Sunday, December 28, 2008

How a mouse in Pakistan became its Man of the Year

How a mouse in Pakistan became its Man of the Year
By M J Akbar

In the absence of any serious contender from India, the Man of the Year is surely Muntathar al-Zaidi of Iraq. He made George Bush, already honoured with an enviable place in the history of laughter, immortal with a pair of Turkish shoes. Al-Zaidi wins the nomination because he is the first great Gandhian of the 21st century.

He may not be a Gandhian by Indian ideals, but he is certainly one by Iraqi standards. Intersecting cultural traditions through the arc of anger, we find that a well-aimed shoe just about makes it into the non-violent category. In a recent film with a forgettable name, Akshay Kumar threw a Punjabi jutti at a competitor for the heroine's hand without missing a beat in his song. The well-flung shoe therefore has its place in India's history as a weapon of class-destruction.

If it's Gandhian, it must have a moral. There is one. A single alphabet separates 'shoe' and 'shot'. If al-Zaidi had aimed a bullet, he would have been vilified and his country could have been burdened with another decade of war and misery. A thousand cartoons celebrated the miracle of a shoe ripping up Bush's reputation with a thoroughness no arsenal could have achieved. A hundred American stand-up comics could not have asked for a better Christmas gift.

Sixty years after Gandhi's martyrdom, perhaps without anyone noticing it, non-violence has become the politically acceptable instrument of protest. Irrational, inhuman violence, alas, still has its advocates and clients, as the trauma of Mumbai proves. Curiously, America, which placed terrorism beyond the pale, is in the process of tacitly endorsing terrorism in an attempt to exonerate its ally in the Afghan war, the Pakistan Army.

Pakistan has developed a narrative of denial and justification to explain Mumbai. It runs, broadly, on these lines: we do not know who these ten men are, but if we did then their mayhem had a "root cause", Kashmir.

The Pentagon, shuffling uneasily from the defeated convictions of a fading Bush towards an as yet unrefined alternative, perhaps influenced by an inexperienced incomer's enthusiasm for solutions, seems to have bought into the "root causes" argument. Adm Mike Mullen, chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, met Generals Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of the ISI, three days before Christmas. Reaffirming Pakistan's role as an indispensable partner in the war against terror, he offered, in exchange, a virtual free pass to Pak involvement in Mumbai. He offered a simplistic "root-cause" formula: Kashmir, the principal source of regional instability, has to be resolved to establish Indo-Pak-US cooperation in Afghanistan. Expect a special US envoy high on good intentions flitting between Delhi and Islamabad soon.

The question that no one seems keen to answer in Delhi is: Whatever happened to the strategic relationship with the US, the cornerstone of the government's foreign policy? Did Delhi forget to include Kashmir in India's strategic map? State-to-state relations have always survived war. India-Pakistan relations have survived nuclear brinkmanship and military catastrophe. But can they survive terrorism? India is in the grip of a frozen anger against Pakistan. Injudicious provocation could convert the thaw into lava.

It is always useful to apply the Agatha Christie principle in any mystery: who gains from murder? Who gained from terrorism in Mumbai? There is only one winner: the Pakistan Army. The disgrace into which it had been dragged by Pervez Musharraf has been erased; it is wrapped once again in the blanket of confrontation with India. Zardari's amateur attempts at a peace deal with India are dead, a prelude perhaps to his own decline. He will no longer attempt to encroach into ISI space. Pakistan's generals are proving to be excellent tacticians. They have manoeuvered impressively through the terror-crisis to emerge with the local Taliban on one arm, and the Pentagon on the other.

Pervez Musharraf used to talk too much. General Ashfaq Kayani has been accused of talking too little. For philosophy he clearly turns to Clausewitz rather than Gandhi. But Pakistan's Mouse of the Year in January 2008 has emerged as its Man of the Year by December.

Appeared in Times of India - December 28, 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Real Con Called Conspiracy Theory

Byline by M J Akbar: A Real Con Called Conspiracy Theory

If you forgot the source of a quotation in our parents' generation, you could safely attribute it to Winston Churchill. Churchill smoked Cuban cigars, drank champagne for breakfast, painted for pleasure and won wars for a living. He was the authentic hero of the age of imperialism in the English-speaking people. If you cannot recall a source now, the safest thing to do is to attribute it to Warren Buffett, who eats hamburgers, plays bridge, thinks up witticisms for a hobby and makes money for a living. He is the authentic hero of the age of capitalism in the dollar-speaking world.

It was Buffett, I think, who said that it is only when the tide runs out that you discover who has been swimming naked.

Well, with the next general elections only weeks away, the tide is running out on politicians who have dominated the last five years. To our increasing amusement, we are beginning to discover that there might be a whole nudist colony swimming in the political waters. Once upon a time, only the emperor had no clothes. But democracy is a more egalitarian business.

The position of chief nudist fluctuates, but at the moment there would be no questions asked if the award was handed to Abdul Rahman Antulay. Let me point out right away that Mr Antulay is far smarter than the emperor, who seems to have lost his wits after a child pointed out that he had lost his clothes. Mr Antulay has taken pre-emptive action to fool the child. If you throw dust in the eyes of the beholder, there is a good chance that your nudity will not be recognised. Mr Antulay has spent six of his eight decades in politics. You learn a great deal in the process.

One simple question will expose how nude Mr Antulay was under the enveloping tide: Can he name one single thing, anything at all, that he has done for minorities as the Union Minister for Minorities?

He could possibly reel off the number of occasions on which he has broken down and sobbed publicly, either in sympathy at their plight or in exasperation at his inability to persuade the system to deliver. The tears might even have been genuine. But they do not add up to re-election.

If the performance is poor in Delhi, it is pathetic in Maharashtra. An exceptionally good story in Mumbai Mirror revealed that the Congress-NCP Government had not spent a single rupee out of the Rs 167 crores allotted to the Minorities Development Department till 15 December. Not one rupee. It is sadder still that the more hysterical elements of the Urdu press, who spend yards of newsprint on conspiracy theories, simply ignore such a story. In fact, if you want a quick portrait of the Congress Government in Maharashtra then all you have to do is check out one statistic: only 34% of the State's annual budget of Rs 29,000 crores has been spent till the middle of December. And so Mr Antulay picked up conspiracy fluff floating down the media mainstream, which had found some anchorage on urban shores, in order to reinvent himself as a martyr for a "Muslim cause" — that Hemant Karkare had been "martyred" [some Urdu papers refer to him only as "Shaheed" Karkare] because he was on the point of discovering the truth about a "Hindu" hand behind the Malegaon bombings. Even as a theory it was extraordinary: it implied that some quick-thinking fellow police officer had misled Karkare into going to the exact spot where he would get killed, certain that the Pakistani terrorists would not be able to get anyone who went to Taj, Oberoi or Nariman House, but would certainly kill the officers who went towards the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station.

All the clichés were trotted out: that Antulay feared no one but God [loud applause], that he did not care for office ["Take my resignation!"] et al. But the record shows that while it takes very little to persuade Antulay to offer to resign, it takes a great deal to force Antulay out of office. When the Babri mosque was demolished, and Mumbai suffered two months of riots, Antulay did not even offer to resign from Parliament. There were two reasons: one, three and a half years were left before the next general elections, not just three and a half months. Two, P.V. Narasimha Rao would have accepted the resignation immediately. Actually, even three and a half months are too long. When the Congress Government humiliated him through a statement in Parliament debunking the conspiracy line, all he did was to sheepishly agree and accept that there was no longer any need for an enquiry. Of course, the man who fears no one but God was permitted to keep his job, however marginal it might be.

Siddhartha Varadarajan, writing in the Hindu, had the finest conspiracy theory of the whole lot: that Antulay was a BJP plant in the Congress. It is certainly more logical than the suggestion that Mumbai police officers conspired with Pakistani terrorists to kill a top officer of their force. At a time of serious tension, all Antulay did was break the unity fashioned in Parliament. Just when it seemed that India was speaking in one voice, he split the Cabinet and handed Pakistan a public relations coup. His bid for pseudo-heroism has given Pakistan effective ammunition in the psychological skirmishing that has become a substitute for open warfare. Before asking India to unite, the Prime Minister might have asked his Cabinet to unite. His abject retreat will not change the Pakistani narrative. Islamabad will accuse Delhi of using pressure to ensure silence.

It is only appropriate, if one has begun with a quote, to end with a misquote. Churchill is, by my guess, the second most fecund source for anecdotes and bon mots in English; the most fertile is of course Shakespeare, who was also familiar with tides in the affairs of men. Shakespeare also understood the politics of power better than most, as his history plays indicate. But since he wrote of heroes, he did not investigate the clothing of politicians at ebb tide. Hence, a variation: "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at the ebb, leads on to misfortune".

Monday, December 22, 2008

Antulay is the Simi Garewal of Indian Politics

Antulay is the Simi Garewal of Indian Politics
By M J Akbar

There is, or should be, a well-defined line in media between the liberty of impression and the freedom of expression. Both are privileges of democracy. Liberty of impression is the exhilarating-frightening roller coaster on which public discourse rides. Freedom of expression is cooled by the sprinkle of judgment, a mind that sieves speculation, allegation and accusation from the end-product that appears in print or on air.

There is outrage against the television coverage of Mumbai terrorism because television celebrities surrendered their judgment before the rising demand for hysteria. There is no supply without demand. The very audiences that sucked out hysteria from cable are now howling against its perpetrators. It is a human instinct to develop instant amnesia about one’s mistakes and sharpen knives with the vigour of humbugs the moment a scapegoat has been identified. The viewer is now seeking absolution through anger.

But the information market has been flooded with toxic weed. Hysteria is not the exclusive preserve of audio-visual junketeers. From the moment the terrorist violence hit Mumbai, much before the course of events evolved into a pattern, some sections of the Urdu press began pumping up circulation figures with fantasy fodder, in the shape of conspiracy theories, to a readership in search of denial. The conspiracy-in-chief was that this mayhem was nothing more than a plot to sabotage the investigation that ATS chief Karkare was conducting into the Malegaon blasts. The death of the police officer was declared instant martyrdom.

News media operates within a triangle of customer, producer and politician. A clever politician is a master chef in cooking up a broth of impression and expression. Since the customer is also a voter, the politician panders to street opinion by lifting it into the loftier realm of Parliament or television studio. The very act of transference gives implicit legitimacy to fantasy fodder.
Abdur Rahman Antulay is not in search of truth. He is in search of votes. He has become the Simi Garewal of Indian politics. Garewal saw a Pakistani flag fluttering on every Muslim housetop in Mumbai. Antulay sees a vote beyond every Muslim doorstep. Garewal was blinded by a low IQ. Antulay has turned myopic because one eye is stupid and the other cynical. But that is his secondary medical problem. His primary disease is cancer of the vote-bank.

If you want to understand Antulay’s and, by extension, the Congress’ compulsions, then take a look at an SMS I received on December 1: “Congress has been wiped out in Dhule corporation election. It could get only 3 seats out of 67.” Dhule is barely fifty kilometres from Malegaon. More than 30% of its electorate is Muslim.

As the minorities minister with the unique distinction of having done absolutely nothing for minorities, Antulay and his party face a meltdown in Maharashtra. If they cannot get even Muslim votes, they can forget about power and pelf in Delhi. He has therefore chosen to feed the Muslim with the comfort food of conspiracy theories, in the hope that this will drug him to the point where he loses his bearings until the April-May elections.

Will this succeed? Perhaps. It has succeeded before. But take a look at another SMS I received, announcing a meeting of the Maharashtra United Democratic Convention at Birla Matushri on December 17. An experiment for the consolidation of the Muslim vote was begun in Assam under a similar banner and did well in the last assembly elections. It has 11 MLAs and came second in some two dozen constituencies. Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Qasmi promised at the Mumbai convention that an MUDF would set up candidates in every constituency in the next assembly elections. Its aim would be to defeat both the Congress and the BJP. He warned the Congress, which had got the Muslim vote in the state for six decades, that the days of bondage were over, and the Muslim vote had grown up: it was not going to be satisfied with toffee anymore.

It is a long journey from desire to destination. There will be pressure and deviation; some attempts to purchase some leaders will possibly succeed. But such language has never been heard from a Muslim platform in Maharashtra.

Simi Garewal sees a Pakistan where there isn’t one. Antulay will not see a Pakistan where there is one. But Simi is a fringe factor; Antulay sits on centrestage. Antulay is a Cabinet minister, who has provided sustenance to those Pakistanis who are trying to fool us into believing that the terrorism in Mumbai was an instance of Indian security failure rather than an invasion sponsored by Pakistani elements.

I am amazed at the sheer gall of both the spinners in Pakistan and the Antulays in India. They seem to forget that there is a Pakistani canary sitting in an Indian jail, singing out the plans, preparations and objectives. Nine dead men and their masters are being exposed by the tenth man, the man who did not die.

If this is the state of deception and self-deception when one terrorist has been caught, what would have been the level of denial if all ten had died?

Cynicism is a staple of vote-driven politics. We all know that. I was naïve to believe that our nation’s security would remain outside the reach of cynicism.

Appeared in Times of India - December 22, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Biting the BBC bullet

Byline by M J Akbar: Biting the BBC bullet

The butler who calmed his feudal lord by noting that the uproar was a mere revolt and not a revolution, had a point. A revolution needs the brains of a Gandhi or a Lenin, not to mention a replacement for the object of destruction. I would be loath to replace the BBC. I would not even dignify my little protest with the label of 'revolt'. Moreover, it was Gandhian, which makes it even less glamorous. Perhaps the only relevant part of my response was non-cooperation.

During the sixty hours of unabated terrorism in Mumbai, the one group that was almost as much in demand as security forces was journalists. With media desperate to fill space or time, a journalist could pass off any amount of gibberish as on-the-spot wisdom. Many international radio and television stations did not even demand, or perhaps expect, correct grammar: mangled phrases and minced diction can sound quaintly ethnic.

It was after the last terrorist had been shot in the Taj that something snapped during a telephone conversation with an extremely polite news anchor from the BBC in London. I refused. I said that I would not cooperate with the BBC as long as it described the murderers of Mumbai as "gunmen" rather than calling them what they were: terrorists.

The BBC is full of friends, with whom one has a happy and fulfilling professional relationship since the 1970s. I am privileged to consider the father of the BBC in India, Mark Tully, as a friend. Rita Payne, who headed the South Asia service for television till recently, is another. It was suggested that I might consider writing to Richard Porter, head of BBC World News Content. Perhaps my language was angry, but it only reflected the rage one felt: "I am appalled, astonished, livid at your inability to describe the events in Mumbai as the work of terrorists. You have called them 'gunmen', as if they were hired security guards on a night out. When Britain finds a group of men plotting in a home laboratory your government has no hesitation in creating an international storm, and the BBC has no hesitation in calling them terrorists. When nearly two hundred Indian lives are lost, you cannot find a word in your dictionary more persuasive than 'gunmen'. You are not only pathetic, but you have become utterly biased in your reporting…Shame on you and your kind."

Mr Porter's reply was worded in far more courteous language. "The BBC's policies on the use of the word 'terrorist' have long been a subject of public discussion. The guidelines we issue to staff are very clear — we do not ban the use of the word terrorist, but our preference is to use an alternative form of words. There is a judgment inherent in the use of the word, which is not there when we are more precise with our language. 'Gunman', or 'killer', or 'bomber', is an accurate description which does not come with any form of judgment."

Mr Porter said that BBC policy, of "accuracy and fairness" helped "audiences to understand the world we live in. I believe those audiences can make their own mind up about the people who carried out the attacks in Mumbai and don't need us to give them any label to reach that judgment". This seemed a curious claim. Isn't there judgment in the use of the word 'killer'? It can hardly be considered a term of endearment. If the BBC called you a 'killer' or a gunman or a bomber you would tend to sue, would you not?

But there is a subtler point here, which, at least in my view, acts as implicit protection for terrorism.

There is a clear distinction between gunmen and terrorists. Criminals use guns, and can be called gunmen; they do it for a purpose, to steal or kidnap or loot. Terrorists use guns and bombs in the random killing of innocents in pursuit of a political or personal agenda. The killers at Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus, Taj, Oberoi and a home where Jewish people lived, did not come to steal art, or money, or railway property. I put this point as forcefully as I could to Mr Porter: "It is a shame that the BBC cannot see the difference between a criminal and a terrorist, and chooses in fact to protect the terrorist by giving him the camouflage of a criminal. This is not a matter of semantics. Terrorists are always happy to fudge the definition."

In response Mr Porter, once again with the maximum courtesy, urged me to read the Editorial Policy guidelines of the BBC, disputed the use of "camouflage" and argued that "our reporting from Mumbai was extremely effective in putting across the full horror of what happened even within the constraints of our policy. And to repeat what I said before, we do not ban the use of the word, and it has been used many times on our output in relation to Mumbai".

Yes, used by Indians, and by British commentators I am sure, but not by the BBC.

It is possible that Mr Porter's eyebrow shot up in hurt surprise when he discovered that a story on this protest had appeared on an Indian website. He wrote, "I must therefore assume that everything I say to you will be published, although I did not know that was your original intention." Actually it was not. I merely did not think that an individual's reaction would be considered important enough to become a story. But that did not mean that this exchange was in private space. I had no knowledge of Mr Porter's existence before this correspondence, and am equally certain he had none of mine. Why would I endeavour to enter into a private correspondence with the BBC? The BBC's policy is a public fact, not a private one, and affects the public discourse, not a private chat. One would also assume that there is nothing that Mr Porter would say privately on his corporation's policy that he would not be prepared to air publicly.

Institutions do not change their convictions on the basis of a single protest. But media giants need to remember that while the common viewer may not have the sophistication of their committees, or the acumen of their lawyers, or the weight of their power, he does have common sense. Common sense defines the difference between the criminal and the terrorist.

It would be interesting to find out if the BBC called the destruction of the twin towers of New York the work of "gunmen" or "killers" or "airplane bombers", or whether it called them terrorists. Did the BBC consider the men who killed innocents on London's trains and buses "bombers" in search of a little private excitement? I am not sure about the nature of the coverage.

What I am sure about is that to describe the terrorists of Mumbai as mere "gunmen" is mealy-mouthed, weak-kneed and just plain offensive.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fettered by fear, Muslims fritter away their vote

Fettered by fear, Muslims fritter away their vote
By M J Akbar

Indian Muslims will get development the day they vote for development. For sixty years they have voted out of fear, so that is what they have got from those they elected: the politics of fear. Fear is the menu, recipe and diet: and the Muslim voter laps it up with the appetite of the traumatized.

Fact and fiction are employed seamlessly in the advertising of fear. A history of riot, and the threat from organizations like the Bajrang Dal are sewn into wild conspiracy theories by ‘leaders’ of the community to shape minds on the eve of an election. I could not believe some of what I heard after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. One was utterly aghast to hear, during a public gathering of some very worthy persons, the suggestion that we could not be sure that the terrorists had come from Pakistan. It was an appalling exercise in denial by mindsets that had either been unhinged or had turned utterly manipulative.

For secular politicians, the Muslim vote comes at an easy exchange rate. Other communities demand rice and roads. The Muslim needs nothing more than the old ploy used to help children go to sleep: stories of ghosts and monsters at the door.

When the community wakes up after sleepwalking to the polling booth, and demands legitimate needs like jobs for the young and health clinics for women, the politicians offer a large shoulder on which they can weep. No other segment of the Indian electorate can be appeased by a sob story.

Politicians will always maximize the spread of assets at their disposal in the search for an extra vote; why should they waste economic benefits on a voter who will sway to the whine of emotions rather than take a cold count of schools and sanitation? There is now a disconnect between Muslims and the benefits of democracy, a break engineered by community opinion-makers who get rewarded for such services with little dollops that wind up into their personal assets.

Fear used to be a factor with some other communities as well, particularly Dalits and tribals. Humiliation and exploitation were a constant of their experience. But they have moved on, either by asserting themselves through their own political formations or by maximizing the price of their support where parties like the BSP or Jharkhand Mukti Morcha do not exist. The sharpest player of this intelligent game is Mayawati. The results are evident. There is a good study waiting to be done comparing the employment levels, educational services and municipal services in Dalit residential areas and Muslim areas between 1947 and 2007.

Even without empirical data I can assert that there is a sharp improvement in the former and stagnation if not decline in the latter. The Dalit has punished neglect. The tribal has learnt to vote on the sensible planks of development and security: he knows that he cannot eat rice, at whatever price it is offered, unless he is alive. The Muslim has crawled repeatedly back into the sterile womb of fear. That womb will deliver nothing. The midwives of this vote fatten on fees collected by periodic declarations of false pregnancy.

Only one state is an exception: Kerala. Untroubled by the guilt of Partition, the Malayali Muslim can rally around the banner of an All-India Muslim League, which is a bit of a misnomer. It is not an all-Indian organization; it is a local Muslim party. The Kerala Muslim, with sufficient self-assurance to meet political and economic challenges, has always behaved like an equal, which is why he is treated like one. He has prised out the benefits of progress through the pressure points of a democratic polity.

There could have been a similar story in Bengal, because the Marxists are committed to both secularism and progress for the underprivileged. They were the first to empower Bengali Muslims, through land reforms inspired by three authentic Marxist heroes, Promode Dasgupta, Harekrishna Konar and Jyoti Basu. That won them the loyalty of the rural vote. But two fallow decades are forcing a shift in Muslim sentiment; it is not ready to be taken for granted any longer.

The Bengal CPM is in a bit of a bind, perhaps because it is not cynical enough to exploit the politics of fear with the dexterity displayed by other parties anxious for the Muslim vote. One senses the first stir of change in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar has begun to include Muslims within his development-based governance. The pace may not overly perturb a snail, but at least a process has started. But if the voter does not honour this start with support, then it will be back to fulmination and hot air.

Fear locks and freezes the mind. A closed mind can never liberate a community from poverty.

Appeared in Times of India - December 14, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What's general about a general Election?

Byline by M J Akbar: What's general about a general Election?

There is nothing general about a general election. It is the sum of a set of particular elections in separate but contiguous and occasionally overlapping geographical and demographic spaces.

The Indian electorate lives in concentric circles. The federal state is one definition of such a circle, but not a comprehensive one. Identities can overlap into national space, as well as shrink into regions within a state. The case of Jharkhand yesterday and Telangana today might be obvious, but even newly-formed Chhattisgarh, which offers only 11 MPs to Parliament, has voters with different priorities, as we witnessed in the recent Assembly elections. Raipur, the old haunt of veteran V.C. Shukla, went largely to the party he has rejoined, Congress. But the tribals of Bastar gave the decisive tilt to the final tally, putting the BJP way ahead with an enthusiastic endorsement of the Salwa Judum programme, in which the state Government armed tribals against Naxalites.

This was greeted with palpable despair by urban liberals. But if they want to add to their despair they should note an almost imperceptible reversal of voter-preferences. Till the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi the Congress vote was secure among tribals, Dalits and the poor; the middle classes and the rich would abandon the Congress when they wanted to. After fifteen years of Narasimha Rao, Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the BJP has made serious inroads into the affections of the underprivileged in central India. This is a serious pointer to the growing perception that the Congress has become the party of the rich.

I can think of only two elections which were fought on a single issue: the one in 1977, after the Emergency; and the one in 1984, after Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassination. Generally, there are a handful of concerns that determine the voter's decision. But there is always a primary issue, and many secondary ones. Every one of the recent Assembly elections, from Delhi to Mizoram, was a referendum on the Chief Minister rather on the party of the CM. Mrs Sheila Dikshit won re-election in Delhi, not the Congress. The BJP was ahead of the Congress, but Mrs Dikshit was far, far ahead of the man who sought to replace her, Vijay Malhotra.

The Indian voter is more mature than the Indian politician. He was not distracted by emotion, even one as powerful as terrorism inspired by forces hostile to India. He concentrated on what mattered most in an Assembly election, good governance, and he knew that this is provided by an individual, a leader. Equally, the leader is responsible for mismanagement and corruption, where that prevails. He placed terrorism also within the matrix of good governance, for it is the duty of the state to provide security to the citizen. But his judgment was remarkably honest. He would not blame Mrs Dikshit for the collapse of authority in Mumbai. Those who failed in Mumbai, whether at the state or Central level, will be held culpable when their time comes.

Narendra Modi made an interesting point when campaigning for tougher anti-terrorism laws. He told Gujaratis during last year's Assembly elections that he could assure them a better life, but what was the point of the assurance if they were left with no life to enjoy? He could make this an effective claim only because he had delivered on development. In Delhi, Mrs Dikhshit had the record, and the attacks on her looked like gamesmanship because they were not backed by either a fresh face or fresh ideas. Everywhere, people are tired of politics at the expense of development. And they do not care if development comes wrapped in a tricolour or saffron. The voter is now colour-neutral.

Of course victory and defeat in a state do impact the fortunes of a party. And so the advantage in the next general elections will lie with whichever coalition offers the better collection of Chief Ministers. Or, to put in another way, which team has fewer disasters in its ranks. The Congress is in serious trouble in the two large states where it is in power. It has been forced to replace its Chief Minister in Maharashtra; unwisely, it shifted merely from a callous face to a lacklustre one.

In Andhra, the extraordinary rise of Chiranjeevi is a warning to both the Congress and the Telugu Desam. He is soaking up the gap between anger and what might be called lukewarmth. Its principal ally, the DMK, has become synonymous with corruption, hobbling in the process Prime Minister Singh, who has tolerated putrid partners in order to remain in office. The Congress should feel happier about its prospects in Punjab, to tick off one of its potential assets in the general election balance sheet. A political party might be a broad church, an alliance a broader faith, but every church needs a pastor.

The team must be led by someone who can display authority, and a programme that encompasses a nationwide horizon. Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani will be their respective team-leaders, of course; but the Third Front will be hampered if it cannot offer a candidate for Prime Minister.

The Delhi result might just be the best thing to happen to the BJP. If it had won, its leaders might have forgotten precisely why they were re-elected in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Media's fixation on its urban base can be mesmerising, driving out facts from analysis. The BJP presumably has realised that the voter will not pick up anything thrown in its way. Both the slogan and the leader have to be credible. All politicians are prone to get stuck in the treacle of smugness at the first hint of success. The split decision should have sobered all parties. There was a welcome sobriety in the commentary from spokesmen of both the Congress and the BJP following the results. It should have also reaffirmed to both parties that the general election is going to be won by whichever has the better allies. Neither is strong enough to march too far ahead of its partners. This will also have an ameliorating effect on the formation of the next Government in Delhi.

December 2008 was a wake-up call. This should ensure that all political parties go into the general election with their eyes open, and common sense intact.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Two-nation theory has bred practice of hatred

Two-nation theory has bred practice of hatred
By M J Akbar

Why has Pakistan become synonymous with terrorism? The vast majority of Pakistanis surely find terrorism, which is the purest form of hatred, as repellent as Indians do. Why then does Pakistan breed an endless flow of suicide missionaries?

Practice has been shaped by theory. A theory of separation created Pakistan in 1947; over time, this has been converted into a culture of hatred by some self-appointed ideologues.

Pakistan emerged out of the notion that Hindus and Muslims could not live together. The threat perception was raised into the claim that Islam itself would be obliterated in a Hindu-majority India, during the seminal general elections of 1936-37. The Muslim League's slogan was: "Islam in Danger!"

Neither history nor theology could have sustained such a slogan, but Muslim elites in British India, particularly landlords and capitalists, manipulated the incipient ideology of the Muslim League, and fuelled it with incendiary sentiment in order to create a state where they could protect their vested interests. They were not really afraid of "Hindu Raj"; they were terrified of land reform and socialism - however pale a version it might be - that the Congress would enforce. It is no accident that till today there has been no serious land reform in Pakistan. Gandhi's honest faith in Hinduism was maliciously exploited to spread the perfidy that India would never offer an equal place to Muslims.

The idea of Islam being in danger was particularly attractive to a section of the ulema - but not to all of them; the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind (now led by Maulana Mahmood Madni), unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami, was very clear-headed about the potential pitfalls and opposed the creation of Pakistan. The pro-partition ulema, however, discovered a unique opportunity for power. If Islam was going be the raison d'etre of the new nation, then who else could be its true guardians? The elites took control of the economy and politics; the upper middle classes dominated the administration; and the two shared authority in the armed forces. The clergy gradually took control of educational and legal space.

The one thing that united these elements, who had separate agendas and could be culturally antagonistic, was Kashmir. The first important decision taken after Pakistan's birth was to convert the two-nation theory into a cornerstone of Pakistan's foreign policy.

It is often forgotten that Pakistan created the Kashmir problem when it decided to seize the Valley by armed force in the last week of October 1947. If this incursion had not taken place, there would have been a peaceful resolution to both Kashmir and Hyderabad, perhaps by the spring of 1948, with Britain as referee through the person of Lord Mountbatten. Perhaps this was one reason, apart from his sense of self-importance, why Mountbatten wanted to be named Governor General of both India and Pakistan, but Jinnah told him to stick to Delhi.

India, Pakistan and Britain were in full agreement that no princely state should be permitted independence. The two holdouts, Kashmir and Hyderabad, could never have survived in their frozen condition. Mountbatten has left on record a note from Nehru in which he suggested that the resolution of Kashmir could be left to spring 1948, when the snows had melted.

Instead, Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan and Pakistan's freshly emboldened leaders were convinced they could pray at the main mosque in Srinagar on the Friday following the invasion. They failed. The failure sponsored a lie, that the invasion was a "popular uprising". Shuja Nawaz has exposed this falsehood effectively in his history of the Pakistan army, Crossed Swords [Oxford University Press]. The October 1947 invasion was armed and supported by the Pakistani administration.

Six decades of Fridays later, the rulers of Islamabad are still waiting. If they want to enter Srinagar on tanks they are welcome to wait another six decades and hand over the effort to their great grandchildren. If they want to come to Srinagar in peace, they can come and pray tomorrow. But it will be difficult for them to come in peace to Srinagar as long as they believe that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together. The two-nation theory might have been abandoned in 1971, when Pakistan itself was partitioned. But it remains the official doctrine of the Pakistan state, sold to generations in millions of school textbooks.

Pakistan's support for Sikh secessionism in the 1980s was clear evidence that it did not need only a "Muslim" cause to become pro-active. If it could destroy India's integrity through another religious module, it was equally happy to do so. If General Zia ul Haq had spent as much energy on the construction of Pakistan as he did on the destruction of India, Pakistan might have had a rising economic story to tell by now.

Kashmir became the implicit sanction for the emergence, under Zia's beneficial watch, of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, or the Army of the Pure. Zia's successors, starting with Benazir Bhutto, did little to contain these terrorists. When India protested, Pakistani diplomats were polite across the table, and probably had a good laugh behind Delhi's back. Since Zia's time Pakistan has been asking for "evidence" or proof, and encouraging skepticism or conspiracy theories (dutifully lapped up by sections of the Indian media). Well, this time there is a canary singing in custody, and a satellite phone abandoned by terrorists with five logged calls to members of the Lashkar. Just in case you did not know, it is the declared intention of the Pure Army to fly the Pakistani flag on top of the Red Fort. Its plans are not secret. They are on its website. Its leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, certainly gets a wink if not a nod from the Pak establishment. Pervez Musharraf was the only Pakistani leader to ban the Lashkar, under international pressure after Vajpayee mobilized along the border in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament. Passions cooled, and it simply reappeared under another name, back in business. Hafiz Saeed does not live in hiding. He gives interviews to Indian publications.

Asif Zardari's latest alibi is: these are non-state actors. They certainly preen around on the Pakistani stage. If the Pakistani state cannot stop this bloodthirsty drama, the world will have to.

Appeared in Times of India - December 07, 2008

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Gagsters and Gangsters

Byline by M J Akbar: Gagsters and Gangsters

We have enough evidence: there is a cabal of cyber terrorists employed by mobile phone companies to destabilise the honourable Government of Dr Manmohan Singh with evil jokes. Who else could be manufacturing those SMSes that begin to circulate whenever opportunity arises? This is a professional hit job. This is not the work of amateurs. If stand-up comedians like Jay Leno can hire professional gag-writers, so can mobile phone companies, since each SMS-joke that is circulated means revenue for hungry coffers. The Government seems to be as impotent against gagsters within the country as it is against gangsters from across the border.

We had hardly blinked upon hearing that our smug finance minister had become even smugger after being transferred to home affairs when a solemn SMS landed on my machine:
"Let us pray that Chidambaram succeeds in bringing down terrorism the way he has brought down share prices."

If this is not sedition at a moment of national crisis, then please let me know the meaning of sedition. The gagster, moreover, has the temerity to be subtle. This is not one of those ha-ha husband-wife jokes. This is serious stuff.

This was followed by a committee effort, for I cannot believe that only one gagster dreamt this whole bit up:

"Chidambaram's report card after 6 months.
1: Police to people ratio increased from 14 per lakh to 14.0012 per lakh. How? One million commit suicide due to inflation. One lakh die in explosions, 25 lakhs in crime and accidents, three million migrate out of India due to fear.
2: Holding and folding dhoti time reduced by 5%. Big productivity gains.
3: Duties of all DGPs outsourced to FPOs, Homeguards, Excise department and his ex-Harvard associates.
4: Police to be paid in oil bonds only.
5: RDX imports attract higher penalties.
6: Duties slashed for substandard bulletproof jackets.
7: Service tax to be imposed on Bangladeshi infiltrators at border crossings.
8: Visa entry tax imposed only on Nepalis.
9: 25% entry tax on all AK Series rifles and all types of grenades.
10: If you still survive…then see you in 2009! But be ready for tax on your happiness and survival!"

I have been wondering about that phrase "If you still survive…" Is that a double entendre? At one level of course the gagster was referring to you and me, and the bleak possibilities of our survival against gangsters. But could he be also, obliquely, referring to bleaker possibility of Chidambaram's survival as home minister? Note that the report card was limited to six months. Why? I sense something sinister here. Has he already drawn the conclusion that this arrangement will end before six months? What are the facts? No matter how long Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi drag out the life of this dying Government with virility injections that turn out to be too watery, they have to hold general elections by April. That is it. In 15 weeks at the outside, and probably within 13 weeks, the great electoral contraption will begin to whirr. This means that the Election Commission will declare the season open around mid-March, after which Government really becomes a holding operation. Expect results in the first week of May.

Is the gagster saying that this lot in Delhi will not return to power? A fellow gagster certainly thinks so. I quote: "We have taken care of the men who came by boats…Time now to sort out the idiots who came by votes." Mumbai predictably evoked anger. This gag was not quite a gag, but rose from the heart: "Forgiving a terrorist is left to God. But fixing their appointment with God is our responsibility." Laughter may be the best medicine for anger, but there are times when you do not want the relief of such medicine.

Have some of the gagster gone too far? The SMS about the Kerala chief minister cannot be printed in a family newspaper. But it did very well on SMS, for whom laws of libel have not yet been invented.

I wonder if politicians understand one law of public affairs. Everyone can survive criticism. And no one can survive ridicule. The gagster flourishes only when ridicule is the only weapon left in a democracy, until the day of voting arrives.

There is a point at which the gagster can run out of gags. After a week of dithering, when Maharashtra was effectively without a Government despite being in the throes of its most serious crisis, the Congress finally installed a new chief minister, Ashok Chavan, and its ally, Sharad Pawar, made Chhagan Bhujbal the deputy chief minister.

The SMS that followed was not a gag:

"Chhagan Bhujbal, a man who was single-handedly responsible for the complete decay and corruption in the police force and was removed for his involvement in the Telgi scam has been rewarded to head the home department (sic) again by the NCP. So much for the show of force by Mumbaikars. We should not take this lying down. Forward this message to as many as possible."

Dear Mumbaikars, I am doing my bit.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Policy, Profile, Politics:Match gives you Game

Byline by M J Akbar: POLICY, PROFILE, POLITICS: Match Gives you Game

What wins elections? Policy or profile?
You can lose elections through failed policy but win them through a positive profile. If the profile of a leader has been projected with sufficient dexterity, an incumbent can even overcome the liability of inadequate delivery during the years of governance. In four States where elections are currently underway, the profile of the leader — in all cases the Chief Minister — is running ahead of policy backlash: Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. We cannot be certain of the extent of the positive gap; only the results will confirm whether the Chief Minister, in a sense, has been able to overcome disability by personality. But Sheila Dikshit, Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh have this much in common. They all are more popular than the Governments they have led for the past few years.

The easiest call to make is in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, where both the outgoing Chief Minister and the departing Government are in the electoral dustbin. Ghulam Nabi Azad has made no impact on the voter’s consciousness, and his Government is perceived as inextricable from a medley of disasters, the most significant being the utter mishandling of the Amarnath agitation. That failure is only the tip of a bitter, arsenic cake. It is appalling to hear Azad say, on the campaign trail, that he was prevented from creating jobs in the State by his allies. I imagine he could not blame the Opposition, which is why he turned on his erstwhile allies. But if this is true, why was he in bed with them for so long? And if it is not true, why does he think he can fool the Kashmiri people so easily? They are not that gullible.

The National Conference has entered this election with a cogent response. Omar Abdullah has offered a sensible policy framework for a Conference administration, while his father Farooq is the profile. After six years of hopeless misgovernance the Abdullahs should win. They would have been more comfortable if the BJP had not made serious inroads into the Jammu vote. It is unlikely that the valley parties will do well in Jammu. The divide has never been as sharp.

Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh has chased away anti-incumbency with a deft combination of policy and profile. Cheap rice is the centrepiece of his claim to good governance; it would be foolish to discount its appeal in an impoverished State. But his campaign rests on more than just a dole. He has created a comfort zone around his persona without the drama that tends to overwhelm a personality cult. His approach has been forward movement by small, incremental steps rather than any giant leap into the air. He represents consistency. But the challenge from Ajit Jogi should not be underestimated, for among all the Congress challengers [Sheila Dikshit is establishment, not the challenge] he has the best profile. It was a surprise that the Congress seemed to give up the fight in the first phase of voting, reviving only in the second round. The difference could be narrow, either way. The cruel law of first-past-the-post democracy, however, throws garlands at the side with the longer nose. Those who come second get ash for their feed.

Perhaps the most remarkable turnaround has been the story of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. Beset by massive internal sabotage and useless maladministration in the first three years of power, the party was not even in the race till a year ago. The Congress could have swept the State if it displayed the courage to hold a midterm poll for Parliament last summer, when a midterm could genuinely be called a midterm. Its seats in MP would have been solid foundation of a winning presence in the next Lok Sabha. But imperceptibly, almost by stealth, the calm character of Chouhan began to reverse the momentum and revive the BJP.

The Congress has been badly damaged in MP by an overload of profile, and an underload of policy, so that no one is certain who will be what, or do what, in case the party wins. If the party had stuck by the old guard, personified by Digvijay Singh, the Congress would have fared better. Instead it has at least four men claiming sole proprietorship in the State. One of them doesn’t know what to say. A second doesn’t know what not to say. The third issues commandments. The fourth prefers to talk in Delhi rather than Bhopal. I leave it to readers to decipher who is who. It should make an interesting exercise for at least a few minutes during those idle hours between polling and results.

In Rajasthan the Congress was even better placed than in MP, even some months ago. Even today, its chances are better in the smaller State. But once again the BJP Chief Minister has shifted the tide, although it is necessary to add that one cannot be sure of the extent of this shift. Curiously, Vasundhara Raje is both the problem and the potential solution. After all, it is the policy meltdown of her administration that is offering the Congress a chance of victory. But she has used her profile aggressively to compensate for policy shortcomings. She has a particular appeal among women and the young, two of the most determined constituencies in electoral demographics. She is helped enormously by the fact that the Congress contender for her job, Ashok Gehlot, has a jaded faded profile.

The precise opposite is the case in Delhi, where the BJP is carrying the burden of a jaded-faded claimant for Sheila Dikshit’s job. Mrs Dikshit is fighting almost impossible odds. The anti-incumbency current in Delhi is so strong that it could deliver victory even to flotsam and jetsam. But the BJP’s Vijay Malhotra is Mrs Dikshit’s greatest asset. He looks depressed. You can hardly blame Delhi’s voters if they seem reluctant to hand over their city to someone who does not seem to have smiled in a decade. Moreover, the ethnic composition of Delhi has changed. It is no longer a Punjab-centric city. An Arun Jaitley as the projected CM would have won handily, not because of any Punjabi connection but because he represents the modern face of Indian politics. Delhi is above all a modern and cosmopolitan city.

Policy and profile are the current and undercurrent of elections. When they are in harmony, victory will come easily. When they are in conflict, one or the other will prevail. Which one? Check out on 8 December.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Toothless leaders turn tough nation into soft state

Toothless leaders turn tough nation into soft state
By M J Akbar

Does it need grief to unite us? Where was Raj Thackeray when anonymous heroes from across the nation saved Mumbai from rabid vultures? Why did he not issue a diktat that he did not want any Bihari or Haryanvi or Malayali commando to save Mumbai?

India belongs to Mumbai since Mumbai belongs to India; the two need each other. The Maharashtra government looked hopelessly helpless before an invasion propelled by Pakistanis and navigated by a local, subversive fifth column.

Perhaps the low moment came around 8.30 on Thursday morning. While flames, gunfire, chaos mingled with shock a spokesman for the state government told CNN that the “situation is under control”. Yes, if you live in Somalia.

Hidden under grime and neglect, perhaps there is a little Somalia within Mumbai, waiting to burst out and infect the body politic. This sinewy, seamless nether world is nourished by the “black economy”, and has contempt for authority since it feeds, twice a day, the grubby hand of a policeman. Organized crime requires both sophisticated management and corrupt law enforcement agencies.

The underworld does not live in isolation; smuggling is a multinational enterprise. Once it was gold; today it is drugs. Only the naïve are aghast at the thought that ships from Karachi are landing in Mumbai. Each day ships are being loaded in Sindh with street-ready drugs from Afghanistan for the lucrative markets of rising India. Do the stars of Bollywood, the money-shifters of Dalal Street, the dolled up celebrities of Mumbai’s many hills — indeed, from the wealth bracket of many of the guests at Taj on Wednesday night — never ask how their hallucinatory puff has reached them?

The Mumbai mafia, with support from the police-politician partnership, has brought this puff to your party — via Pakistan.

There is a strong Muslim element in the Mumbai mafia. Bereft of either loyalty or morality, it can be easily lured into fantasies of revenge by its contacts in Karachi. Aggression is a psychological necessity of this trade, so the offer of havoc has the lure of a lethal snake. It lives in a unique mental and economic zone, different from the rest of India as well as India’s largely impoverished Muslims.

The initial reaction of some Indian Muslims to Mumbai was denial, a manifestation of their fear of retribution by both the state and the people. Some theories coasting on the net were particularly stupid. The paradox of fear is evident in contradictory manifestations: at one level, an urgent desire to find evidence of conspiracy by either the Mossad or Hindutva elements; at another level, to retreat into the comfort zone of familiar folly, like hope for security from the party that has betrayed them most often. The community will not be able to recognize necessary truths, both within and without, unless it can rub fear out of its eyes.

The most significant part of the outrage should not be obscured by the drama of events.

Hypnotized by attack, we should not become oblivious of defence. We have been defeated by incompetent governance, both in Mumbai and Delhi. Facts will take more time to emerge. But perhaps up to 60 men hit nine targets in coordinated waves. This could not have happened without months of planning. Resources — weapons, rations, money — were mobilized; a small army trained across two countries; targets studied, routes finalized, transport organized, sleeper cells put in place. We learn that terrorists may have been living at the Taj for days, ferrying arms into what was surely turned into a war-room. Men arrived by sea, linked up with compatriots on land and launched multiple attacks. This must have involved hundreds at the planning stage, and the massive infrastructure of government discovered nothing. Where was the police? Where was the Anti-Terrorist Squad? Its chief, Hemant Karkare (undoubtedly a very brave officer, who lost his life in the battles that raged through the night) apparently received a death threat from Pune a few days before the mayhem but his own unit did not bother: they were all busy playing games on behalf of political masters. Complacence and politics gave the terrorists more protection than silence or deception could.

Terrorists may have a religion but death has none. In the first roll-call of death issued by the JJ Hospital, the name next to Karkare was that of Mastan Qureshi. There were six Hindus, four Muslims and two foreigners, presumably Christians, on that list.

Indians are tough. We have fought off Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, Sikh terrorists in Pun jab, Christian terrorists in Nagaland, and Hindu terrorists in Assam and across the country (the Naxalites). But ineffectual leadership turning a tough nation into a soft state. We should have been world leaders in the war against terrorists, for no nation has more experience Instead we are wallowing in the complacent de spair of a continual victim.

Some three years ago, Dr Manmohan Singh told George Bush that there were no terrorists among Indian Muslims. Perhaps he was unaware of the 1993 Mumbai bombings. Perhaps he wanted to please two constituencies: Bush, who needed a certificate for his view that democracy was the cure for all evil; and local Muslims, who were not being given jobs but could always be offered the consolation prize of a pat on the back.

Dr Singh certainly did not fool any terrorists. The Lashkar-e-Taiba might even have interpreted such self-congratulation as a challenge.

I am proud of being an Indian Muslim. Like any Indian, I am angry, frustrated and depressed I am angry at the rabid dogs of war. I am frustrated by the tone-deaf impotence of government. I am depressed at the damage being done to my India.

Appeared in Times of India - November 30, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The 26th of November

Byline by M J Akbar: The 26th of November

The power of fear is immense and intense. It is axiomatic that evil of the magnitude perpetrated in Mumbai, through a collusion between Pakistan-based hate-filled terrorist organisations like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Indian fifth columnists will have a direct impact on the political mood of the nation. It is inevitable that the mood will reflect on polling in an election season. But we need to understand the nuances of this impact carefully. The hyperinflation of knee-jerk analysis can be toxic to the truth.

Fear, bred by insecurity, can have two political consequences, one of which can be very beneficial to any government. George Bush remained President of the United States for eight years, quite against the odds, because he managed to exploit the American voter's fear of Al Qaeda terrorists. However, he could not have won re-election on rhetoric alone. He had been able to keep a basic commitment. He might have angered the rest of the world, and irritated half of his own country, but he had kept America safe after 9/11.

Fear and insecurity will always instigate anger. It is a question of whom the anger is directed against. Americans concentrated their anger on Al Qaeda because they did not feel betrayed by their own government. They forgave George Bush a hundred vices because he displayed a single virtue.

Indian anger is bursting over in two directions. There is a passionate revulsion against terrorists of course. This was evident in Mumbai when citizens came out of their homes to cheer the heroic commandos who had delivered them from evil. But their second anger was also evident in their chants and slogans. Their impromptu slogans in praise of the motherland were punctuated with slogans demanding an end to Congress rule. The Indian voter is livid at the Congress-led governments in Maharashtra and Delhi because it feels betrayed by those it has elected to power. The voter no longer has much by way of expectation from any government. But if a government cannot deliver, ever, on security, then it is time to pull it down. If the Mumbai outrage had been a first incident, the voter would have given the government a second chance and more. But this government in Delhi has exhausted all its chances.

All fear/anger is not the same. The Indian Muslim voter is both afraid and angry as well, but his sentiments are trapped in confusion. He is angry with the terrorist for using Islam and his problems as an excuse for shocking violence and thereby making him vulnerable. He is afraid of his vulnerability to government retribution: a shamefaced Andhra Pradesh government is handing out Rs 35,000 to each innocent it picked up and tortured. And he is afraid of retribution at the popular level, motivated by leaders of radical Hindu outfits. His vote, therefore, could reflect this confusion. A part of the Muslim vote, possibly a large part, could rush back to the comfort zone of the Congress not because the Congress has done anyone any good but because it is considered less worse than the BJP. A strong section of the Muslim vote will go to third parties, like Mayawati's BSP. And there may be other Muslim voters who will stay at home or vote for Muslim candidates who have no chance of winning. Wasting a vote is a means of showing no confidence in any of the parties on the slate.

The credibility of politicians has taken a hammering in the past week. Television anchors found, some to their shock and others to their happy surprise, that viewers did not want to see the faces of politicians during the long, continuous coverage of the siege at Taj, Oberoi-Trident and Nariman House. Politicians in government got the message quickly enough, and stayed home after a few statements that proved to be either premature, wrong or utterly stupid. Opposition politicians do not have to do anything except keep quiet. Those who could not keep quiet felt the whiplash of public reaction. But in any situation of this sort, it is the government that suffers the loss, since the voter cannot blame the Opposition for negligent, ineffectual and clueless governance. In these days of circulating SMS mobilisation, one crude SMS reflected the shifting mood. It described Manmohan Singh as "Noman" Singh.

If the Congress loses the popular vote in the Assembly elections, then it has no one to blame but itself. Dr Manmohan Singh regularly advertises his close friendship with Bush. All the pictures display a fawning admiring look on Dr Singh's face whenever he is in the company of Bush. Couldn't he have learnt from Bush how to win an election by manipulating fear?

The Delhi Congress is clearly worried that it will lose because of Mumbai. On the morning of the vote, it took out expensive full-page ads trying to suggest that attacks such as these had happened during the BJP's time in power as well, as indeed they had. What the advertisement naturally could not mention was the frequency; or the absence of accountability either in the apprehension of the guilty, or among those at the highest levels of power who should take responsibility. In any case, the voter punished the BJP with five years of exile because of its sins of omission and commission. It won't punish the BJP twice. Only those in office can commit a crime that deserves punishment.

A second SMS I received points out a baffling coincidence. I have not had time to check all the dates of disasters in recent memory, but find no reason to consider them untrue. "The Gujarat earthquake occurred on 26 January, the tsunami on 26 December, Godhra on 26 February, the Gujarat floods on 26 June, the Mumbai train havoc on 26 July and the terrorists struck last week in Mumbai on 26 November."

I suppose that rules out any future election on the 26th of any month.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai Attacks

Mumbai Attacks
By M.J.Akbar

pic copyright: Getty Images
There was a piquant, or perhaps unbelievable, moment around 8.30 on thursday morning: flames were destroying the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal hotel, shots were being heard, chaos mingled with shock on the streets outside and a spokesman for the government in Mumbai told CNN that the "situation is under control". Yes, this might be considered under control if you are Somalia.

In most cities of South Asia, hidden under the grime and neglect of poverty, there is a little Somalia waiting to burst out and infect the body politic. This nether world, patrolled and nourished by criminals who operate what is known as the "black economy", has bred, in Mumbai, a community that has contempt for the state since it knows that its survival depends on corruption. Organised crime requires both sophisticated management capability and the culpability of law enforcement agencies. It does not live in isolation; it has international links through smuggling routes. Once the principal commodity of this trade was gold; today it is drugs. Since it has neither patriotism nor morality, it is easily lured into partnership with terrorists, particularly when it has reason to feel aggrieved. A good section of Mumbai's underworld consists of Muslims who entered because this space because they were denied a place in the "white economy". During the last five decades they have developed strong vested interests. They live in a different zone from the rest of India's Muslims, who are largely impoverished.

Details about the Mumbai outrage are still unfolding. But we do know that at least 30 men armed with AK47s and grenades held India's premier city hostage, targeting both Indians and foreigners, particularly Americans and the British. When facts are uncertain, theories become ascendant. Since at least some of the terrorists entered the city by sea - in a trawler registered in Vietnam - it is possible that this operation was propelled from Karachi in Pakistan through the Lashkar e Tauba, a terrorist organisation sustained by hatred towards secular India and funded by shadowy Pakistani agencies and street support. At the moment of writing, one terrorist has been caught alive and interrogation will, hopefully, reveal details we can trust.

The drama of events, however, could make us miss a significant element of the story. This operation must have taken months of planning: weapons were deployed, a small army was mobilised, targets studied, routes finalised, transport organised, weak points identified; a multiple plan of attack involving hundreds at the very least was put in motion, and the massive infrastructure of government discovered nothing. The chief of the Anti Terrorist Squad, Hemant Karkare (who lost his life in the battles that raged through the night) recieved a death threat from the nearby city of Pune and his own unit did not bother since it was busy playing games on behalf of its political masters. Terrorists may have a religion but death has none. In the first list of dead issued by the JJ Hospital, the name next to Karkare was that of Mastan Qureshi. There were six Hindus, four Muslims and two foreigners, presumably Christians, on that list.

Complacence and politics gave the terrorists more protection than silence or camoflauge could.

This represents a collapse of governance; these are the wages of the sins of administrative incompetence and political malfeasance.India is a tough nation. No one should have illusions about that. It has fought off Muslim terrorists in Kashmir, Sikh terrorists in Punjab, Christian terrorists in Nagaland, and Hindu terrorists in Assam and across the country (there is a Maoist insurrection in a broad swathe of states in the centre of India). India has learnt that you cannot blame the whole community for the sins of a few. But under ineffectual governance, particularly in the last three years, a tough country is in danger of degenerating into a soft state. Instead of being the international leader in the worldwide war against terrorism, India is sinking into the despair of a continual victim.

Some three years ago India's Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh rather smugly told President George Bush in Delhi that Indian Muslims were not involved in any act of terrorism. The implication was that they constituted a success story, healed by the virtues of democracy, a conclusion that Bush happily repeated. Dr Singh certainly did not fool any terrorists, some of whom may have read his self-congratulation as a challenge.

I am an Indian Muslim and proud to be both. Like any Indian, today I am angry, frustrated and depressed. I am angry at the manic, rabid dogs of war who have invaded the commercial capital and fountainhead of business energy. I am frustrated by the impotence of my governments in Mumbai and Delhi, its ministers tone-deaf to the anguish of my fellow citizens. And I am depressed at the damage being done to the idea of my India.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Would anyone dare issue a fatwa against Iqbal?

Would anyone dare issue a fatwa against Iqbal?
By M J Akbar

Spare a prayer for God's professionals; they are not very fashionable among the elite, and who is more elitist than media? I have great respect for the thousands of priests, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, who perform community service on pitiable pay. There is neither reward nor award for the nameless, selfless maulvis and monks devoted to a Calcutta Muslim Orphanage or a Ramakrishna Mission. We pen-pushers swan around mouthing homilies and delivering self-satisfied sermons; they deliver.

But so much of their good work on the ground is destroyed by the pomposity of clerics floating at the top. Education is no insurance against their stupidity.

The Lucknow maulana - whose name is irrelevant and would in any case take up too much space - who passed a fatwa against Harivansh Rai Bachchan's Madhushala because it "eulogized alcohol and drunkenness in society" has been blessed by neither wit nor a sense of poetry. Who can explain the power of a metaphor to someone who does not know the nuance of verse? How do we convey the tremor of a poet's subversion to one who has not learnt to smile? A closed mind is by inclination self-righteous. When no one else believes you are right, you have to console yourself.

By the Lucknow maulana's standards of literary criticism, a substantial body of Urdu poetry would be banned. Urdu verse has brought indescribable delight to those who know the language, most of whom are Muslims. It is a poetry that can be enjoyed either in the company of thousands, at a mushaira, where the poet recites his or her composition, or in the silence of a room over a book. The cleric would have to pass a fatwa against every Urdu poet, from Ghalib, Daagh and Zauq down to the humblest versifier, for each one has used the symbol of a cup of wine and the saqi, who pours it in the tavern. I presume the learned cleric of Lucknow has not read this couplet, for it is a needle designed to puncture smugness:

Zauq! Jo medresse ke bigre hue hain mulla
Un ko maikhaane mein le aao sanwar jaayenge.
(Zauq! Bring the mulla misled by a medressa
To the tavern, it will correct his ways.)

The tension between the tavern and the mulla is a constant, and even overworked theme of Urdu poetry. Hazrat Daagh Dehlivi was no less scathing (incidentally, my apologies for the poor quality of translation):

Lutf-e-mai tujh se kya kahoon, zahid
Hai kambakht tu ne pee hi nahin.
(How do I describe, o priest, wine's joy to you?
A drop has never passed your misbegotten lips.)

I suppose it would be considered too predictable to quote Ghalib, since he has been turned into a bit of a caricature of the hard-drinking, irresponsible lover-poet; but his verse is so utterly beautiful that it would be a shame to pass up an opportunity to offer more than one gem.

Har chand ho mushahda-e-haq ki guftagu
Banti nahin hai badah-o-saaghan kahe baghair.
(Let us discourse, each moment, of truth divine
How do we talk without the strength of wine?)


Kahan maikhana ka darwaza Ghalib aur kahan waaez
Par itna jaante hain, kal wo jaata tha ke ham nikle.
(Where is the tavern door, Ghalib, and where the priest!
But this I know: yesterday he entered as I was leaving.)

The conflict is not between religion and the believer, but between religiosity and the poet. The poet taunts those who seek to dominate men in the name of God, without understanding either God or man. There has been no one with a finer understanding of Islam among the greats of the language than Allama Iqbal. Iqbal's personal commitment to his faith shaped his world-view, and underpinned his philosophical essays. If Iqbal was not a Muslim then a Muslim has not been born on the Indian subcontinent. Iqbal uses the image of wine and saqi, freely.

Sharaab-e-kuhan phir pila saaqiya
Yahi jaam gardish mein laa saaqiya.
(Pour me that familiar wine again, saqi!
Fill the world with the same wine, saqi!)

Iqbal is even more scathing of the priest than Daagh:

Ummeed-e hoor ne sab kuch sikha rakha hai waaez ko
Yeh hazrat dekhne main seedhe hain, saade hain, bhole bhaale hain.

(The hope of houris has taught him all he wants to know
The priest merely looks simple, humble, plain, innocent.)

Would the Lucknow maulana like to pass a fatwa against Iqbal's poetry? Now that would be much bigger news than a judgement against Madhushala. Of course Iqbal was never as provocative as Daagh could be:

Zahid sharaab peene de masjid mein baith kar
Ya wo jagah bata de jahan par Khuda na ho.
(Priest, let me sit and drink inside the mosque
Or tell me that place where God can't be found.)

Indian Muslims have savoured such verse since it entered public space; no one has taken it as a literal injunction to start drinking inside a mosque. The poetic truth is not the literal truth, which of course is the point of poetry.

Perhaps the last word - or last sheyer - should be left to the Anonymous poet:

Pahunchi yahan bhi Shaikh wa Brahman ki guftagu
Ab maikada bhi sair ke qaabil nahin raha.
(The quarrel of Shaikh, Brahmin has reached here
Even the tavern is no longer worth a visit!)

Appeared in Times of India - November 23, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is there a Plan B, Mrs Alva?

Byline by M J Akbar: Is there a Plan B, Mrs Alva?

Does Margaret Alva have a Plan B? The battles of Delhi are never fought about the past; they are relevant only because they concentrate on the future. Why did Margaret Alva, once considered so close to Mrs Sonia Gandhi that her compatriots shuddered before crossing her path, choose this moment to accuse her party of corruption and nepotism?

Mrs Alva is not a novice. She knew the price of rebellion. Her reason was valid. Her son was denied a ticket for the Karnataka elections on the rather thin excuse that dynasty was not going to be encouraged in the Congress, an odd rationale for a party which has reserved its most powerful job for a dynasty. But she knew that she could not reinvent an election and restore the seat by exposing the double standards that are rife in her party. Since there was no personal gain possible, what political purpose did Mrs Alva have in mind?

Mrs Alva may have, after the High Command's retribution, resigned from high office, but she has not resigned herself to retirement. She feels she has many years of active politics left in her career. Others have suffered in the party; she is not alone. The general policy is to wait out a fallow period in the hope that better days will come. Why did she choose to opt out? She did not do this to join the BJP. That will not be her preferred option, although the BJP of course would welcome a credible Christian in its ranks.

There is something brewing within the second tier of Congress leadership. There are grievances in every large party. The BJP is teeming with them, as is evident in the current elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. If Mayawati cuts into Congress votes in MP, then Uma Bharti and Govindacharya return the favour by slicing off BJP votes. In Rajasthan, the energetic Vasundhara Raje does not have to look outside her party for dissidence. She is, or should be, more worried by how insiders might maul her prospects than what the Congress will do. But while dissidents are often willing to sabotage, they are rarely eager to revolt. Parties condone dissidence, since it is axiomatic that there will be some negative reaction to any decision taken. What they cannot afford is a revolt.

Is there a revolt within the Congress waiting for an opportunity to declare itself? Some leaders, like Narayan Rane in Maharashtra, have stopped caring about what the state leaders or the national leaders think. He attacks his own Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh with impunity. The Chief Minister, in the meanwhile, blithely ignores his Prime Minister and promotes the parochial line set down by Raj Thackeray. Delhi responds with silence and changes the topic. Control is beyond its current capability.

A political leadership is only as strong as its ability to deliver victory. Since Mrs Sonia Gandhi has lost elections in the states where Congress was in power, and now seems unable to convert anti-incumbency against the BJP into victories for the Congress, the second tier of the Congress is beginning to fidget. According to present indications, the BJP could return to power in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and is very much in contention in Rajasthan and Delhi. Of course every sensible person knows that no one can be sure of a result until the votes have been counted, which is why the political class is waiting for December 8. That is the day when murmurs will either grow or subside.

What leaders like Mrs Alva are searching for is a perch in the middle space between Congress and BJP. They believe that between them the Congress and the BJP will not win over 270 seats, which means that an alliance of the rest of the House could form a theoretical majority. This would of course need a collapse of the NDA and the UPA, which is not as simple as might seem since NDA partners share power in the states. The Akalis and Nitish Kumar would have to risk losing power in Punjab and Bihar, which would undermine their very existence in the volatile politics that we will see over the next few years. Moreover there are strong animosities within the regional parties as well: Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, or Nitish and Lalu Yadav cannot coexist in the same alliance. Would Chiranjeevi and Chandra Babu Naidu join the same government after having fought bitterly for power in Hyderabad? Of course they might, given the persuasive abilities of whoever wanted to be Prime Minister of such a coalition. I suppose if there was a system in which there could be six Prime Ministers, this might work, but regrettably we do not have such a polity.

So improbable, but not impossible. But the very fact that such options are being contemplated means that a number of senior politicians no longer believe that the UPA will be re-elected.
What is certainly not in doubt is that the next government in Delhi will be formed after the results, in the sense that neither pre-election alliance will be able to reach a majority on its own.

This, after all, was how the UPA came into existence. The advantage will lie with whoever is closer to the magic number of 272, but that will not be the only factor. The allies will lay down conditions for governance that the principal party will have to accept.

The danger is clear enough: throw a political meltdown into an economic meltdown and the crisis that is already upon us will become unmanageable. Happy — or not so happy — 2009 to readers!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Insecurity of Petty Ideas

The Insecurity of Petty Ideas
by M J Akbar

The times have changed. Patriotism used to be the last refuge of the scoundrel. The scoundrel is now the last refuge of patriotism. This is not because the cad and the poseur have filled up, but because we are busy chopping democracy up into little pocket-sized units of petty patriotism. Culture, economics and the history of the last hundred years unite us. The greed for votes is beginning to divide us. It is one thing for municipal-level politicians to try and survive by wooing the lowest common denominator. But when politicians of some stature, a Cabinet Minister hoping to rise to Prime Minister, or a Chief Minister begins to parrot the pidgin politics of parochialism, then it is time to address the infection with a scalpel. Regional separatism is the sore that can deteriorate into secessionist cancer if not addressed in time.

The idealism of India was always vulnerable to a challenge from smaller ideas. It is more comforting, particularly at moments of stress, to snuggle into a nest. That is the first option of the insecure. When the insecure become aggressive, they find pseudo-strength in hysteria. India is a democracy with a fundamental commitment to free speech. The intelligent hysteric has learnt to dress a lie in the robes of morality. Morality makes it fashionable to a self-congratulatory elite.

A familiar charge, voiced recently by a Kashmiri secessionist ensconced in Delhi’s academia, is that India is a fascist state. This is precisely the sort of thing that sounds suitably liberal in seminar rooms and doubtless envelops the audience in the warm glow of self-satisfaction. There: how brave of us! We have given shelter to the oppressed!

The obvious irony, of course, is that in a genuinely fascist state, the great orator would be locked up — and the key thrown away — before he could have uttered the first letter of “fascist”. A dissident has a right to the liberalism of Indian democracy, academia and mainstream media. But the fact that even secessionists, sometimes thinly disguised in parallel demands, enjoy the benefits of a generous culture is proof of India’s liberal polity. After all, the most egregious instance of provocation in recent years has been the manner in which some demonstrators flaunted the Pakistan flag in pursuit of their political demands. I wonder if anyone in Pakistan would have been allowed to carry the Indian flag during a demonstration.

Freedom and independence are neither the same thing, nor interchangeable. The great age of European colonialism is over; every nation can claim to be independent. That does not necessarily mean that it is free. Freedom is not merely release from some magic cage Europe constructed to fetter distant lands. Freedom is a principle that the state shares with every citizen. India is both independent and free.

A nation can be colonised by its own elites, perhaps more easily than by foreign ones. A purist political scientist might debate this definition of such “colonisation”; after all a dictatorship can be as nationalist in its objectives as a democratic one. But the spirit of oppression that pervades through a dictatorship or an oppressive oligarchy is not all that distant from the ethos of colonial rule. The British Raj was not a continuous exercise in brutality. In many instances it was liberal and reformist. Many unbiased critics would certainly compare it favourably to the feudalism that prevailed in much of India during British rule. Not every feudal was a despot, but many were; many more were simply irresponsible and self-indulgent. It was only when they had to defend the right of the British to rule an alien land did the splendidly adorned Viceroys and plum-voiced Oxbridge civil servants descended to ruthlessness. If the lathi did not silence India’s voice, the bayonet would. If that did not suffice, the guns appeared.

Paradoxically, it can be easier to defend a fascist state than a democracy. The former does not offer habeas corpus [“Show us the body”] through which courts can limit the power of the executive. In a country not too far away, thousands have been picked up and thrown into jail before they are cherry picked for transportation to a foreign prison where they can be punished for real or imagined terrorism. Intelligence agencies run an alternative power structure in the name of security, designed to intimidate their own countrymen, backed up by their own foreign policy.

But because a democracy like India has a soft, even pulpy interior, it would be a fallacy to believe that it will necessarily be weak in the defence of its national integrity. India may have more political parties than it has voters, and the struggle for office may be laced with passions that ignite personal vendettas, but when it comes to security of the state differences melt and all parties close ranks.

The state is not sectarian. Some Kashmiris might be advertising a long list of complaints but they should check with Khalistanis in Punjab or Nagas in the Northeast. Their list might be longer. The great healing power of democracy lies in a simple fact: the door is never closed. Yesterday’s secessionists are today’s Chief Ministers in the Northeast. The Akalis passed the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in the 1980s; who remembers the resolution now?

Anger is not the prerogative of the secessionist alone. There is a perceptible rage brewing among Indians who believe in India, and cannot understand why those Kashmiris who agitate for separation in the valley should have no qualms about taking full advantage of academic institutions and business opportunities in the rest of India. There is a growing view that the achievements of India, political, academic and economic, should be reserved for those who believe in India, and not extended to those who wanted to subvert it.

There is logic in this view. And yet it hurts the spirit of the very Constitution we seek to protect. It is useful to add a warning. Compromise with principles is the first step on that slippery road towards abandonment. An hour of crisis, such as we face today, demands that we rise above our anger to preserve the values of our founding generation, who gave us our Constitution. The worst of times calls out for the best in us.

(In Covert: Subscribe Covert)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The economic partition that still grounds us

The economic partition that still grounds us
By M J Akbar

Imagine, if you will, a nation unborn; the map of the Indian subconscious had the Indian subcontinent not been subdivided in 1947 and 1971.

Pakistan and Bangladesh are facts. It is idiocy to sneer at them as failed states. You have to look at facts without the sticky impediment of sentiment. After much consideration, with cold evidence in front of me, I am pleased to announce a personal somersault. After years of examining the validity, or otherwise, of the seeds that nurtured the idea of Pakistan, I am now relieved that it came into existence. Who would ever have believed what Pakistan has grown up into, if it had never been born at all?

Who could have convinced two generations of post-1947 Indian Muslims that Pakistan was not the heaven that had dominated its advertising before Partition? Six decades later, every Muslim of the subcontinent knows that suicide bombs and Kalashnikovs can extract a daily diet of death even in a country where there is no Hindu to call an enemy. Facts are the coolest needles to puncture fevered fantasy.

Pakistan was only ever a very partial answer to what the British called the “Muslim question”. By 1971, with the emergence of Bangladesh, the partial became twice partitioned. 1971 also proved that the slogan that created Pakistan, “Islam in danger!”, was a concoction designed to serve politicians, and not save the faith. As Maulana Azad repeatedly emphasized, even when the winds were against him, Islam is a brotherhood, not a ‘nationhood’. If Islam were sufficient to create a modern nation state, the Arabs would not be divided into 22 countries. They even have a language in common.

Indian Muslims now know that Pakistan has bounced in and out of army rule, to land, today, in a quagmire that might have neither the freedom of democracy nor the frigid certainty of dictatorship. Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece, does have a grudge against uncle Asif Zardari; she believes her father Murtaza, was shot dead in a family power struggle. But the opening sentence of her recent piece in the New Statesman (October 30) is startling enough to demand attention.

Pakistan’s newly elected government, she writes, is “the first in the world headed by two former convicts (between them the President and the Prime Minister have served time on charges of corruption, narcotics, extortion and murder, no less...”

A state may not fail, but a profligate government can teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. Pakistan’s desperation for a bailout loan is not news. What deserves a headline is that its closest allies, including China and Saudi Arabia, have had enough of the loan-bowl. Zardari cobbled together something called “Friends of Pakistan” only to discover that friendship doesn’t fetch dollars. The top priority of its ambassador in Washington, Hussain Haqqani, is to plead for $10 billion as reward for participation in America’s “war on terror”.

Individuals have always been mercenaries; this could be a case of a whole army being parlayed for cash. The Pentagon audits the money Pakistan gets for military operations. If the Pakistan army is fighting on the Afghan border in defence of its national interest, why would it send a bill to Washington?

The leadership of a nation forged out of millions of dreams seems to have lost its sense of nationalism. Paradoxically, the sense of a great national destiny would have flourished if the nation had been denied an existence.

But the discomforts of Pakistan are of little comfort to Indian Muslims. They are convinced now that 1947 was a mirage; but there is too much fog between them and the next horizon. The principles of the Indian Constitution, sustained by democracy and secularism, are the ideal commitments for any group that considers itself disadvantaged. But neither democracy nor secularism is an industry offering jobs. Economics has flattened the world into a racetrack, and not every community is in the race.

1947 was a geographical and political partition, a screaming laceration through the heart. Since then we have had a silent partition: the economic partition of India. The educated middle classes and the rich are rising with rising India; the rest are stagnant.

This was not conceived on communal lines and yet, as the dice has rolled, it involves communities, whether tribals or Dalits or Muslims. The Sachar Commission report is a snapshot portrait of the utter neglect that Muslims have suffered under largely Congress governments. Check with the community and the grievance is unequivocal: others get reservations, we get enquiry commissions. The Congress mantra for Muslims, its favourite vote bank, has been a single emotion, fear: after us, the deluge. If you don’t keep us in power, saffron will strangle you. It works, but only up to a point.

As the clichés on dozens of book covers suggest: the Indian elephant has lumbered towards take-off, the tiger has launched its spring. The India of yesterday’s imagination is turning slowly, untidily into a reality, hiccups notwithstanding. But does every Indian deserve the privilege of imagination, or it is reserved only for those who emerged from the womb of luck?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In the semi-final analysis…

Byline by M J Akbar: In the semi-final analysis…

The current Assembly elections are not quite the semi-finals that they are being billed to be, for the nationwide electorate will determine the fate of the UPA Government, and not just voters in six States. But it is beyond debate that these results will set the mood for the general elections, now expected at the very last legal minute, which means April-May. These are arguably the most important of the mini-general elections that have dotted the political calendar over the last two years.

So where is the Prime Minister of India during this virtual referendum on his rule? During the first part of the campaign season he was doing bilateral visits in the Gulf. On the day that Chhattisgarh went to the polls he was on his plane to Washington. It could be argued that the G20 Summit on the international financial crisis summoned by President George W. Bush was a must-visit. But that is not the real point. The fact is that the Congress could not really care anymore whether Dr Manmohan Singh is in Qatar or Chhattisgarh. He does not add to the vote.

The Indo-US nuclear deal, on which he staked his Government, over which he broke the alliance with the Left and brought in new allies who purchased MPs on his behalf, which was hyped up endlessly by favoured television channels as the glorious answer to India's prayers, has simply disappeared from public consciousness. The Congress had put two curious-looking lights at its Delhi headquarters to symbolise the success of the nuclear deal. The message was that it would bring electricity. The lights have been quietly taken down. Even Delhi's voters, who, as urbanites, might have been expected to care a hoot or two, do not care a jot. A misplaced bus corridor in the heart of the city will influence more votes in Delhi than the nuclear deal. As for remoter parts of India, it is quite remarkable that neither the Prime Minister nor Mrs Sonia Gandhi campaigned in the 39 Chhattisgarh constituencies that went to polls on 14 November; although Rahul Gandhi did make a token appearance. Did the Congress give up on Chhattisgarh even before the votes were cast?

There is a perceptible demoralisation in the Congress, for both administrative and political reasons. The Government has failed on inflation and terrorism, the two issues of highest concern to the voter. Partly as a consequence, the coalition is coming apart as the various partners begin to reposition themselves for elections. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Pawar are on opposite sides of the "bhaiyya" war in Mumbai, and ready to say so. Praful Patel, Sharad Pawar's alter ego when Pawar needs to fire from a second shoulder, has backed Raj Thackeray's parochialism, while Yadav walks a tightrope between defending fellow-Biharis and sitting in the same Cabinet room as Pawar. From his perch in Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, his party in desperate straits, threatens to withdraw his ministers if Delhi does not intervene to protect the Tamil Tigers, who are under extreme pressure from the Sri Lanka Army. The Prime Minister can do little in effect except ignore these contradictions and carry on as if nothing is happening. A new ally, Amar Singh, accuses a DMK minister of astonishing corruption in what has become familiar as the "spectrum scandal". Once again, the Prime Minister has to pretend ignorance or indifference as unprecedented loot takes place under his watch. There is absolutely no sense of accountability, or a suggestion that good governance has some demands.

The only remaining strategy for the Congress is to hang on to office, whatever the daily rate of attrition, and hope for some miracle that might revive its fortunes. Reversals of public mood do take place. We have seen one occur over the last year. The Congress peaked in the summer and monsoon of 2007, until inflation and fear began to take their toll on India's nerves. This decline went into fast gear after the Amarnath agitation this year. But reversals need substantive reasons, and there is nothing visible on the horizon that can suddenly turn this tottering cabal in office into a viable instrument of promise. Divine intervention is always possible of course, but we have no evidence to suggest that the Almighty is partisan.

In an election season, confidence does not evaporate into ether. By some mysterious process, it travels by osmosis into the opposite side. There is an almost direct correlation. As one party turns skeletal, you can see the flesh gathering on the other. A year ago, the BJP was in deep depression, and its Governments seemed utterly vulnerable. Suddenly, they seem to have steadied and even become sure-footed. The most remarkable turnaround has been in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The first was nearly lost; the second was utterly lost. In both the party is in play, and could register morale-boosting victories. Vasundhara Raje has shown exceptional skills, not only in calming political turbulence, but in also energising two key vote segments, the young and women. Add to this the panache of economic growth, and you have a recipe that an electorate can savour.

The real semi-final, in my view, is actually the coming general election. The results of 2009 will set the stage for the revival of one national party as the electorate tires of regional parties, particularly in the North. Three critical factors will determine the winner: who controls how much space on the electoral map (the Congress is being suicidal by surrendering large swathes to allies); who is the better magnet for women and the young; and who has shown the ability to deliver on good governance. It sounds simpler than it is.