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.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Royal Blush

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar: Royal Blush

What impressed me most about this theory was its foundation. It was based on a highly believable cause. It tore the many layers of deception around the anger of the players and reached the heart of their woes: "Chappell is bullying them into an obsessive frenzied fitness regime". Some of the greatest names in Indian cricket have traversed the green while fielding in the regal manner of an ocean liner; there is a strong tradition of stately majesty which some players consider part of their inheritance.

It would require a government to fall to get the kind of newspaper attention that the minor brawl between Indian cricket coach Greg Chappell and captain Sourav Ganguly received. Or not. Falling governments are not such big news anymore.

Even when they don’t fall, they slip each day, and how often can you ruin the front page, or the television screen, with a stumble over Iran, or a twisted ankle over Lalu Yadav? The public is hungry for real conspiracy: press conferences that rip a gut with poisoned sabres, and emails that slice through an artificial reputation like hot tongs on a gas balloon. They want the principal actors on the public stage to wear designer shirts even if they don’t have style, and our political life is a trifle short on such niceties.

I mean Praful Patel can claim a seat at any high table in the world of beau monde, but he is not in charge of conspiracies in his party. So could Jyoti Scindia, but he is not in the Cabinet, yet. Dr Manmohan Singh’s sartorial qualities have improved considerably ever since his tailors were put on the government budget, but he is not in charge of conspiracies in his party either. Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s tailor, alas, still lives in Bolpur.

Home minister Shivraj Patil does his best, but someone should tell him that while white shoes with white trousers and white jacket may be de rigueur for a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, it is not going to make the cover of the Cosmopolitan. Actually one of the best-dressed politicians is Lalu Yadav, if only he could do something about his ear-hair, but only when he is not pretending to be poor.

The khaddar of his kurta-pyjama is spun from the finest cotton, and starched with an aesthete’s precision. But Lalu can’t send email so he can’t really be the kind of conspirator that modern media thirsts for. There are of course those who have been able to bridge the two worlds.

The BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) has the same chef de mission as the BCCI (Board of Control for Congress in India), Rajiv Shukla. But when you have weighed the balance carefully, on objective scales, you have to conclude that the political class cannot really match the cricket class in terms of media coverage.

The most reliable commentators on both cricket and politics are the bookies, but the bookies are kept as far outside media limelight as possible, because they compete directly with journalists for occupation of the punditry space. Once upon a time, the journalist was king. Anyone who wanted to know anything about the present and future of politics would ring up a Delhi journalist, possibly one smoking a pipe. Such a journalist’s word was the fatwa of fatwas. The journalist would be quoted at Mumbai parties in tones of hushed reverence. If his august presence was actually visible at any party, hostesses would order a waiter with an appropriately nourishing tray to hover permanently around him. Guests would hang onto the pundit’s every word, giving curvaceous babes a permanent inferiority complex. The luckier journalists can still maintain a foothold on the social circuit, but there are too many cynics around who have got far better information on the Bihar elections, and the fate of Rabri Devi, her eldest daughter and Lalu’s various brothers and brothers-in-law from the bookies. The big difference is that the journalist puts your whisky where his mouth is, while the bookie puts his money where his mouth is. Who would you rather trust? It’s a no-brainer.

The bookies certainly knew the end of the Ganguly-Chappell story long before the end was officially written in some hallowed five-star hotel in Mumbai. They said that it would be draw, and took bets of at least

Rs 500 crores on their convictions. Needless to add, this is precisely what happened. How did the bookies know? Wouldn’t we all like to know that?

There is a term in Urdu called 'noori kushti', a wrestling match whose result has been pre-determined by the sponsor, in which the wrestlers are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Was the Ganguly-Chappell encounter noori kushti?

The sound was loud enough to be heard from Zimbabwe to India, and the fury burnt acres of newsprint, but wait. The plot thickens. A theory has been floated by an afternoon paper in Mumbai, artfully called the Afternoon Despatch and Courier, that two popes of Indian cricket, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, planted the story of Ganguly’s rift with Chappell (which was not a state secret on the Zimbabwe tour) on the talkometer-general of Indian cricket, Harsha Bhogle, who duly nudged and winked it onscreen, in order to improve the ratings of the dead series being televised by ESPN. Of all the reasons for this controversy this one seems the most cogent. If there is a conspiracy there must be a multinational around to blame, isn’t it? How else can we remain a socialist, secular republic? Second, multinationals are always keen to live up to their reputations, as long as they can find locals to be their patsies, so the pattern begins to form. Third, if there is no television, there is no cricket. And there will be no television if there are no ratings. So if you can’t get ratings by the game on the field, then you have to get ratings by playing some games off the field. This is logical. Pythagoras would have approved the symmetry of this construct.

What impressed me most about this theory was its foundation. It was based on a highly believable cause. It tore the many layers of deception around the anger of the players and reached the heart of their woes: "Chappell is bullying them into an obsessive frenzied fitness regime". Some of the greatest names in Indian cricket have traversed the green while fielding in the regal manner of an ocean liner; there is a strong tradition of stately majesty which some players consider part of their inheritance. The modern culture of lightning reactions and sprinting speed to save a single run could be slightly distasteful to anyone called a "Maharaja", one who has prospered in the glow of smothering protection. A New Zealander like John Wright was bad enough. Now this manic Australian called Chappell comes along and demands total fitness. Absurd. It was only a matter of time before the unstoppable force met the immovable object. However, we will not know the full truth about this theory until the courts decide, for surely Gavaskar and Shastri will sue the newspaper for slander unless it prints a decent apology. You cannot sully the reputation of popes without inviting the wrath of God.

I wonder if Sourav Ganguly, who has recovered the captaincy, quite realises what he has lost. Dignity. This has not happened suddenly. Decay is a slow process. It began with his silly and immature tantrums, done for television consumption: whenever he got out, it was someone else’s fault. Any player with self-respect would have announced his retirement the moment he stopped seeing the rising ball. Ganguly has become a public mockery with his spasmodic batting, jerking like a puppet out of control. He knows he is not fit to be in the side, but cannot keep his hands out of the till, for cricket is serious money. Popes who double up as commentators often remind us of his past brilliance to justify his present place. That is utter nonsense. Of course he used to be brilliant. That was why he was honoured with the captaincy. But as captain of India, he is more than an individual of the team. A captain is a symbol of the nation. A captain without dignity is an insult to the nation and the game. Sachin Tendulkar was and is a dignified genius. When he felt that captaincy limited his contribution to the team, he gave it up. The team was more important. When Sachin was injured, he remained out of the team and repaired the damage. Sachin Tendulkar is a god to us, precisely because he knows the limitations of men.

Sourav Ganguly is a god that failed because the demons of self-indulgence destroyed his genius. Sourav Ganguly is playing a game. It is not cricket.