Doha? On a flying carpet? Was it carried by invisible genii from the Arabian Nights? Did it travel hand to hand from the mountains of the western Himalayas to the waters of the Arabian Sea? Whose were those hands? Was it posted by ordinary mail? Did it come by DHL? Who was the cameraman who shot the interview and edited it in a studio? Or does Osama live in a palace with multi-media facilities? Does no one in the Pakistan government, or on the FBI staff in Pakistan and Afghanistan, know anything, or want to know anything? How come these questions never get asked, let alone getting answered?

America went to war against Afghanistan four years ago to find Osama bin Laden because it was convinced that Osama had masterminded 9/11. If the Taliban had handed over Osama, who was in their protection, and which they admitted, the case for war against Taliban-Afghanistan would have weakened considerably if not disappeared altogether.

Three years before 9/11, in 1998, Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, told Bill Clinton that Osama bin Laden was on dialysis, and it was only a matter of time before he went the way of all flesh. It’s been a long time, particularly for one with such weakened flesh. Dialysis can keep you going for decades, but what it does do is make you very vulnerable as well. I am not talking only about physical vulnerability. It is very difficult to be on dialysis and hide, when the world’s eyes are trained on you. Dialysis reduces mobility. It demands constant attention to medical apparatus, and presumably competent doctors. Does Osama run such a brilliant, foolproof operation that there are no leaks despite such huge vulnerabilities? Can he survive, with such basic needs, on a lonely mountaintop? Or is he ensconced in some urban jungle? Since there are no urban jungles in Afghanistan (Kabul is at best an urban corpse), he must be in an urban jungle in Pakistan. Is Karachi a good place to look for him? We heard a few days ago one of his deputies saying that he was alive and leading the holy war. If he is alive, why hasn’t he been arrested?

There is something going on that does not quite add up.

Al Jazeera has broken any number of stories. Why doesn’t it break the biggest story of all: where is Osama bin Laden?

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sounds of Silence

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By MJ Akbar: Sounds of Silence

If you want to understand the Big Story, look for the small detail. When the action is being broadcast in the merciless way that television adopts, get out of the din and check the silence.

The sound of the breaking story can be very loud; in the case of the Iraqi oil scam that has splattered the life and career of former foreign minister Natwar Singh and could spill over into Congress fortunes, the noise has been powerful enough to shatter the glasshouse in which Delhi VIPs live. But the sound of silence can be louder.

There was no home more silent than that of Mr Natwar Singh on Friday 2 December, the day Aaj Tak, building on the interview that India�s ambassador to Croatia, Aniel Matherani, gave to Saurabh Shukla of India Today, exposed how precisely the lucrative deal had been made by the minister�s son Jagat and his "cousin" Andaleeb Sehgal with the Saddam Hussein regime. Media, planted outside the walls of the ruling class bungalow, reported that all phones, including mobiles inside the Natwar establishment had been switched off, but of course they were referring only to those numbers that they knew of. Cabinet ministers have the use of secure telephone systems limited to select levels of power, and surely there was a mobile number or two that was unknown to media.

There were no calls made on Natwar Singh by friends or ministerial colleagues in his moment of anguish, possibly to save embarrassment to both host and guest, or maybe because there was nothing much to say after Matherani�s revelations. Matherani was a member of the delegation led by Natwar Singh to Baghdad during which the deal was apparently made, and his recollection of detail was devastating. Late in the evening, Mr Natwar Singh came out to read a simple, and very short, statement in which he denied all allegations, and reiterated that his conscience was clear but did not explain the reasons for such clarity. He added that his lawyers were looking into the matter. He did not specify whether he was planning to sue India Today, Aaj Tak, and about a thousand other channels and newspapers carrying the full story. He could also have been planning to sue Aniel Matherani, but I rather doubt that. I mention this because someone in the Congress once threatened to sue the United Nations, and that did not quite happen.

The silence was particularly deafening because it was in sharp contrast to the megawatt protests of outrage that followed the revelations of the Volcker report some weeks ago. Mr Singh then sought out anyone and everyone in order to pour scorn, vitriol, anger, vehemence on Paul Volcker and anyone who thought the latter had a point. Such was the media high that son Jagat was trundled out to supplement father Natwar. Young Jagat was so stiff that he did not even sit down, and he made the memorable statement that young Andy was not a particularly good friend, just one of many acquaintances. I don�t think he wants to be reminded of that now: live by the media, die by the media. On Friday both father and son seemed to have taken a vow of silence, leading to gossip that someone had given a few orders. Silence is not the preferred weapon of the Singhs.

In the evening the agencies issued a statement from our ambassador in Croatia, denying he had made any accusations against his former boss in the government and still his senior in the Congress Party, the leader of his famous delegation to Baghdad in 2001, Natwar Singh.

Aniel Matherani is a nice sort of chap, with lots of hair on his head and plenty of smiles on his face, but you wouldn�t want to put him at the head of any research project. His great asset has been loyalty to the Congress. He has been a functionary in the Congress office through thick and thin � and the years of thin have outnumbered the years of thick. I don�t know if he always spelt his first name the way he does now; most Anils prefer to stick to four letters. I suspect that some astrologer advised the alteration to change his luck. If that is true, find out the astrologer�s name, because the Congress victory 18 months ago certainly changed his fortunes. Foreign secretary Shyam Saran said, on the infamous Friday, that Mr Matherani had already been recalled from his post in Zagreb. One could ask why, and why he has not returned as yet, and the answers would be most interesting; but that would not be the most important question. A far better question would be to ask why he was sent as ambassador in the first place. Was he the leading expert on the intricacies of Balkan politics? It was a grace-and-favour job: Natwar Singh had gracefully rewarded favours done.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has told Parliament that the Enforcement Directorate will not hesitate to look wherever necessary in its search for guilt. Here is a suggestion. Technology enables telephone companies to keep a record of all phone calls made. They should get a list of all calls made to Aniel Matherani on Friday, both at his office numbers and to his personal mobile phones.

Praise be to technology. If India Today had not taped its interview, and then broadcast it on television, it would not have had the impact it did. Print is cold beside the warmth of a live voice, and that is what viewers heard all through the day: a member of the original Baghdad Four narrating precisely how the oil-vouchers deal was done.

Here is the Big Denial: "I gave no interview to India Today."

Hullo? We could always check out whether the voice of Matherani we heard on television was his real voice or not. A simple check should establish that.

The second sentence provides clarification: it was off-the-record. There was a bit of huffing about "complete breach of privacy." Well, it was a long breach, because the interview was pretty comprehensive, and while our ambassador to Croatia might not win the next Nobel Prize for Physics, he was surely aware that he was passing on information of volatile importance at a very crucial moment. More to the point is whether what he said, and he definitely did say it, is true or not.

The denial adds that the interview was "distorted" and "misrepresented" and "out-of-context". Where? The Matherani denial never explained what had been distorted or misrepresented. As heard on television and published in print, the interview is comprehensive; the questions and answers flow into each other. The last sentence of the denial is meant to be conclusive: "I also completely and unequivocally deny that I said oil vouchers were allotted to Shri Natwar Singh during the delegation�s visit to Iraq as reported in the story".

This is as brazen as it can get. Matherani provided exquisite and unchallenged detail of how Natwar Singh virtually smuggled his son into the Congress delegation; how Andy Sehgal "accidentally" met them in Amman; how Natwar Singh arranged for them to stay at the Baath Party hotel, and took both of them to meetings to give the impression that the delegation consisted of six members rather than four, and implied that the delegation had a political component and an "economic" component (read oil vouchers for latter); that the arrangements had been made earlier and all that was required was to give implicit legitimacy to the Singh-Sehgal partnership, which was done; how they stayed back in Amman on the return journey in order to complete the deal in Jordan. I could repeat all this verbatim, but a column has space limitations. I might however quote the last sentence of the interview: "That Natwar and the Congress never knew is hogwash."

This is the indictment of an insider who wants to remain an insider, as the "denial" indicates. The individual and the party knew, and deliberately attempted a cover-up, according to India�s ambassador to Croatia, a position that he still formally holds. All his statements so far are statements of a high, and highly-paid, official of the government of India, appointed by this government.

There is one sound that Natwar Singh, his son Jagat, and their acquaintance-cum-friend-cum-cousin-cum-partner (these are only the avatars one is aware of, there could be more) Andy Sehgal must be praying for: the sound of silence. Their presumption must be that public memory is short and media memory a total dwarf; that time will somehow make this story go away. The establishment also must have a vested interest in a slow fadeout, for who knows what will emerge in the next interview: the stress on middlemen fearing that they will be made scapegoats must be enormous.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a simple responsibility, and one addresses this to him because of the belief that he is an honourable man. He must prove, and quickly, that India is ruled by the law, and Delhi is different from Saddam Hussein�s Baghdad.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Bihar's Gift

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline By M.J.Akbar : Bihar's Gift

Nitish Kumar has not yet won the Bihar election. He has only won an opportunity. We will know whether he has converted that opportunity into a hard political victory by this time next year.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar will be tested on a five-point report card.
** Law and order at the top
** Naxalites
** Economy
** Urban Renewal
** Hindu-Muslim relations

No matter which way the numbers are stacked, there is only one clear winner in the long-drawn Bihar Sudoku: a Sikh gentleman generally resident in Delhi who barely intervened in the turmoil of India’s most turbulent state except to give Lalu Prasad Yadav the chance to convert what was a self-inflicted wound in March into suicide in November. When the Almighty was writing Dr Manmohan Singh’s destiny, He took a lot of care to ensure that every loophole was properly sealed.

Nitish Kumar has not yet won the Bihar election. He has only won an opportunity. We will know whether he has converted that opportunity into a hard political victory by this time next year.

If Nitish Kumar believes that he can do everything, he will achieve nothing. Bihar is not suffering just from the sins of Lalu; Lalu was only the most cynical of a long line of chief ministers who compounded a disease that began in the Sixties. It might shock readers to know that Bihar was consistently ranked among the best-administered states in the Fifties; but there is no point discussing how prosperous Bihar was when Chandragupta Maurya was in power.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar will be tested on a five-point report card. I was going to put "law and order" at the top but felt, on consideration, that it might be too ambitious. If the new chief minister can ensure order, even if he cannot implement the full majesty of the law, he can claim distinction. There has to be a curb on the dacoits and gunmen who form a parallel, and more effective, administration. He should import high-profile consultants who can draw up, and perhaps oversee, a comprehensive plan that addresses the menace district-wise. On a practical, and politically incorrect level, a few trigger-happy policemen might be needed.

Priority number two will be Naxalites. Bihar shares a long border with Nepal that is porous for criminals, smugglers and those who dress up violence in ideological clothes. The sharp escalation of Naxalite violence across the country is also an indictment of the Union home ministry. As far as this terrible problem is concerned, Delhi’s response is to jerk a knee before the cameras whenever a story bursts on the front pages, and retire hurt when the news disappears from public view. Clearly, unlike straight crime, there is a social dimension to this problem, which has to be addressed politically. Nitish Kumar must involve the Leftist parties in a bipartisan effort that must be transparent and sincere. The chief minister will probably run dry of his resources of sincerity after a year’s pressures and strains, so it is best that he start doing something right away.

Third: the economy. Nitish Kumar should stop trying to think of the answers, because there is no answer that will take less than fifteen years to implement. He will have long passed his sell-by date by then. But there is something that can be done, which is a deft combination of the cosmetic and practical. Bihar is littered with tombstones of projects aborted. For decades, its leaders have laid the foundation of grand schemes that never saw as much as a wall being built, let alone a chimney constructed. The chief minister could go back to what had been sanctioned (this will save a lot of time), get a fast-track reassessment done, offer the best terms to industrialists of repute, and bring at least a few tombstones to life.

Fourth: urban renewal. If someone were to control the mosquitoes of Patna, he would be renamed Chandragupta. Disease is another name for neglect and filth. So far, the city’s services ensure little more than comfort for the residential area of the political class, up to a point. There should be a ministry for infrastructure in the Bihar Cabinet, with a politician of some ability heading it, and a strong bureaucrat in charge. To treat a road as a joke, as Lalu did, is to sign the death warrant of the economy.

Finally, the government will be severely tested on Hindu-Muslim relations. So many of Lalu Yadav’s crimes were forgiven because he was absolutely flawless in ensuring peace between communities so easily provoked into violence. His government imploded because even Yadavs and Muslims deserted him in large numbers. Nitish Kumar found a brilliant political answer by creating his core vote around backward castes other than Yadavs, but there had to be a spillover from the Lalu vote to ensure such a comprehensive victory. Lalu was complacent because he was convinced that no one would get a majority, and no one was better than him in cobbling a coalition. Complacency is the blood brother of power.

Nitish Kumar’s problem is accentuated by the fact that the BJP is his ally, and too many of its leaders find Muslim-baiting irresistible. But the challenge is greater than being the good cop of the alliance. Nitish Kumar has to use power to create a vote base as solid as Lalu’s. Only then can he hope to change political equations. If he grows, he will be a potential leader of a Third Front. The "if" should be written in capital letters. A key to his future will be the level of trust he can create among Muslims. I suspect that he will at some point announce a job reservation for backward caste Muslims (akin, in some ways, to the 4% Karnataka model rather than the hurried, ill-thought Andhra scheme that was punctured by the courts). This will create friction with the BJP, which will do him no harm either.

If victors are hard to identify, losers are not. Victors demand applause; losers invite sympathy.

The biggest loser in Bihar was Shatrughan Sinha, because he decided to lose when his side was winning. All wars have collateral damage, the serious-sounding term for being shot dead by your own side. Shatrughan Sinha, erstwhile filmstar and BJP-minister pulled off something spectacular: he shot himself dead. No wonder his nickname was Shotgun Sinha. I hope this gives pause to the myth that filmstars enable you to win elections. This proposition was always demeaning to the Indian voter. To collect a crowd is not synonymous with collecting votes. Former filmstars make a difference when they become politicians, in the extraordinary manner that N.T. Rama Rao did, or Jayalalithaa has done.

Lalu Yadav may have suffered a setback, but he is still in play. His fate will be determined by the quality of Nitish Kumar’s performance as chief minister.

And thus to the question that I hope has been nagging you: how has Dr Manmohan Singh become the winner of the Bihar election? In just about every which way.

Defeat in Patna has made Lalu Yadav impotent in Delhi. After the first Bihar elections, Lalu was powerful enough to demand and obtain a disgraceful recommendation to the President dissolving the Bihar Assembly without due consideration. If he had won, he would probably be discussing a better portfolio for himself at the Centre — for starters. Now, the Prime Minister can take Lalu’s support for granted. An occasional smile will be sufficient to keep him happy.

A simple fact will explain more. Dr Manmohan Singh has never been in danger of being destabilised by the BJP-led Opposition. Why would any party of the ruling alliance exchange the comfort of power for the uncertainty of an election? The only party that might conceivably have an interest in another election is one that hopes to do much better. For the past year, voices have been gathering strength in the Congress that, with the BJP in disarray, a midterm election could win the party up to 200 seats. The additional seats would come from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra (where the Shiv Sena is fading into inconsequence). It is axiomatic that another election would mean the end of Dr Singh’s tenure in office, irrespective of how the Congress fared.

The defeat in Bihar has ended all talk of a midterm poll. Unless some seismic event takes place that no one can foresee, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh is safe for the rest of its tenure. The accidental Prime Minister has become a politician of substance.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Vice President of Torture

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by : By M.J.Akbar

Media disseminates information, triggers reaction, further shapes response, and creates new facts. Media thereby becomes the vehicle of change and the procreator of history. Truth was never a simple fact, but it could be hidden in an establishment cupboard till the time of accountability, at least in this world, had passed. Now, truth can evolve almost on a daily basis, once it is out; the genes of this evolution lie in media.

Media used to be merely the message. But that was once upon a time, when a Canadian professor of literature, Marshall McLuhan, coined the phrase, and a laconic British poet, Philip Larkin, announced the birth of sex in 1963. We have moved on from the Sixties. A new dictum rules. History is media.

I do not offer that proposition to suggest that modern media compiles the data that will comprise the history waiting to be written. That is too passive a role, and if only this were true it would not be worth writing about. Modern media is not just an accumulation of dormant technology, a data bank called Google — the latest avatar of HAL, Stanley Kubrick’s memorably sinister computer in Space Odyssey. Media is now an active ingredient and vital instigator of events. Information is the new mother of invention.

Media disseminates information, triggers reaction, further shapes response, and creates new facts. Media thereby becomes the vehicle of change and the procreator of history. Truth was never a simple fact, but it could be hidden in an establishment cupboard till the time of accountability, at least in this world, had passed. Now, truth can evolve almost on a daily basis, once it is out; the genes of this evolution lie in media.

Dictators, and manipulative democrats, would prefer it the other way around. They would like media to become history. They want media to return, at best, to the fundamentally obedient, if not corrupt, state in which it existed during socially progressive but nevertheless brutal regimes like those of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong; and nihilistic, suppressive and genocidal regimes like the one of Adolf Hitler. Media did exist in Soviet Union, China and Germany but it was blind to mass murder of peasants, mass starvation of citizens and mass extermination by Nazis.

Even the most repressive governments today cannot quite hope to survive behind an unliftable curtain of ignorance. It is not almost impossible for brutality to remain an archival fact, to be discovered only after their perpetrators have enjoyed a lifetime of power. Today accountability is increasingly around the corner.

The governments of superpowers publicly worry about Weapons of Mass Destruction: WMD, or nuclear weapons, in Iraq yesterday and Iran today. I suspect that privately they are far more worried about the real modern WMD, media. The exhilarating part is that media destroys what needs to be destroyed, the lie, the evasion — not wholly, nor in full measure, but substantially. (Those who hear an echo of Jawaharlal Nehru, albeit in another context, have their ears tuned correctly.)

Nuclear weapons are a Weapon of Mass Perception (WMP) rather than a WMD. They are victims of the ultimate paradox: nuclear weapons are too destructive to be destructive. Generals who want to bomb the enemy back into the Stone Age are going to achieve precisely what they want, except that the stones will be found back home as well when the nuclear cloud clears. And since you won’t get hamburgers or SUVs in the Stone Age, that option is unrealistic for even a hyperpower like George Bush’s America. (Important: we must always make a distinction between America and Bush’s America.)

The only time America used nuclear bombs was in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That was enough. Even when America is at its most desperate, as in Vietnam or in Iraq, it might resort to chemical killers but has not found the will to use nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union was a mighty nuclear power, but that arsenal was impotent when the Soviet state imploded. Israel has at least a hundred nuclear bombs. Not one of them is useful against a Palestinian struggling for self-respect and freedom.

Nuclear weapons are useful only as a strategic reality, not as a tactical option. They did enormous service to the world during the long decades of the Cold War, when they successfully prevented that war from boiling over into bloody combat, as could have happened over Hungary in 1956, Berlin in 1962 and even Czechoslovakia in 1968. Today, they are extremely useful in preventing a fourth full-scale war between India and Pakistan. Thank you, Dr Einstein, Dr Raja Ramanna, President Kalam, Dr A.Q. Khan and all your mentors.

How do we know that America has used chemical weapons in Iraq, during the Fallujah operations? Well, I can safely report that Donald Rumsfeld did not hold a series of press conferences on the subject, and the Pentagon did not issue a news bulletin. Italian television found out before it was confirmed, lips very tight and eyes wide shut, by the Pentagon. Nor did the Pentagon call editors over for an illuminating chat on Abu Ghraib. It was only the severest pressure that forced it to convict a couple of underlings on its payroll as token punishment for images that shocked the world and stirred more than one heart to who knows what depths of anger.

It might, in passing, interest you to know that since Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon has sacked one general for adultery, but found absolutely no evidence of any culpability against any senior officer for the scandal at Abu Ghraib. But of course, in Bush’s immortal words, America doesn’t do torture. I often wonder what Bush would have tried to get away with if media did not exist, or if all the world’s media were controlled by Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox TV in the United States and choice properties elsewhere. Bush seems oblivious of Abu Ghraib. Or that John McCain, a Republican ally who helped him remain in the White House, is author of legislation that would ban torture by the American administration and is being opposed by Dick Cheney. This is what, according to AFP, Admiral Stansfield Turner, has to say: "We have crossed the line into dangerous territory. I am embarrassed that the US has a Vice President for torture. I think it is just reprehensible. He (Cheney) advocates torture, what else is it? I just don’t understand how a man in that position can take such a stance."

Stansfield Turner is not a Sunni-Wahabi-Baathist-mullah from Baghdad. He is a former chief of CIA. He also reaffirms my early comment that we should not confuse the Bush Brigade with America.

It is not just America that is affected by the syndrome. Cross over to the other side of the world. Thailand is mired in a virtual insurgency in its Muslim-majority provinces; more than a thousand people have died since January 2004. If there was one moment that turned disaffection into active war, a "nerve moment", then it was surely the incident during Ramzan when a Thai general packed Muslim suspects into a "black hole" in which about 80 suffocated to death. When questioned, he dismissed this as a consequence of weakness due to fasting. Thaksin Shinawatra was Prime Minister and did nothing. He later won a landslide victory by gently fanning prejudice against Muslims. How do we know about this "nerve-moment"? Because of media. Otherwise it would have remained a shadowy rumour, regularly dismissed as "preposterous" in gentle Thailand.

Predictably, France has given a whole new meaning to our subject. We have heard of the Internet revolution. Silicon Valley and Bangalore must find a new term for what they do after the French Revolution of Autumn 2005 in which minorities, primarily but not uniformly Muslim, rose against the quasi-racism of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s long-tongue interior minister. This was a revolt planned and implemented on the Internet. They’ve finally stopped counting, after 9,071 vehicles were torched and 126 police officers injured.

Modern media’s greatest service to contemporary civilisation is that it has made injustice that much more difficult to hide. Obviously I wish I could say that all media lived by this creed. I cannot. Most media is still conformist and obedient. Almost every government in the world has its own channel (Bush has Fox). State-owned channels, almost without exception, are propaganda platforms for their governments. But this does not matter. All you need is one television station or newspaper to report the truth. Once facts emerge they develop a life and power of their own and create new facts. Reaction overpowers action.

As the President and Vice President of Torture are beginning to discover.

- Main Blog of MJ Akbar

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Will Natvar Singh Sing?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Will Natvar Sing?

Natwar Singh has exhausted his capacity to hurt himself. But he has not exhausted his capacity to hurt the Congress. The story of the ex-foreign minister of India confirms an old view of mine. While there is always the danger of character assassination in public life, the far bigger danger for politicians is character suicide.

Now that Mr Natwar Singh has more time on his hands, if not more peace in his mind, he is probably allotting blame for his misfortunes. Paul Volcker is surely on top of his list. But, in all honesty, he needs to divide the blame between Volcker and hubris. The details in the UN report were half the problem. The other half was television: or, to be more specific, the frequent appearances of Singh and Son on the box. Volcker condemned Natwar Singh in his report. Natwar Singh ended up condemning himself on television.

The minister is an extremely well-read man. He might have paused to check Shakespeare. "He doth protest too much." As for Jagat Singh: his innate aggression might be tolerated in a decadent feudal environment, but it does not travel very far in civilised society. If the not-so-young man thought he could huff and puff his way out of trouble, he has not grown up.

One wonders if either Mr Natwar Singh or the Congress took any advice on how to handle a problem that quickly pole-vaulted into a crisis. Friends comment, or suggest; that is perfectly normal and understandable. The initial reaction seemed based on the view that this was a silly season story, the sort of news that fills a gap when nothing much is happening. Hence the slightly thoughtless initial reactions, both by the Congress and the minister. "The Congress will send a legal notice to the UN." In other words the Congress was sending a legal notice to India, since India is a member. "Who is Paul Volcker? He doesn’t even know that I am the foreign minister of India!" It was silly to doubt Volcker’s credentials, and a phone to any sensible man in America might have prevented such a mistake.

But hubris tends to have an escalating impact on poor judgment. By the time Mr Singh was asserting, vibrantly, that "I, as foreign minister of India" could dictate national policy it was apparent that he was out of sync with the culture of democratic governance. After that his departure was no longer a question of whether but of when.

Mercifully (for the victim), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought one stream of the running story to a halt when he decided that Mr Natwar Singh could no longer be a tenable custodian of the nation’s foreign policy. The Prime Minister’s initial defence of his colleague is not to be faulted. He cannot jettison a senior minister in the first onslaught even though he was aware of Volcker’s reputation, as well as the integrity of the committee that had done the damage. But the final compromise, in which Mr Natwar Singh has become a minister without portfolio, achieves nothing. Natwar Singh is no Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose advice was needed even after he resigned his portfolio. Nor did the former resign; he was ordered to walk the plank (in his own interest, since the plank was fitted out with a temporary safety net).

The compromise has fuelled suspicion that Mr Natwar Singh knows something that we do not, at least not yet; and that something could hurt others in the Congress. This may not be true, but the Indian voter is a suspicious sort of chap. The chances of anything remaining secret are remote. By the time the various wringers have done their work, at least half a dozen enquiries would have sifted through the oily affairs of an elitist friends’ circle who thought that the world was their oyster and their dads were little pearls. There is the Volcker report, already with us, documents awaited.

The Enforcement Directorate has begun its interrogations and alerted airports that the directors of Hamdan, Andaleeb Sehgal and Vikas Dhar, should not be permitted to leave the country for the moment. The tax authorities will doubtless want their turn. Mr Virendra Dayal has been put on a parallel track, to report on UN processes and reports. Justice R.S. Pathak, with the powers of a civil court, will enquire into the Volcker conclusions. And then of course is the continual enquiry report being done by the media. Ironically, Mr Natwar Singh and his son might find that, of all these options, Volcker might have been the most gentle.

The media has, so far, the softest job. Volcker has done most of its work; all it needs is a bit of follow-up. This is bad news for the Singhs, since with each layer and each lead their protestations look that much more hollow. It is apparent now that Paul Volcker’s basic information came from documents seized from government records after Saddam Hussein’s defeat. He then cross-checked the names with bank transactions. There were no allegations against those who did not figure in bank records: witness Bheem Singh, a Jammu and Kashmir panther. I can hardly comment on the merits of each individual allegation, but the case against Sehgal looks strong. Sehgal was in the picture only because of his connections with the Singhs, and, as confirmed by a former Congress minister, P. Shiv Shankar, a member of the Congress delegation to Iraq, was in the group only in his capacity as their friend. It would be very unusual if two plus two did not make four. It is safe to assume that Andaleeb Sehgal did not go to Baghdad under the false assumption that it was Paris in summertime.

The life of a government is best measured in events, not months and years. By that yardstick, the Manmohan Singh government has reached its midway mark. The early hiccups, like the shindig over tainted ministers, did not affect its stride; in fact, it was the BJP that was sounding strident. But 2005 has been a year in which the government has aged faster than it expected. The budget was more hype than hope; economic reforms were trapped in the contradictions of the ruling alliance. There were political mistakes, the most unforgivable being the mismanagement of Bihar after Lalu Yadav failed to get a majority in the first Assembly elections of the year. The consequences of that mistake will be evident in the November polls. Now we have a very old-fashioned scandal, as grubby as they come. Since the foreign minister was involved, it was entirely appropriate that it had an international flavour. But the most significant fact of this scandal, as far as the Manmohan Singh establishment is concerned, is that it is a Congress scandal.

The lead singer pulls in the bigger bucks in any performance, but he also pays a higher price when things go wrong. In fact, if the lead cracks up, the show disappears. If a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha slips in the ruling coalition, it barely raises a yawn. If Lalu Yadav stumbles, despite his 25 MPs, it is probably good news for the rest, since his ability to blackmail the coalition is dented. But if the political and ethical credibility of the Congress goes, then the edifice crumbles. The coalition can still brazen it out in arithmetical terms, but it will not be able to function as a government. It will also whittle Dr Manmohan Singh’s personal credibility. Take that away, and there isn’t much left.

During his more intemperate spells, just before he lost his job, Mr Natwar Singh often asserted that he was indistinguishable from the Congress. That is precisely the sort of thing that a Congress Prime Minister or a Congress president might not want to hear. The last thing the Congress wants is to have beloved sons like Jagat Singh, who have dear friends like Andaleeb Sehgal and pathfinders to Baghdad like Aneil Mathrani. A Congressman might have such afflictions, but the party would like to consider itself a little bigger than an individual.

Alas, the paradox. The only time an accused is readily believed is when he spreads the accusation. Mr Natwar Singh’s power lies in ambiguity. As long as there is no clarity, and the whisky trail, or the oil-cash trail, does not lead to specific hands and homes beyond doubt, he and the Congress are safe. But there are too many documents leading to too many established companies; will everyone keep quiet? If Natwar believes that he is being made a scapegoat, will he sing?

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Pure Evil

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Pure Evil

The Indian voter’s faith in its politicians has collapsed. Its faith in many institutions is dangerously low. But this is more than offset by the Indian’s faith in the country’s economy and the nation’s polity. The view is gaining ground that the politician cannot do much to harm the economy, and the polity is stronger than the politician. This is what makes India much stronger than the sum of its parts and gives it the ability to absorb wounds in order to protect the whole. It will take much more than a few bombs in Delhi to hurt India.

There has to be a reason, even for pure evil; otherwise it is lunacy. We must never confuse evil with lunacy. To say that Hitler was mad is, in a sense, to absolve him because you eliminate his responsibility for his crimes.

Lunacy may extract a grievous price on occasion, but it is an accident — an accident of the brain that destroys the capability of judgment, moral and amoral, whether it is a matter of sifting right from wrong or separating fact from fiction. Evil is a deliberate, often carefully calibrated choice. We must understand lunacy in order to isolate it, and we must understand evil in order to punish it. We have to live with the depressing fact that neither can be eliminated.

Evil can take both a collective as well as an individual form. There are times when substantial majorities of a population become collectively evil, and remain so for hundreds of years if not thousands. There was the spasm of Nazism in Germany, a virulent strain of evil that is unparalleled in human history. Other forms were less destructive perhaps, but hardly less corrosive or forgivable. Racism, for instance.

Americans are mourning the death, and celebrating the life, of Rosa Parks, who became the pivot of a turning point in American history when she refused to give up her seat in a bus to a White man in a small town. The pastor of a Black church in that town was drafted to head the non-violent resistance movement when she was arrested. His name was Martin Luther King, and he led Black Americans to emancipation after hundreds of years of the most inhuman slavery.

Apartheid in South Africa took even longer to destroy. Lest we Indians begin to feel smug, the fate of Untouchables in our country was worse than the lot of slaves in America or Blacks in South Africa. Dalits had to carry a pitcher around their neck so that their spit would not pollute the ground. When you think about some of these facts, all you can do is shudder, for our forefathers who practised such evil, or condoned it, considered themselves civilised. By the 1960s and 1970s the world changed sufficiently to outlaw such practices, not just in word but also in practice.

Terrorism, the contemporary evil, is not collective; it is the work of individuals or very small groups operating through cells. Terrorists are faceless because they are ready for personal obliteration — hence the faint paradox of an identitikit hunt. The normalcy of the men who planted bombs in crowded marketplaces is their weapon, making them all the more sinister.

What were the reasons behind the barbaric, senseless terrorist bombs on the eve of Diwali in Delhi? The checklist is obvious, if often unstated in respectable media for reasons of delicacy.

At the top of the list is surely the bleeding wound of the subcontinent, the problems of Kashmir. Was this an act of revenge? But if it was revenge then it should have been targeted against a symbol of government, not against a marketplace. The purpose seems more mischievous.

Was it an attempt to provoke communal violence between Hindus and Muslims? The moment for this barbarism was the eve of Diwali, the happiest day on the calendar of Hindu festivals. To spread carnage on such an occasion is to incite the mildest of human beings to rage. It is evidence of the growing maturity of inter-community relations in India that there was no such reaction. This is not the first time that such embers have been fanned in the hope of a larger conflagration. But apart from the unforgivable post-assassination riots of 1984, the fallout of the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 and the more recent, gruesome Gujarat riots under the watch of chief minister Narendra Modi, the people of India have met such challenges with commendable calm.

Did the anonymous killers hope to derail the peace process between India and Pakistan, in the manner that the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13 froze relations and drove the subcontinent to the edge of war? If so, once again the result was failure. The first assessment in Delhi in such situations is to measure the role, if any, of either the whole or a part of the Pak establishment in such wanton terror.

Since nothing has been established, nothing can be ruled out, or ruled in. But at least as far as the principal voice of Pakistan’s establishment was concerned, the message to Delhi was reassuring. President Pervez Musharraf seemed sincere in his private conversation with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and, more important, his public pronouncements. He offered "unequivocal" support to India in any investigation and added "Pakistan stands with India on this act of terrorism". We will wait to find out whether this offer of support means anything or not, but it is reasonable to assume that Dr Singh was comforted by what he heard, or there would have been public ramifications. Privately, India and Pakistan believe that terrorists, who feel increasingly abandoned as peace initiatives strengthen, will express their desperation through mindless, destructive terrorism. Their targets will be both innocents and VIPs.

It is now two decades since the Russians were defeated in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan needed another war before America could get the government it wanted in Kabul. One of the motivations of those foot soldiers of the Afghanistan jihad who turned their attention towards India was that a "soft" nation like India would be a pushover for the conquerors of the Soviet Union. It is easy to underestimate the strength of a democracy, particularly when it looks tattered at the top. But a democracy builds very strong underground roots, because it is always nourished by the will of the people.

People have direct ownership of the state; the vote makes them shareholders in the power process; they elect and destroy the executive. Patriotism is common to all nations; democracy strengthens the stake in a nation’s present and future. The strength of India is much more than the strength of its armies, for it derives from the strength of its people. Since the vote is equal, all communities, with time, discover that their stake matters, and that their will can change the nature of governments.

Military strategists have looked wistfully at the geography of India, and the strategic depth that this provides. Basically this means that India’s defence forces have space to manoeuvre, to take a second stand in the event of any setback. But that is an advantage only in a conventional war. The real war today is unconventional, for the nameless, faceless terrorist can strike anywhere and melt into anonymity.

A nation needs a different kind of strategic depth to fight this war successfully. It requires depth of character, and an extraordinary resilience to sustain perspective and balance. Delhi did not grieve any less on the day after the pre-Diwali havoc, but the manner in which the city recovered could not have escaped the attention of those trying to destroy its peace. Only the very cynical, or the very prejudiced, would consider this a sign of indifference. The simple message from the city was that it would not be defeated.

The Indian voter’s faith in its politicians has collapsed. Its faith in many institutions is dangerously low. But this is more than offset by the Indian’s faith in the country’s economy and the nation’s polity. The view is gaining ground that the politician cannot do much to harm the economy, and the polity is stronger than the politician. This is what makes India much stronger than the sum of its parts and gives it the ability to absorb wounds in order to protect the whole. It will take much more than a few bombs in Delhi to hurt India.

We do not know how long terrorism will enter our homes and our markets and our streets, and we do not know when the last battle will be fought. But we do know that this is not a war with set-piece battles; that this is a process in which victory and defeat will be determined in the mind much more than the street. The mind is controlled by the nerve, and democracy has given India nerves of steel. That admittedly flabby flesh you see on the outside is the weakness of a sweet tooth; the other teeth can bite back.

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Who's Lost It?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Who's Lost It?

Rule No. 1 to Rule No. 10 of a democracy: No one really wins an election, but someone loses it. There are of course exceptions, but the principle is sound. Did Tony Blair win the last British elections? Not if you see the percentages that voted for him. Did the Tories lose those elections? Certainly. A better candidate than John Kerry, who did not know his swift boat from his desert patrol, would have saved George Bush the humiliation of a second term.

As it was the first assessments on polling day in the United States last November predicted a Kerry victory. And then of course we have our own BJP, who compounded the mood-swing against the party after the Gujarat riots with persistent and even obstinate miscalculations.

One characteristic of Indian political parties, particularly when they are in power, makes them a unique phenomenon. They put their best foot forward, and then shoot themselves in that foot. Curiously they think they are still sprinting towards the finish line when it is apparent that they have begun to hobble. That describes the BJP last year. Is it an accurate description of Lalu Yadav in Bihar this year?

With polling over in more than half of Bihar, eyes are beginning to open and views expressed. The polls have made their point. They used to make a much bigger point, but after their disastrous distance from reality in the last Lok Sabha polls their impact has been discounted. The current preferred semi-scientific methodology for choosing winners and losers is body language. Television has made this a participative activity.

Purely on visual evidence, the sag is greater in Lalu Yadav’s body language. This could be because of higher expectations. The last time, Lalu Yadav was contesting alone; this time he has Congress and CPI(M) as allies. In theory this should be enough to ensure victory. Around 50 seats were won and lost the last time by margins of one or two per cent. Lalu should retain those he won marginally, and gain those he lost. Between them the Congress and CPI(M) should have given him an additional ten per cent votes in a substantial number of constituencies. Then why worry?

Bihar is conducting elections in four phases. Exit polls in the second phase offered a curious statistic: it was the NDA, led by Nitish Kumar, that had increased its vote share by one per cent. What was more disturbing for Lalu was that his vote had dropped by 8%. One reason for this may have been accidental. The Election Commission chose, in its wisdom, to schedule polls during the middle of the month of fasting by Muslims. Enthusiasm needs to be pretty high to vote on a hungry stomach and thirsty throat under a sun still in summer mood.

Any drop in the Muslim vote is a straight minus from Lalu’s tally. But the bigger concern could be a consolidation of castes and voters who are committed against Lalu Yadav. Ram Vilas Paswan’s support base has also weakened since the last election. Where have these voters shifted? If they have gone to Nitish Kumar and the NDA then they will become the largest bloc in the Assembly. If they have scattered among independents then the field remains open for carpetbaggers to open their carpets once the results are known in the last week of November.

Then there is the Sari Slide Rule. The origins of this phenomenon are well-known. Last year, the BJP attempted to purchase support in the then Prime Minister’s constituency, Lucknow, by distributing free saris to poor women. Instead of generating votes, the BJP generated a stampede in which lives were lost. The saris turned to ash and the BJP slide accelerated.

The fact is that everyone tries to get away with what he can, but the excesses get caught. There is a kind of mathematical justice. This time in Bihar it is Lalu’s side which is in trouble. We have had the extraordinary situation where the police are looking for a Union Cabinet minister because he entered a lock-up and simply lifted his brother out of jail. This is the Wild West with the benign sanction of Delhi.

The reality is that everyone knows where this Union minister, Jaiprakash Narain Yadav is but the police will not touch him because he is protected by the politically powerful. I was about to suggest this was scandalous, but that is too mild a word. What was this brother doing? He was caught with lakhs of rupees in largely 50-rupee notes, more than fifteen cases of liquor and a gun in his hand. Cash, liquor, gun: the Pirates of Bihar. What is amazing is the absence of outrage. Have we become immune to crime in Bihar?

Delhi is more interested in the consequences of the Bihar results than in the Bihar results. No one is really concerned about Bihar, its administration or its welfare. Lalu’s allies don’t care, or they would not be with him, since he is responsible for the putrid mess in that state. Lalu’s opponents pretend to care, but most of their politics is personal. They want to see Lalu out rather than Bihar improve.

The coalition in Delhi will be relieved if Lalu Yadav’s wife Rabri Devi forms the government again. But if he loses?

Lalu Yadav then has two options. The sensible one is to cut his losses and save what he can from the wreck. He remains a significant player in Delhi and can use his railway ministry and Cabinet berth to fight back. He will no longer have the protection of the Bihar administration and therefore might find it difficult to return in a hurry; and there will certainly be a welter of accusations as evidence from years of malfeasance crawls out of the rot.

The second option is wrath. The target of such wrath will definitely be his Cabinet colleague Ram Vilas Paswan, who has effectively sabotaged Lalu Yadav by breaking the UPA model in Bihar. If Ram Vilas had not put up his slate of candidates, Lalu Yadav would be smiling his cherubic way back to power in Patna. Nitish Kumar and the NDA would have no chance whatsoever. Lalu could legitimately ask why Ram Vilas Paswan was a member of the national ruling alliance if he had helped their opponents come to power in as crucial a state as Bihar. This would link up with what Ram Vilas did with his MLAs in Bihar. It is unlikely that he will sit on any high moral platform and stay out of power. If he does, his MLAs will desert him for ministerships.

If Lalu demands Paswan’s ouster from the Cabinet, those hoping to stitch a Third Front from the crazy quilt of contemporary Indian politics will offer a cheer. The Congress, however, could throw in an elliptical suggestion of its own, by saying that Paswan should head a UPA government in Bihar thereby keeping the NDA out (I assume that no one will get a majority). The Congress would be more anxious to occupy space left behind by a retreating Lalu Yadav than any other party, because the revival of the Congress as a national force hinges around its resurrection in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

You get the point, don’t you? It would be entirely understandable if you didn’t, because logic is not the strong suit of personality-driven politics. If there is a point then it is that the dust that was thrown up by the BJP’s defeat has not yet settled down and as long as it does not, the ground will not be firm enough to seat a stable government in Delhi. After all, the only thing that was decided in the general elections of 2004 was who lost it. The BJP lost it. The jury is still out on who, a word that can absorb both the singular and the plural, is or are the victors.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A radical lasso

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: A Radical Lasso

There is nothing personal about suspicion, General; it comes, to indulge in a mild pun, with the territory. If President General Pervez Musharraf has a fault, it is to take things personally.

When Lyse Doucet of the BBC asked him how he could allay suspicions that Indians might entertain about his radical offer to melt the Line of Control in Kashmir, he blew a minor fuse, answering on the lines of, "If they are suspicious about me then I will get suspicious about them" etc.

There is also institutional suspicion in relations between warring neighbours, as well suspicion of institutions. The Pakistan military establishment might harbour suspicions about India that are as justified, within the framework of its commitments and compulsions, as the Indian military establishment’s are about Pakistan. That has to be factored into any equation that seeks to balance the betrayals of the past against hopes about the future.

And yet, paradoxically, that personal element is also an asset. Pakistan’s peace initiatives towards India are propelled to a great extent by the dynamic of General Musharraf’s personal will. He is sincere, and has given as much evidence of his sincerity as is perhaps realistically possible. He also believes that Dr Manmohan Singh is equally sincere in his desire for peace, and has said so publicly; when personality is critical, trust is vital.

India’s Prime Minister is in politics but not of politics. Even those who disagree with him never go so far as to doubt his sincerity. Dr Singh, who keeps his private thoughts private, has not given us too many hints about what he thinks of General Musharraf, but the circumstantial evidence is positive. There would not have been a four-hour dinner between them in New York in September otherwise.

I cannot think of a parallel relationship between two serving chief executives of India and Pakistan. There was mistrust and worse between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, which spilled over into the brief Nehru-Liaquat Ali Khan era. Liaquat’s civilian successors did not merit much attention from Nehru. By the time Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan’s first military coup, and stabilised his regime, Nehru began to fade. Ayub Khan went to war with Lal Bahadur Shastri; ironically, the two established a certain rapport during the post-conflict peace talks in Tashkent. It was, tragically, too late, for Shastri did not survive Tashkent. Yahya Khan’s shallow obstinacy could hardly be good news for either his country or the subcontinent; his legacy is well-known. Theoretically, the Indira Gandhi-Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto relationship held promise. Both were populist in their politics and sophisticated in their personal lives. But they spent their time mopping up the dire consequences of war.

The oddest couple was surely Zia ul Haq and Morarji Desai. They had more in common than you might think. Both were 19th century prohibitionist puritans whose efforts at social reform energised a sectarian base. Both were pro-American in their policies, Desai by ideological preference and Zia by utilitarian choice. They came to power at the same time, but since only one of them was a democrat, they left power on different dates and through different routes. Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi shared a similar inheritance as well as a similar problem: they were disliked by their entrenched power centres, and were destabilised when they tried to reach out to each other.

The Nineties disappeared in alternate cycles of uncertainty and instability. The two bombwallahs were the second odd couple: Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. They took one dramatic leap forward with the Lahore agreement, and were equally stunned when the leap ended up in a somersault. The relationship between Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf was always clouded on the Indian side by the memory of Kargil, in which trust was the first casualty. Their faces at the first official meal of the infamous Agra Summit, a lunch in Delhi, were worth a thousand pictures. Vajpayee’s face was ice, Musharraf’s was stone. Lal Krishna Advani’s face, for those who might be interested, was granite punctuated by two very careful eyes. Trust began to develop only during Vajpayee’s second gambit for peace, which went to ground when time ran out on him.

Manmohan Singh and Musharraf, having developed the trust, have time on their side. Experience, their own and that of others, should warn them that time is an unreliable ally, always prone to slip and crash on the unforeseen.

It is boring to repeat that a terrible tragedy can be converted into a momentous opportunity. But was the General running ahead of history when he made the most radical, even audacious, offer in six decades of confrontation over Kashmir? Analysts have suggested that by military training General Musharraf is a better tactician than a strategist. However, the offer to melt the border that separates two sides of Kashmir so that people can help one another in the aftermath of a numbing earthquake is a strategic masterstroke. It was made in the context of a crisis, but the idea has already been stretched towards an undefined timeframe. Is this the way to a solution of the one problem that has prevented India and Pakistan from being natural, friendly neighbours?

Much depends on how you define a solution. Is the solution about geography, or is it about people? Is it about Kashmir or Kashmiris? Geography is possessive, acquisitive. Once we shift the radar to the problems of Kashmiris, and how to minimise them if we cannot end them, then ideas, options and opportunities open up.

General Musharraf says that the world is aware of his ideas, and uses some key words: Identify … demilitarise … self-governance … superstructure (to oversee the process). Each of these terms is loaded with snares and infested with barbed wire from the past, not the least of them being identity. The map of Jammu and Kashmir in October 1947, before the first war started, was vastly different from what it is today, and I am not talking about the Line of Control, which came into being at the end of that war and has not shifted since. Demilitarisation will require trust between institutions much more than between individuals, however important the latter might be. Self-governance is a comfortable thought; the means of achieving the authority that will govern less so. Will such governments be democratically elected? Definitions of democracy are not the same on either side of the Line of Control, and indeed differ sharply within Pakistan. Democracy does not mean the same thing to Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. Long before thoughts of superstructure engage us, the structure might be straddled with hurdles. And so on.

But what is undeniable is that General Musharraf has thrown an innovative lasso across the divide in a search for answers.

The critical fact of the Indian response was its immediacy. The suggestion had barely been made when Delhi said yes. A principle has been established, and we are already way beyond a bus route between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. Yasin Malik has already tested the principle, and has reached Pakistan-occupied Kashmir with funds for relief. A year ago, the idea of Yasin Malik, or any member of the Hurriyat, visiting Pakistan was considered unacceptable by Delhi. Today we are discussing means of normalising contacts between a divided people. If there is some applause in the air it is only because both hands are clapping.

It is my view that the dialogue between India and Pakistan works when handled in incremental, digestible portions. Sometimes the increments are large, as in this practical move towards soft borders, but, since they are unencumbered by other demands, they become, slowly, digestible. The present chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (who may not be chief minister by the time Id comes along) has suggested to Delhi that five crossing points be identified to turn the idea into reality. Another step, that is, in the digestion process. If you continue to change reality on the ground, minds will continue to open at the higher reaches of power.

Suspicion is a fog. The dense Kashmir fog is streaked with too much blood. A fog never lifts suddenly, except in fantasy. It clears slowly, invisibly, and only if the environment improves. The Kashmir fog has overpowered the day and seized the night. But it is in the ability of the leaders of India and Pakistan to improve the environment. This subcontinent suffered a political earthquake nearly six decades ago. The last bit of uncleared debris lies in Kashmir. A natural earthquake has given General Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh what can only be described as a God-sent chance to clear that debris.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Very Private Sector

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Very Private Sector

Is corporate India communal?As a broad theory it is safe to say that the rich in India and Pakistan are far more communal than the poor. Of course they pretend not to be, and either disguise their truth in deceptive manners or reserve it for closed door discussions when like speaks to like. Historically, divisive politics was led by the elite: either the Muslim landlords of UP and Bihar or their Hindu counterparts of Bengal, along with the rising and newly assertive bania in north and central India

The family reunites at least twice in a lifetime, once to celebrate a birth, and again to mourn a death and comfort the living. A tragedy beyond our control can become an opportunity within our means.

Death has placed an immense print across the north of the Indian subcontinent, in the shadow of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. Have the divided emotions of our subcontinent been jolted into some realignment by the massive earthquake from Kashmir to the Frontier?

The balance sheet is positive. To expect much more would perhaps be foolish. Money is always useful, but the vital need at such times is the immediate despatch of materials: waterproof tents, sheets and shoes, beds, blankets (winter has arrived), gensets, milk powder, analgesics, antibiotics, artificial limbs. India makes much of what is immediately needed and sent it by air and train. The government of Dr Manmohan Singh has been not only quick to respond to a neighbour, but very effective in rushing relief to quake-affected Jammu-and-Kashmiris.

The personal involvement of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the relief operations was visible. The Army responded with emergency speed, and its work in remote areas like Tangdar and Uri will be remembered by the people. The CPI(M), in an effective gesture, gave a donation of Rs 5 lakhs to the Pak high commissioner. After some unnecessary initial hesitation, help was received in Pakistan as gracefully as it was sent from India. Shoaib Akhtar was talking on behalf of his countrymen when he told Australian television in Sydney about Indian generosity. Islamabad went many steps further, and accepted aid from Israel. From such seeds will change emerge, slowly, and if the seeds are nurtured.

The debate in India swivelled around a sub-theme: why was corporate India so abstemious? It queued up to donate when an earthquake ravaged Gujarat; where are the photographs of cheques being handed to the PM’s relief fund this time? It is time to bring the question out of the closet. Is corporate India communal?

As a broad theory it is safe to say that the rich in India and Pakistan are far more communal than the poor. Of course they pretend not to be, and either disguise their truth in deceptive manners or reserve it for closed door discussions when like speaks to like. Historically, divisive politics was led by the elite: either the Muslim landlords of UP and Bihar or their Hindu counterparts of Bengal, along with the rising and newly assertive bania in north and central India.

If you examine the major political formations in India, you realise that ideology is created not only from top-down but also from bottom-up. Marxist secularism works well in Bengal because it sidesteps large portions of the middle class and goes directly to the peasant and worker for its support. Muslims and Yadavs are natural allies under Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav because they do not have a vested interest in communal conflict. When there is conflict between the two, it is almost always artificially engineered by the dangerous mix of lies, innuendo and the deliberate manipulation of crowd-mania. This makes, aberrations apart, the two Yadav parties secular in spirit as well as behaviour. Mayawati’s Dalit formation, the Bahujan Samaj Party, may be sectarian (as indeed others are) but it is not communal. The ideology that spawned the BJP, hostility to Pakistan, and aggression towards Indian Muslims, fits smoothly with the general sentiments of the trading community which constitutes its most loyal support base. The Congress, which gets support (or not) across the classes and castes, tends to respond with variable emphasis, depending on which element of its platform is making a demand. It can travel easily from quasi-communal to proto-secular.

India’s private sector emerged, by and large, from its trading class; and its primary instincts, inflamed by partition, were anti-Muslim. A cursory look at jobs given to Indian Muslims in the private sector in Bengal and the north (with the exception of Parsis and multinationals) during the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and perhaps even the Eighties will confirm this.

But the nature of Indian private sector has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. There has been a significant shift from traditional families to entrepreneurs, who have not only established new, highly successful businesses, but also bought failed brands and revived them. The names who dominate the telecommunication and aviation sectors, for instance, were unknown in 1980, or very marginal. Entrepreneurship, financed by bank or market capital, is driven by profitability, not family networks and influence-peddling. Muslims could succeed as easily, or with as much difficulty, as anyone else: CIPLA and WIPRO, giants in pharmaceuticals and IT, are owned by Indian Muslims. The rapid, even astonishing, growth in non-traditional businesses like outsourcing left no time for communal bias in hiring: competence was the only criterion, because whatever religion might do for the head and the heart, it had no influence whatsoever on the bottom line. A parallel arrival of a new, generally overseas-educated, generation in traditional business groups, like the Calcutta Marwaris, played its own role in eliminating bias.

Let me provide some completely unscientific data as evidence. It is based on the few eminences of corporate India that I happened to know socially. They are not intimate friends by any means, but long years of sniffing out communal breath helps one sift. An arbitrary checklist: the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil; Gautam Singhania; Vijay Mallya; the Jain brothers Samir and Vineet; Anand Mahindra; the BPL co-brothers (as they say in the South) Ajit Nambiar and Rajeev Chandrashekhar; the Goenka brothers Sanjeev and Harsh; the Neotia family, Suresh and Harsh; the Birla scion Shobhana Bhartiya. They may run their business brilliantly or badly, they may enjoy a lifestyle that might drive you up more than one wall, but the one thing they are not is communal.

So why is their hand so far away from their pockets?

One of the few industries to have donated immediately, and for Pakistanis as well as our own Indians, was Infosys, an extraordinary success story created by brilliant minds and financial genius of men like Narayanamurthy.

I wonder what the greatest of the modern entrepreneurs, Dhirubhai Ambani, would have done. I knew him a bit, if only because the journalist in me often sparred with the driving force in him. I believe that he would have made an exceptionally huge donation on both sides of the border within 24 hours, that is when the magnitude of the disaster became clear. He would have given the same amount on either side of the divide, although the destruction in India is far less. Why? That’s a no-brainer: because charity begins at home. However, charity does not end at home. Dhirubhai Ambani was utterly loyal and munificent to those who were loyal to him, but he was not generous. It is difficult to be both rich and generous. He was not sentimental. Sentiment and the Ambani clan have never been introduced to each other. He would have done it because he was shrewd. During my last meeting with him before his stroke, over a longish lunch, he had only one subject: improving India-Pakistan relations, because he believed that it was the only way to ensure the prosperity of both nations. Dhirubhai Ambani would have invested in the one commodity that is priceless, and whose returns are immeasurable, the goodwill of the people. Maybe if his sons stopped obsessing about each other they might remember what their father dreamt. Companies and industrialists who spend a fortune on advertising campaigns to improve their image, do not seem to understand that governments can rise or fall depending on how they respond to disaster.

The first, terrible week is only the beginning of a story that will take years of narration. Whole villages have to be re-built, lives rehabilitated, children rescued from shock and hope restored to adults. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, clearly a practical man, sees his opportunity in tragedy. Apparently he is planning to turn rubble into model, earthquake-proof villages, hopefully with modern infrastructure. That must be the goal in Jammu and Kashmir as well. Dr Manmohan Singh will readily appreciate that. Will the Indian private sector understand that too?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

President Kalam Must Resign

Edited & brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar:President Kalam must resign

An alibi is the respectable sister of a scapegoat. Hunting the scapegoat is a common aspect of politics all over the world.

There is nothing particularly Indian, or partisan, about it. Anyone seeking to wound a chief executive must slaughter a clutch of scapegoats that line the path to his or her office. That is ritual procedure.

Opposition leaders were quick to demand the resignation, in order of merit, of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the don of Bihar; Buta Singh, the governor of Bihar; and Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India after the Supreme Court decision striking down the proclamation by the President of India on May 23 dissolving a Bihar Assembly that had been duly elected but not yet sworn in. The Opposition leaders are missing the point. The person who should resign, if he has any respect for the office that he holds, is the President of India, Dr Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam.

The Bihar Assembly was not dissolved by the wish of Lalu Prasad, the obedience of Buta Singh or the recommendation of the Prime Minister. All three may have been politically necessary for the decision. But the order came with the signature of the President of India. It was his decision, taken in atrocious circumstances, that has stained the history of Indian democracy.

It did not require a decision of the Supreme Court to see that the President was wrong. Common sense could have suggested this. The members of the aborted House had been properly elected in a legitimate election. An election is not complete until the elected members are sworn in. Instead of completing the process, the election was arbitrarily revoked and the will of the people suborned. Bihar is famous for rigging. This was unique in the sense that the rigging was done after the results were declared. This was appalling, in that the President of India rigged the outcome. The others — governor, Cabinet, Prime Minister — gave their recommendation. The President of India took the decision.

The manner in which he took the decision was utterly reprehensible. The President was in Moscow on the night of May 22-23 when the Cabinet decided that the Bihar Assembly should be dissolved even before it had met. The President was woken up at night to sign the proclamation. Why did he do it immediately, at that unseemly hour? Why could he not wait for daybreak and send the Cabinet’s recommendation for legal opinion, which he was fully within his rights to do? It was not as if he was being told to declare war, unless of course it was war on the Bihar voter. The political crisis in Bihar had simmered for a long while. Buta Singh had sent his report to Delhi that no party or coalition had secured a majority on 6 March, and there was President’s Rule in Bihar from 7 March. Parliament had approved this by 21 March, and there was no need to return to Parliament for an extension for some months. There was absolutely no time compulsion. The President could have taken a decision on his return from his foreign tour. And while he is bound to accept a recommendation of the Cabinet, he also has the right to check the legality of any recommendation and indicate his personal displeasure by returning it to the Cabinet for reconsideration. If the Cabinet insisted, the President would have no option but to sign, but he would have upheld the dignity of his office as well reinforced the concept of check and balance that is essential to prevent any tendency towards dictatorship. The President abdicated the dignity and demands of his office when he put a hurried signature to an act of blatantly political manipulation.

Why is the political class less culpable? Precisely because it is political. Power is its dharma, and that is both understood and accepted. Lalu Yadav’s sole desire was to retain office after losing an election he had bungled. If Nitish Kumar had been in his place, or a BJP leader, he would have done the same. The BJP’s behaviour in next-door Jharkhand has been as cynical. Lalu Yadav used his clout as an ally in Delhi to bully Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh to rush through a shoddy Cabinet decision only in order to pre-empt his opponents, who were on the verge of cobbling together an alternative coalition. There was nothing more idealistic in the stampede.

Equally, it would have been extraordinarily foolish of Dr Manmohan Singh to risk his coalition for the proprieties of Bihar. I am certain about Dr Singh’s personal views. Privately, he could never have approved of what he was being forced to do publicly. But he is not naïve. He does not believe in sending an invitation to civil war. He went by the letter and passed on the Cabinet’s recommendation to the President.

Why has the Constitution of India found room for a President and vested in him the "Executive power of the Union"? After all, the President is not directly elected by the people, and logically it is the Prime Minister, a creature of a directly elected Lok Sabha, who should be the final arbiter of executive power. But the office of the President was created not to teach schoolchildren how to live a better life, although that is always a good thing to do. It was created because the system needed a person who was solely the guardian of the Constitution rather than the representative of the legislature. While taking his oath, the President swears to "protect and defend the Constitution and the law", not the Parliament or the government. The framers of our Constitution knew that an elected executive would be occasionally tempted to bend the law to suit a political purpose and created a President to prevent such deviation. It gave the President the means to do so, by permitting him to seek legal opinion in case of any doubt from a Constitutional authority. President Kalam did no such thing when faced by an obvious malfeasance. If his doubts had been placed on the record, then he would have done his duty, and indeed the Supreme Court would have exonerated those doubts.

The fact is that the politicians have flouted the law and won the politics, because the fresh elections to the Bihar Assembly have not been stopped. They could not be, because the Supreme Court has to be at all times cognisant of realities. So Lalu has got the second chance he wanted, and corrected some of his mistakes in the search for a different outcome.

What guarantee is there that what has happened in Bihar cannot be repeated at the national level by another President? We are in coalition politics, in which deals will be made both before and after elections. (In Germany the Congress and the BJP are trying to patch together the grandest deal of all.) What if a President seeks to subvert the will of a general election by dissolving the House before MPs are sworn in?

You cannot be disillusioned if you are not illusioned. President Kalam was good enough to induce illusions. Like the rest of my countrymen, I do believe that he is a sincere and honest man, a simple man who has been placed amidst pomp and majesty by the curious dance of fate. I do not believe that he has been spoilt by his circumstances, or that he has been tempted by the luxury around him to the point where he has, like so many politicians, placed his conscience hostage to the luxury of office.

He has sought, during his term in office, to be a role model to the most precious asset of a nation, its children, its future generations. He has told them over and over again to place principle over gain. This is the moment for the President of India to teach those children he loves by the example of his own convictions.

The Supreme Court of India has indicted the President of India. Either the President takes a stand and says that the Supreme Court is wrong, and must be held accountable for bias and misjudgment. Or he should accept the validity of the judgment and hold himself accountable. It would have been meaningless to present this choice before those of our past Presidents who were politicians. The one exception would be, of course, President Rajendra Prasad, who belonged to the cloth of Gandhi and therefore had principles. This question could have been placed before the academicians, Dr Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain. All three would have chosen principle over power. But only a very naïve commentator would have demanded such standards from Giani Zail Singh.

The choice is before President Kalam. He can choose to be remembered as Dr Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain are. Or he can hide behind an alibi and be forgotten, as Giani Zail Singh is.