Sunday, August 27, 2006

End of the Beginning

Byline by MJ Akbar : End of the Beginning

The war that has been restarted is one without either boundaries or mercy, since the fire that is heating this cauldron is wild.

Washington: On Friday 25 August the Washington Post published a startling story from its Baghdad bureau. I can do no better than to quote its opening paragraph: "British troops abandoned a major base in southern Iraq on Thursday and prepared to wage guerrilla warfare along the Iranian border to combat weapons smuggling, a move that anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called the first expulsion of US-led coalition forces from an Iraqi urban center. ‘This is the first Iraqi city that has kicked out the occupier!’ trumpeted a message from Sadr’s office that played on car-mounted speakers in Amarah. ‘We have to celebrate this occasion!’"

They did. They celebrated a holiday and thanked God.

There was an exploding mine wherever I looked in that opening paragraph. The British Army was going to abandon a base to undertake "guerrilla" operations? Against insurgents who thrived in the shadows? Weren’t the British supposed to be the heroes and role models who had won the war in the south while the Americans were swatting moles all over the rest of Iraq?

Details painted the larger picture. Local resentment had boiled into anger when British soldiers entered a mosque to make arrests. Insurgents, clearly loyal to Sadr, began shelling the British base, Camp Abu Naji, which had 1,200 soldiers and was on the border of Iran. In simple language, the British withdrew from the camp, which was looted when they left, so clearly the withdrawal was less than orderly. The decision may have been encouraged by the fact that "the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi Army’s 4th Brigade mutinied".

In the British military dictionary this was called "repositioning".

In the Arabic military dictionary this is called "defeat".

The story went on to say that local Arabs of Amarah called on Sadr’s soldiers all day to congratulate them on their victory. And just in case you were wondering, Moqtada al-Sadr was one of the leaders who were instrumental in the formation of the present government in Baghdad.

Are you confused enough, or would you like some more information?

The only stark, non-confusing facts on the Post page were in the list of American dead that was placed just beside the story, based on a Pentagon notification. There were seven more American names, bringing the total of American deaths to 2,617. On the Op-Ed page, columnist David Ignatius reported from Baghdad that in July more than 1,500 Iraqis had died in Baghdad alone. He added, however, that tough action by the Americans had led to a marked improvement. Far fewer Iraqis were dying.

The British retreat from Amarah is not the beginning of the end. That would be an exaggeration. But, as was remarked of a different war, this does seem to be the end of the beginning.

It is an assessment that suits Washington as much as Baghdad. You get a strong sense that the beginning that George Bush made, along with Tony Blair, five years in Afghanistan and three years ago in Iraq, has come to an end, and they do not know which way to turn. Bush and Blair look deflated. Their faces are tense, not intense.

The question was always dominant, but is now consuming America: why are American troops in Iraq? What precisely is their mission statement? Surely America has not made this huge investment in men, money and national credibility in order to become the policeman of a chaotic Baghdad?

Bush’s answers change as regularly as the seasons. He now thrusts his jaw in the vague direction of television cameras and asserts that American troops will never leave Iraq under his watch, that he will never cut and run. Why? Because the job is not finished. What is the job? If he does not kill terrorists in Iraq, he says, they will come to America to kill Americans.

Unfortunately, where Bush sees terror, most Americans see quicksand.

This narrative cannot be propelled even by the discovery of plots by British intelligence. The 9/11 Commission has now debunked one of the key arguments that took Bush to Iraq, by clearly stating that there was no link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. Bush has responded with an unbelievable assertion, that he never said so. Certainly Dick Cheney did, when he alleged that Mohammad Atta had met an Iraqi intelligence agent. You can perhaps get away skating on such thin ice when the voter gives you the benefit of the doubt. It was benefit of doubt that re-elected Bush. But now the doubts have multiplied, and the benefit is streaming in the opposite direction.

Bush still has loyalists who sincerely believe that he did not lie before his Iraq misadventure; but they now concede that he was misled. The distinction is not going to be very clear to the thousands upon thousands of young men, both Iraqi and American, who have died because Bush was either deceived, or he deceived the world. The difference is going to be lost on those Iraqis who were tortured and raped and killed during this war without a mission, as America’s finest journalists are revealing in news reports and books of chilling horror, like the just-published bestseller, Fiasco. Inevitably, the price of war has reached the American middle class: through daily images on television, through a deficit that has crossed five trillion dollars, through gas prices that have jumped and house prices that have dropped. The middle class has kept Bush and the Republicans in power, and there are increasing signs that it is no longer buying the Bush narrative.

For five years Bush and Blair have rather enjoyed their leap into history. Suddenly, in the last few weeks, the politics of the rebound has reached their doorstep. Blair might have the easier journey as he exits that doorstep, for the parliamentary system has sufficient flexibility for change. By next summer, unless he is blessed by extraordinary luck, Blair will be an ex-Prime Minister. Bush will not be ex-President till January 2009, but by next summer he just might be wishing that America had a parliamentary system and he could retire to his ranch. If the Democrats win even one of the two Houses of Congress this November, they will start impeachment proceedings against Bush for misleading America into the septic morass of a war without horizons.

When the objective keeps changing, so does the definition of victory. American soldiers have been more confused than clear in the various campaigns of Iraq, since no one knows who is an enemy and who is a friend.

America is beginning to recognise the price, but the greater cost will of course be borne by Iraq and the region. The war that has been restarted is one without either boundaries or mercy, since the fire that is heating this cauldron is wild. All we need is a few more noble intentions, like the current favourite of some American policymakers: to divide Iraq into three independent nations, for Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. The day a Kurdistan begins to look possible, Syria, Iran and Turkey will send their armies to smash the thought. They will not be squeamish about the blood they will shed. The Kurds are living so far in a zone of calm, but it is the calm of a dead sea.

What options does Bush have? The best option is the most obvious. All the nations of the region, who are staring at a growing disaster, need to sit at a table to discuss what can be saved from this wreck. America needs to be at this table as well, along with France and Russia, and Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. America can bomb rock and sand, draw blood each day from the shadows and comfort itself with passing lullabies, but will not bring peace. Peace will come through collective will and this can only be determined when nation-profiling ends, and diplomacy begins.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

An Alaska Diary

Byline by MJ Akbar: An Alaska Diary

Alaska, perched on the crest of the world, has the majesty of royalty. It is therefore best seen at a slight distance. Get too close and you get soggy from the drool of hauteur; go too far and you miss the grandeur. The liner moving north from Vancouver swims effortlessly within continual view of mountains bursting with forest, punctuated by fingers of water that have curved inland. When, with nightfall, we retreat into the anonymity of ocean, a brilliant moon rises to create glittering, shimmering, luminous pathways that stretch deep and long into the seas. The stars become signposts for meteors. You stand at the centre of a gigantic silence, a silence that is almost still. The endless universe wheels and orbits without a sound. Our minute life on earth is enveloped in sound, whether in the broken discord of jagged human conversation, or the circular, addictive, hypnotic music of waves.

We are on a cruise from Vancouver in Canada to the Hubbard Glacier, a six-mile wide and 300-foot wall that strides a horizon of sea, mountain and sky. We find our feet again after 38 hours on water, on the small, midway island of Shee, at Shee Atika, shortened by European colonists to Sitka. Light rain is indistinguishable from mist, and mist indistinguishable from clouds, which frolic along the slopes of mountains. This was once the capital of Russian colonisers, who came to loot and stayed to loot: the Russian-American Company modelled itself proudly on the East India Company. The Robert Clive of the Russians was Count Alexander Baranov, who built himself a fortune and a palace before he was destroyed by the jealousy of his masters. The streets of pretty Sitka are lined with shops full of junk. Not all the junk was boring: I doubt if you could buy a brown fur thong anywhere except in Alaska.

One minor mystery solved. Why did the Russians sell this vast country called Alaska, commanding the strategic heights of a continent, to the United States in 1867 for a mere $7.2 million? Because Alaska didn’t belong to the Russians, of course. They discovered the land in 1741 thanks to the seafaring of Vitus Bering (hence the Bering Sea), and became rich selling the fur of seal, otter and blue fox to the wealthy Chinese. In 1799 arrived Count Baranov, and was driven out three years later by the Tlingit Indians, whose land he had seized. It is always the return engagement that is decisive (in 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula defeated the British in Calcutta; in 1757 he lost to them at Plassey). Baranov returned in 1804, and that was that. Descendants of Tlingit Indians now help you out of the boat that brings you ashore across the lagoon and help you up the wharf.

While different nations found their own exciting ways to be defeated, the Indians of Alaska may have been the only natives to be destroyed by a curious form of escalating generosity. A chief honoured his appointment by giving what was called a potlatch (is this the origin of potluck?), a feast in which everyone was invited within sledding distance, and every guest was honoured with expensive gifts of skin and cloth. There was no limit to how long a guest might stay. A chief might be reduced to just his own skin at the end of a potlatch. His opportunity came at the return feast, when he expected a bit more than he had given. It is easy, even without a degree in economics, to appreciate that the escalation of perpetually rising expectations doesn’t work. Demand exceeds supply, leaving inflamed egos that erect barbed wires across unity. It must have been easy for Robber Barons, or even Robber Counts. The American Wild West begins south in the deserts of California made famous by Clint Eastwood and ends in the icy wastes of the north made famous by polar bears. Occasionally, the twain did meet. There is a gun framed on the wall of the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, the new capital of Alaska, with the caption "C-H-E-C-K-E-D but never claimed. This weapon was checked at the US Marshal’s office in Juneau, June 27, 1900 by the notorious gunfighter Wyatt Earp.

Left by ship on June 29." The saloon was carefully nurtured to look like a Hollywood set pretending to be real. A multi-jacketed pianist occupied a corner, and shot off an occasional joke between the tinkle-tonk ragtime. A queue of tourists jammed the entrance, eager for one more memory for the folks back home. It seems that the Red Dog Saloon always made more money out of the tour boats than the locals, which may explain why the centrepiece is a life-size local mannequin’s jeans being torn off by a bear chasing the former up a pole.

The saloon has the good sense to have a sense of humour. One sign puts it simply: "If our food, drinks and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards." A second placard points out that "The cooking has never killed anyone, but the miners have hung more than one cook." The miners were the gold diggers who arrived in a rush and more often than not left in despair. The gold rush began 13 years after America bought Alaska, when two drunks, Dick Harris and Joe Juneau, set out from Sitka on a pay of four dollars a day and the rights to two stakes out of three. Before they discovered gold, however, they discovered "hooch", the mind-stunning liquor made by the Hutsunuwa tribe. The town was first named Harrisburg, but Harris turned out to be such a crook that they changed the name to Juneau. Both drank away their fortune, possibly making it good fortune in the process. They died penniless. As you leave the saloon, there is a practical order: "Gold dust dropped on the floor belongs to the sweeper."

You cannot see a glacier move, but I might have seen one melt. The Hubbard Glacier stretches back 90 miles from the seashore. Glaciers are not icebergs; they form because snowfall on mountain ranges exceeds the rate at which snow melts. The snow presses forward, until the unstoppable force meets the immovable sea, and huge storeys of ice fall off like roaring waterfalls into the water. Our huge ship moves slowly into the sea passage that ends in the blue-streaked-with-brown ice wall called Hubbard, a survivor of the mini ice age in which 10 per cent of the earth’s area was covered with ice.

There is a good scientific reason why the ice is blue; naturally, this escapes my understanding. But it is a blue that makes the colour synonymous with cool. As the glacier gradually looms nearer, our ship becomes smaller; proportions determine the psychology of vision. Thunder breaks out at eye level; eyes swivel right to follow the sound and see ice crashing from the block. A cold wind that seems to rise from the roof of the glacier swarms around our heads. Sunlight melts into the blue and fades into the brown; the sea has been chopped up into tiny pieces of water that jump and rest with polite serenity. The glacier is a solid, stolid, impassive giant now, which suddenly snorts out ice instead of fire. The ship turns and slowly circles the giant, and it is time to turn back.

The giant gradually diminishes into a pygmy, and the ship becomes large again.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lost Plot

Byline by MJ Akbar: Lost Plot

So five years after 9/11 are we back to the beginning? Not quite. Complexity has been replaced by simplicity, but the magnitude of ambition remains steadfast. However, there are subtle changes in the big story, and fresh curves in the small ones: the diameter has changed, there is more than one centre in this circle, and the spokes spreading from these centres to the edge have multiplied. One size does not fit all.

The good news I presume is that the plot to blow up ten aircraft over the Atlantic was pre-empted. The police had to move on suspicion and information from the shadows of an uncertain world, so there is a natural degree of scepticism in the absence of hard evidence. But those entrusted with our security need the benefit of doubt.

We hear that the famed British intelligence picked up the first signals as early as last December. It was a long wait, but they surely had their reasons. They had a mole from within the British Muslim community, and they received much better intelligence from Pakistan. During the G-8 conference in St. Petersburg, George Bush went out of his way to praise General Pervez Musharraf for help in the Bush-Blair war on terror. Did this information travel from Islamabad to London around that time?

The focus is again on Pakistan, but that is a known, familiar and legitimate focus for any spotlight. The real worry for Tony Blair should be at home.

Five years ago, he, along with Bush, bombed Afghanistan to destroy the perpetrators of 9/11. This time, almost all the suspects are British-born. Why? What has happened that has alienated British Muslims from Blair? What is Blair going to do now? You can’t bomb the suburbs of London, can you?

Bush and Blair are good at winning a war on the ground. They are experts at losing the battle for the mind. Their firepower is impressive. Their persuasive power is abysmal. There is no mystery in this. No one really believes what they say, because they have made a habit of shifting the truth to define their objectives, or shifting the objective when facts have changed.

Armed action always finds support when it is perceived to be just, which is why there was so much support for the war that ended the Taliban government in Kabul. But five years later, the limitations of even a just war are also obvious. Bush and Blair went to war to find Osama bin Laden. If the Taliban had handed Osama over for trial, the ostensible reason for war would have disappeared. Five years of power later, Bush and Blair still cannot find Osama. Osama bin Laden can find any television channel he wants, when he chooses to send a videotape message. Any journalist from a television channel can get in touch with his group. Those videos do not travel from Pakistan to Qatar on a flying carpet, do they? But the combined might of CIA, MI6 and Pakistan’s ISI cannot find Osama.

The true consequences of the unjust war that Bush and Blair perpetrated, in Iraq, are being measured in slow, painful, bloody, deadly steps. War is a difficult business; occupation of necessity will turn brutal when soldiers come under pressure or succumb to the worst form of temptation, as in cases of rape and consequent murder. Bush and Blair may tabulate death with the cold eye of a statistician. Young men in anonymous streets might react differently. Blair invites so much scepticism that many young Muslims in Britain simply disbelieve that there was a "liquid plot", and that this is another effort to exploit insecurity for political gain. They do not keep such thoughts to themselves anymore. They tell CNN.

Bush has a worse problem. The Democrats in America did not waste much time before wondering whether the timing of the plot disclosure had a political dimension.

Five years down a difficult line, there are too many questions, wherever one looks. A favourite phrase of America and Britain five years ago was narco-terrorism. Terrorists were using the wealth from Afghanistan’s poppy crop to finance their evil. It is sometimes dangerous to lose as effective an alibi as the Taliban. In the five years of Bush-Blair management, Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation has reached a record high. This narcotic is not meant for Afghans, or it would fetch a very devalued price. Its true value comes from the euros and pounds and dollars it fetches in Europe and America. Those are the currencies that keep farmers in Afghanistan happy, and the criminals who run the drug trade in comfort. Have you ever wondered why not a single supply line of drugs from Afghanistan to the West is ever busted by the military forces stationed in Afghanistan? I may have missed the news, but have you ever heard of smugglers being caught and punished?

Failure is terrible, and terribly contagious as well. It wreaks havoc on both foe and friend. High on their own agenda, Bush and Blair blithely ignored one of the real causes of international conflict, and thought that an occasional verbal morsel thrown towards Palestine would see them through their terms in office. They contorted the logic of their own favourite moral horizon, democracy, when free elections brought into power a force they did not want. There was more than one way to deal with Hamas. They chose obstinacy. When you have blindsided yourself, reality becomes invisible.

Their policy towards Palestine was at least partly rooted in contempt for the Arab, born out of the conviction that the Arab could never fight, and even if he did, was no match for Israel. Bush and Blair had absolutely no idea of the forces that they had revived, or given birth to. In five years, Arab governments may have remained their usual static self, but the Arab street has become a different place.

There was a virtual smile on the faces of Bush and Blair in the first week of the Lebanon war, when with characteristic smugness they rushed weaponry to Tel Aviv and gave Israel "time" to finish the job (that is, eliminate Hezbollah) before they defined the terms of a ceasefire. A month later, Israeli tanks lie disabled before shocked cameras. A small paramilitary force of irregulars without a single tank, battleship or airplane, with rockets that were widely dismissed as defunct, has held its own against the fabled might of the Israeli Defence Force. Time has stripped away the disinformation that all sides use during war. For instance, Israel accuses the Hezbollah day in and day out of hiding behind civilians in order to justify the awful destruction of a nation, but no one tells you that Israeli military installations are in civilian areas in north Israel.

At the moment of writing it is unclear how the war will pause (it will not end, it will only pause). But this much is clear. The myth of Israeli invincibility lies buried in the hills of Lebanon. The body language, as well as language, of Shimon Peres, a veteran of every war that Israel has fought, has changed in 30 days. The last statement that I heard him make on CNN had more fizzle than fizz: "We did not start this war, so we don’t have to win it... We have to stop it..." When was the last time that Israel’s media were demanding the resignation of their Prime Minister in the middle of war? There was no last time. This is the first time. The days when an Israeli general could stroll into Beirut, conduct operations at will, and stroll back, are over. The cost of even trying to stroll towards the Litani river has been very heavy.

Problems cannot be solved unless they are first understood. Bush and Blair now give the impression that their sole purpose is to stretch whatever remains of their credibility to last till they have to leave office. They need the enemy they set out to destroy, or the logic of their survival will collapse.

Bush still jumps from one inappropriate phrase to another, unable to see the damage he causes in the process. When claiming the obligatory victory against terrorists who had failed to carry out the "liquid hijacking", he blamed it on "Islamic fascists". I wish someone would tell him that there is nothing Islamic about fascism. Some Muslims are indeed fascists. I could name a few who survived on American cash and goodwill. Why blame Islam for the sins of a few Muslims? Bush and Blair are believing Christians who go to church as often as they can. Does anyone in his senses describe their wars as "Christian wars"?

The sadness is that 9/11 was a historic opportunity to find answers in a spirit of collective sorrow. Instead, all we see is the debris of unanswered questions. Bush and Blair perhaps believe that they can survive on the strength of media headlines. Today’s headlines are so often tomorrow’s boomerangs. Bush and Blair have lost the plot.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Post-prime Minister

Byline by M.J. Akbar :Post-prime Minister

Candour is injurious to the health of any government. This is a widely-accepted non-partisan fact. Any President or Prime Minister who went about distributing truth with the sincerity of the Salvation Army would soon find himself in the Salvation Army. But to treat Parliament like a bunch of gulls is not very good governance either. Opposition MPs may be on the wrong side of the House because of past foolishness, but that does not make them gullible.

Parliament was in an understandable uproar after Justice Pathak found former foreign minister Natwar Singh guilty in an odd sort of way: of having used influence to get the Iraq oil deal, presumably for friends as well as the Congress, but without gaining any personal financial benefit either directly or through his son. Parliament’s anger was over the fact that the inquiry report had reached media before it was shown to Parliament. Dr Manmohan Singh has applied his familiar remedy, yet another committee, this time to enquire. If he thinks that this is a bandage for yet another self-inflicted wound, then he is in some unreal world. He has merely added weight to suspicions that his government and party may have more to hide than the principal accused.

Justice Pathak seems to wear a robe with two pockets. One is a very large pocket. It is stuffed with chits that are so clean that you cannot find anything on them. These are the clean chits he hands out to the Congress. The second pocket is very small. It holds only one chit, an unclean one, soiled with the scrawl of contorted logic. This he has handed to Natwar Singh. There shall doubtless be rewards for doing so. Shall we say, a chance of becoming Vice-President of India next year with the help of this government?

Natwar Singh is being held guilty of doing something which he never denied — writing a letter of recommendation. If this was the standard benchmark of public probity, no Cabinet minister would last in his job. Actually, the biggest money-grabbers in politics never write letters at all. Their word is sufficient guarantee for any corrupt deal.

If Prime Minister Singh really wants to find out who leaked the Pathak inquiry report, all he has to do is telephone his finance minister, P. Chidambaram. Chidambaram is a clever and knowledgeable man who makes it a point to know far more than he tells. I would not advise the Prime Minister to telephone his home minister, Shivraj Patil, despite the fact that the latter is in charge of the police, both the public and the secret police. Shivraj Patil knows far less than he tells, and he doesn’t tell too much.

There is the palpable reek of failure in the high offices of the Manmohan Singh government: home, foreign and finance. Defence is managed ably, because it would be difficult to mismanage this department, but the relevant point is that defence minister Pranab Mukherjee is not interested in his job. He is certain he should be in charge of a more active office, and given the disarray elsewhere, surely he has a point.

The high crisis areas are home and finance. If Shivraj Patil continues as home minister much longer, Mumbai’s Muslims will soon stop worrying about Narendra Modi. The home ministry is taking revenge upon the city’s Muslims, particularly those who are poor (in other words, most of them) for the terrorist outrage on Mumbai’s trains on July 11. Groups have complained to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and while she has given them time, there has been no effort to change the attitude of the home ministry. You can see the seepage of this culture in the shocking and shameful incident in Delhi, where the rooms of a visiting Pakistani delegation were searched by spooks in their absence. The delegation included as eminent a visitor as the human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jehangir. It was kind of Prime Minister Singh to write a letter of apology, but words are less important than action. His letter confirms that the incident did take place, and the home ministry was guilty. Has the Prime Minister held any officer accountable? Is there a departmental inquiry? Will any action ever be taken? Does the home minister have anything to say?

No is the probable answer to all three questions.

The finance minister thinks that his core responsibility is the protection of share prices rather than vegetable prices; while economic reform, the ballast of this government’s declared momentum, has ground to a halt. Strangely, the Congress part of the coalition government has begun to come apart under the pressure of time. Strange, because the Congress has the experience, and wanted to rebuild his support base with effective use of power. Instead, non-Congress ministers are the new stars. Lalu Yadav, who disguises a sharp mind with gallery humour, is now the subject of discourse in management schools. Dayanidhi Maran keeps the DMK flag high. Praful Patel is doing a fine job in a tough ministry. Kamal Nath is the only Congress minister who has enhanced his reputation — and will probably be punished (as Mani Shankar Aiyar was) for being too successful.

The foreign ministry is floating in a vacuum because it has lost its head. This may be a bad pun, but I can’t think of a better one. Jokes may be ill-suited to a time of violent turmoil across the world, but gallows humour has its virtues. There is a fusion of wars in the Middle East, that is not only changing the region dramatically at this very moment, but which could set off fires towards our doors. America and Britain are trapped in a morass they do not understand. Iraq and Lebanon are becoming one war: I wonder how George Bush would have reacted if hundreds of thousands of Shias had gathered in Baghdad to support Hezbollah under Saddam Hussein’s watch. Washington would doubtless have accused Saddam of abetting "terrorists". Well, an Iraqi regime wrought by George Bush and Tony Blair has not only officially condemned Israel but has also permitted the most massive pro-Hezbollah demonstrations in the region. Hezbollah, of course, has turned conventional wisdom on its head and won significant battles against overwhelmingly superior forces armed and re-armed by America; its success will have ground-breaking implications.

The region is in turmoil and the land up to the Nile is in flames. Never has India been so marginalised as under the watch of Dr Manmohan Singh. This is not a reflection of the stature of India in the world, but reflection of the stature of this government. India’s foreign policy is the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, who made this nation synonymous with a virile independence. Four decades after his death, India’s voice has been reduced to an occasional bleat from the shadows. I cannot imagine Nehru or Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi without a role to play at such a moment; but then they never decided that their foreign policy would become "congruent" with America’s.

Ironically, the Natwar Singh letter to the Saddam government is also proof of a time when the Congress was considered a friend of the Arab world. This relationship, built with care and consideration by Nehru and Indira Gandhi, had enough depth and credibility to permit India to improve relations with Israel without affecting its ties with the Arabs. We had become, with time, a unique resource in international diplomacy. The drift from the Arabs began with the BJP, although Atal Behari Vajpayee tried, sporadically, to try and check the drift (relations with Saudi Arabia, for instance, improved dramatically under his watch). Under Dr Manmohan Singh the drift has turned into a directionless swirl. He is clearly a foreigner in the foreign ministry.

The moment has definitely come for the Prime Minister to reinvent his government. If he does not do it soon, Mrs Sonia Gandhi will come under pressure to reinvent the whole government, including him.