Saturday, April 26, 2008

9% for 9%

Byline by M J Akbar : 9% for 9%

If political parties do not politicise the misery, what should they politicise? What are they in politics for? To celebrate Diwali every week? Heaven knows, enough politicians do that already. Corruption is so rampant that minimal proprieties have been abandoned.

There are two dangerous moments in the life of any politician. One comes when he has the misfortune to be the messenger of bad news. Good news is brought by a crowd; bad news is borne by an individual, for the crowd suddenly discovers it has other things to do. The messenger's loyalty and courage are always praised — he may even, in some circumstances, be awarded the Padma Vibhushan — before his tongue is sliced off and deposited in a very cold icebox. Bad news may be necessary, but that does not mean that it is welcome.

The Left Front, which is the raft on which the UPA government has been sailing for four years, decided that it would carry the news about inflation-turmoil to the closed mind into which every government retreats under pressure. The Left, which is still anxious to save the Manmohan Singh government from self-inflicted wounds, wanted to hear prescriptions. Instead, it got a sniffy sermon based on the extraordinary assertion that "political parties should not politicise the misery of the people".

Living in Delhi is sufficient to addle what little brains the Almighty has allotted to me, but I find this quite incomprehensible. If political parties do not politicise the misery, what should they politicise? What are they in politics for? To celebrate Diwali every week? Heaven knows, enough politicians do that already. Corruption is so rampant that minimal proprieties have been abandoned. One example is sufficient. The Prime Minister's Office has written eight letters between November 2007 and February 2008 to the petroleum ministry, headed by Murli Deora, demanding that gas supplies to companies owned by shipping and transport minister T.R. Baalu's family be expedited. Questions arise: for starters, it would be nice to know how many letters the Prime Minister's Office has written to finance minister P. Chidambaram demanding that inflation be brought under control. But of course the Prime Minister believes that inflation cannot bring down his government, while the DMK can, and therefore its ministers must be appeased.

More interesting: why does it need eight letters on the same subject? The PMO contains the most powerful bureaucrats in the country, backed by the authority of the Prime Minister. No letter can leave the PMO without the PM's personal sanction even if he does not sign the missive himself. Murli Deora is not famous for being subversive, or revolutionary. Why would he need to be told eight times? There can be only one reason: because the PMO's directive demanded that the petroleum ministry flout a rule in order to help the family of a fellow Cabinet minister. The sheer persistence — eight letters in four month — tells its own story.

If only such persistence had been shown, and during the same period, in the effort to curb inflation, the Left might have not needed to remind the government that the Finance Bill had still not been passed, and it could not be passed without the Left's support.

But at least the Prime Minister's formulation recognises that the people are indeed miserable. And when they are miserable it is hardly surprising that they tend to vote against those who have made them miserable. The Congress did have an opportunity in Karnataka to recover in the coming Assembly elections, but inflation seems to have punctured its chances.

Here is a fact of life that Prime Minister Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi, his mentor, may want to remember: it is the people who politicise misery when they convert their anger into a vote.

Which brings us to the second danger in the career of a politician. This is visited upon the more fortunate, for only someone who has been permitted to roar as a lion can be castrated into bleating like a scapegoat. You can't make a scapegoat out of a goat, can you?

When the political price of inflation becomes even more evident, there will be clamour within Congress ranks for a public sacrifice. There is already talk that this sacrificial lamb, or goat, will be finance minister Chidambaram. Since no Prime Minister offers his own head as sacrifice, Dr Manmohan Singh will gracefully step aside so that the chap down the pecking order can take the hit.

It is difficult for finance ministers to last the course; the portfolio is simply too demanding. By such norms Chidambaram has done better than most. He can be pleased at the fact that he has presented every Budget since the UPA came to power, and even if he ends up on the political platter his successor will inherit all the problems without the satisfaction of delivering the annual Budget in February. By then the general elections will be upon us, even if they are not brought forward.

But what he should be angry about is that it will be his head on the platter when the responsibility for inflation is not his alone, even among his peers. He might be particularly irritated by the fact that no one is raising a finger at his bete noire, Kamal Nath, for instance (the two ministers have been sparring with less courtesy than wrestlers in Haryana). One factor in the rise of steel prices is because Kamal Nath has pushed the export of iron ore at virtually any cost, both to the exchequer and the environment, and even now refuses to increase export duties. Or Chidambaram might legitimately ask why the DMK ministers, who are the well-heeled guardians and dons of the cement industry in Tamil Nadu, do not get blamed when cement prices rise.

There has always been a disconnect between the misery of the people and the joy of the winners in the 9% growth lottery, as the BJP-led NDA discovered to its horror in the last general election, and as the present government could find out in the next election. As someone archly remarked, India has 9% growth for 9% of its people. Unfortunately for the political and business elite, India has 100% democracy for 100% of its people.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Inflated Egos

Byline by M J Akbar: Inflated Egos

On 16 April finance minister Chidambaram announced that action would be taken against cement and steel cartels. Were those cartels formed over lulnch that day, forcing the finance minister to leap into action immediately? These cartels have been in business for many months. Prices have been rising for on an incremental basis for a while. Why didn't cartels attract the attention of the finance minister before 16 April?

Is inflation some kind of a sudden plague, which hits without warning, spreads contagious havoc for a while and then disappears as mysteriously as it came? Finance ministers would love such an explanation, wouldn't they? Government propagandists could command a high premium from their masters if they managed to sell such a myth. Unhappily for governments, and fortunately for mere mortals, the voter is not gullible.

Inflation is an interesting phenomenon. It is a consequence of decisions not taken, as much as decisions taken.

A simple analysis of statements made in Parliament during the debate on inflation by finance minister P. Chidambaram and cricket minister Sharad Pawar (who also looks after agriculture when he gets time from running the Board for the Control of Cricket in India) will indicate what I mean.

The most startling analysis of basic causes was made by Pawar when he pointed out that the poor had acquired more liquidity, were therefore buying more food, and this, in conjunction with a change in dietary habits was pushing up food prices.

Well, that's it then. All you have to do is tell the poor to behave. They should remain semi-starved, as they have been for thousands of years, so that the middle class and rich can buy food at acceptable prices.

The poor, Mr Cricket Minister, are not fools: they do not think that any government can suddenly change their diet from bajra roti and dal into pilao. Even a government that pompously claims to belong to aam aadmi, or the ordinary people, does not raise hopes among ordinary people. Life has taught them to be realists. The poor do not expect pilao, but they do believe that if they began life with just two rotis for a meal they have a right to three rotis after a while. Is that too much? The insensitivity of Pawar's statement did not seem to upset anyone in the political class, proving how insensitive everyone has become.

The point is more moot. When did the shift in dietary patterns – as for instance, the rising demand for wheat in traditionally rice-eating South – take place? On the morning of the debate in Parliament? This change in food habits has been a slow turn, years in the making, and the agriculture ministry has been studying this pattern for a long while. So what did the agriculture minister do about it? Nothing. Did he encourage a shift in crop production through, for instance, incentives to ensure that India did not face a wheat shortage? Here is a consequence of decisions not taken.

There is a further twist to the story. We underestimate the role of corruption in inflation. There was a wheat shortage earlier. When did Sharad Pawar step in to import? Not when world prices were low, but when prices had peaked and you had no option but to buy at available rates. The importer of that wheat on behalf of Sharad Pawar is probably flying around in the private jet. A check might unearth some interesting details.

On 16 April finance minister Chidambaram announced that action would be taken against cement and steel cartels. Were those cartels formed over lulnch that day, forcing the finance minister to leap into action immediately? These cartels have been in business for many months. Prices have been rising for on an incremental basis for a while. Why didn't cartels attract the attention of the finance minister before 16 April?

On the same day the government announced it would import one million tonnes of edible oil. Had prices of edible oil begun rising at the stroke of the midnight hour on 16 April? Why did the Honourable Minister suddenly wake up before a debate in Parliament? As long as prices only threatened the livelihood of the poor, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh did nothing. When prices began to threaten the life of the government, there was a flurry of activity.

The government of Dr Manmohan Singh is guilty of collusion in inflation.

The economic principle that has driven this government is the oft-repeated "trickle-down theory", a favourite of World Bankers infesting this administration. Every economic phrase has a human meaning. This particular phrase means that the government knew that there would be a waterfall for the few at the top floating in swimming pools, and only a trickle would reach those dying of thirst at the bottom. Its attention has always been focused on the management of the waterfall.

We should have expected this, but we do not have a memory. What was the rate of inflation during the five years that Dr Singh was finance minister under Narasimha Rao? In 1991-92 inflation was 13.7%, and these are the figures for the subsequent years of his finance ministership: 10.1%, 8.4%, 12.5%, 8.1%.

There is a correlation between inflation and political instability. Food prices are not the only factor, but they are a principal reason because food security is an important basis of collective national confidence. The government of Dr Singh, Chidambaram and Pawar believed that food security could be left to market forces. Market forces have now begun to bleed this government.

Inflation during the Jawharlal Nehru decade, between 1951-52 to 1960-61, was 1.8%. That was undeniably the most stable period of the last sixty years. Inflation averaged 6.3% in the Sixties, and the Congress was swept out of power in the states between Punjab and Bengal. It barely managed to survive at the Centre in the 1967 general elections. Inflation rose to 10.3% during the Seventies; the turmoil was as high as inflation. Two national governments were voted out of office. Inflation dropped to 7.2% in the Eighties and 7.8% in the Nineties, but the people still considered it too high and the turnover of governments was high. Calm returned when inflation was reduced to less than five percent in the first half of the new century, despite a serious drought for one year. Anything above five per cent creates political tremors.

Dr Manmohan Singh's five years as finance minister reduced the Congress Party from about 240 seats in the Lok Sabha to 145 seats. At the same rate of attrition his five years as Prime Minister could take the Congress to below a hundred seats.

Dr Manmohan Singh's government is so dazzled by market forces that even now it is reluctant to ban futures trading in agricultural products. Let me quote an American columnist, William Pfaff. He was not writing in The Theory and Practice of Soviet Marxism but in the distinctly American International Herald Tribune [Speculators and soaring food prices, 17 April 2008]: "Speculative purchases have no other purpose that to make money for the speculators, who hold their contracts to drive up current prices with the intention not of selling the commodities on the real future market, but of unloading their holdings onto an artificially inflated market, at the expense of the ultimate consumer…It is astonishing in the present situation that the international financial institutions and government regulators have done little to control or banish this parasitical and antisocial practice. The myth of the benevolent and ultimately impartial market prevails against all contrary evidence."

Dr Manmohan Singh has been kept out of the politics of power since he became Prime Minister, but the administration of power has been his responsibility. If he had spent even half the time examining the earth beneath his feet as he did staring transfixed at a nuclear deal with George Bush, he would have seen that angel of death known as inflation approaching many months ago. There was so much hope when Dr Singh became Prime Minister. He will now be remembered for a nuclear deal that was waylaid by allies, and an economic policy that was shredded by the arrogance of ministers and the complacency of servitors.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Maya and Reality

Byline by M J Akbar : Maya and Reality

Sonia Gandhi has been completely unable to stem the Mayawati tide, being swamped in Uttar Pradesh and driven out by parallel currents in states like Gujarat. She has now thrown Rahul Gandhi into this churn. His visit to a Dalit home on Mayawati's base was a direct challenge. This by itself is unexceptional. But after over four years of power, and single-point leadership, the Congress can no longer distinguish between an adversary and an enemy.

The good news for the Sonia Gandhi Congress is that Rahul Gandhi is finally beginning to irritate someone. The bad news is that he has irritated Mayawati, the increasingly iconic leader of India's Dalits.

Mayawati has achieved something unprecedented in the Dalit experience. She has come to power on her own terms. Her mentor, Kanshi Ram, indisputably paved the way, but in historical terms, he was only the herald of this extraordinary seismic shift in the demographics of Indian politics. Someone still had to deliver on the prophecy. Mayawati has both outpaced her mentor and risen to a higher trajectory: to push the metaphor, she has travelled both horizontally and vertically on the same momentum, which is quite unique political yoga. To claim power is a dream. To achieve it is to rewrite history. And to do so on your own terms is a glittering embellishment to an already impressive chapter.

The clash between Congress and Mayawati was perhaps inevitable, since both claim the same electoral turf. Sonia Gandhi has been completely unable to stem the Mayawati tide, being swamped in Uttar Pradesh and driven out by parallel currents in states like Gujarat. She has now thrown Rahul Gandhi into this churn. His visit to a Dalit home on Mayawati's base was a direct challenge. This by itself is unexceptional. But after over four years of power, and single-point leadership, the Congress can no longer distinguish between an adversary and an enemy. It has created a sub-culture of us-versus-them, and secret hit lists, giving a bitter edge to the normal tensions of political life. One can see the vapour rising in language, and the rancour rising in body language.

Rahul Gandhi has begun the Congress campaign for the next general election, and opted for a personal variation of what might be called the Indira Gandhi model. This was best exemplified by a decision Mrs Gandhi made during the bleak years of Janata Party rule, after the end of the Emergency in 1977 and the defeat of the Congress in that year's election. An incident took place in a remote village in Bihar, where Dalits were victims of upper caste hostility and violence. Mrs Gandhi decided to go there, and when no other means of transport was available for the last mile, she got on to an elephant. That gesture was the alchemy that transformed the fortunes of a depressed and divided Congress. A second incident, during which she squatted down and offered arrest when the Janata began to pursue her with expected, but unacceptable, animosity, offered an equally dramatic image to photographers. This is the parallel that Rahul Gandhi seeks to draw when he turns up "unexpectedly" in tribal homes in Orissa, or a Dalit village in Uttar Pradesh; or when Mrs Sonia Gandhi gallantly offers to send her son and heir to jail for a day or two to prove his heroic credentials in the struggle against Mayawati. But there are significant differences between 1978 and 2008.

To begin with, in 1978, Indira Gandhi was the only leader and Congress the only party that identified itself with the Dalit cause. The Janata government was a coalition of middle and upper caste power-brokers that paid occasional lip service to the Dalits, but not much more. The Janata lost a glorious opportunity to shift the demographic and political equations of the country when it refused to make the pre-eminent Dalit leader of the time, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Prime Minister after the elections and chose the anaemic Morarji Desai instead.

In 2008, Mayawati is the lodestar of the Dalits, the Indira Gandhi of her community. Nor is she a Brahmin with sympathy for the downtrodden; she is a Dalit herself, part of the poverty and the humiliation of thousands of years, with a ferocious sense of identity with her people. Jagjivan Ram sought change through conciliation; Mayawati seeks change through confrontation. Dalits feel empowered now; they felt helpless when Indira Gandhi was on her way to Bihar. 1978 was the season of bitter fruit; 2008 is the season of long-denied apples.

Mayawati's response to Rahul Gandhi's politicking is an indication of the new ferocity. Rahul Gandhi wants votes for himself; Mayawati wants a new horizon for herself and her community. When she invoked the images of soap and incense, and charged that the likes of Rahul Gandhi privately purified themselves after publicly associating with Dalits, she was arousing passions around the two great crimes against Dalits, poverty and untouchability. She was also hinting at a third crime, a modern one, induced by democracy — of hypocrisy. This was not a speech put together by some extra-clever boys around a computer; she etched those images into the speech herself. By throwing "foreign" into the mix, she raised the ante to the foreign origins of Sonia Gandhi and the international lifestyle of Rahul Gandhi. Mayawati's message was carried by television and print across India.

The genteel might not consider Mayawati very gentle but the genteel are heavily outnumbered in Indian democracy. A friend watched this speech in his office, in the company of his colleagues. When an executive expressed his disapproval, a bearer said simply, "This is what has made Mayawati chief minister, and this is what will make her Prime Minister".

I would change "will" to "could" but otherwise the statement stands on merit.

What the Congress leadership does not understand is that dynasty cannot offer itself as an alternative to a genuine mass leader. The old Congress won the sympathy of Dalits because it encouraged Dalit leaders to rise in the party; today, only the dynasty has the right to represent every community in the country. Doesn't work in a maturing democracy.

The 5 April issue of the Economist makes the perceptive point that democracy does not necessarily throw up clean results: "...of 21 countries which have elected new governments in the past four months, the result of the vote itself was less than decisive in at least six. The number seems to be rising".

This pattern came into play in India after 1989, when Vishwanath Pratap Singh formed a minority government after an indecisive result. There has been no majority government in 18 years through five general elections. Government are now formed by post-poll rather than pre-poll alliances. The need for a stable government, or perhaps any government at all, trumps other differences. Numbers determine the level of power a leader exercises within a coalition. In Germany, Angela Merkel became Chancellor at the head of a grand coalition between long-standing adversaries because she got one seat more than her opponents. The power of one has rarely been higher. Such a syndrome in India opens the field for Mayawati, as well as others.

The Congress is desperately hoping that Mayawati fails, or collapses. Its wish has some probability on its side. Against such a probability, Mayawati is bolstered by a possibility.

Mayawati is not the pretty or handsome heir of a stagnant dynasty. She is monarch of a kingdom she has won on the field of battle. She believes that her kingdom can expand into an empire. This may happen; it may not. But remember this: a democracy encourages flexible, fluid boundaries. Some things are probable, but everything is possible.

This Maya is no illusion.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

A Bali Diary

Byline by M J Akbar : A Bali Diary

The rich are different from you and me; they have the same airport. The first casualty of globalisation is identity. Every airport in the developed, or wannabe -developed, world looks the same: a confusion of corridors, conveyer belts, junk shops and a profusion of winding queues at immigration. You can recognise a nation from the look in the queues. There is faintly-hidden arrogance on the faces of officials in receiving countries, and barely-disguised relief in the manner of passengers chasing some better horizon than their native land can provide. Delhi is somewhere in the middle, there is both ebb and flow. The one thing in common between ebb and flow is torture. Signs advertise that the airport, currently in a compete mess, is on its way to becoming world class. This is apparently considered good news by the developer and presumably the civil aviation ministry. We will know what they mean when we finally see what we get; in the meantime don't raise your hopes too high.

Denpasar airport, in Bali, the exotic Hindu island on the southern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, is a gateway to the lost world of charm, grace and the sheer opulence of an environment lush with rain, paddy and forest. There is nothing artificial about the welcome in the Balinese smile, which begins in the eyes and spreads gently across the face. The airport is designed like a home, airy, free, spacious, sunlit.

It is an illusion of course but you get the sense that there are no walls in Bali. The architecture of wood breathes with the quiet harmony of nature. The doors are exquisitely carved, but they seem designed to remain open rather than slam shut. Stone comes to life in brilliant statuary, as deities and demons from a rich and vibrant belief system that ill-deserves the nomenclature of mythology. Epic scenes from the Mahabharata are carved high into the air at intersections of the road that takes us from Denpasar to the rain forest and Ayung river valley of Ubud. Lord Krishna and Arjuna, or Arjana as it is pronounced here, on the battlefield at Kurukshetra are favourites but there is a splendid variety from other events of the great epic. The genius of this art also lies in its anonymity. This is the work of a people and their faith, not an artist and his ego.

The drive to the Alila Ubud hotel is a journey through many pasts. Language is a primary vehicle of multiple identities. One expects a nameplate like Pt. Cerana Citra Kartika, or a Krisna Yuva Dana, a Bhakti Shop or a Nira Gallery. But there is also an advertisement for an Amerikan Pillo. The bus stop is a page from the chapter on European colonisation. It is called 'Halte Pesanggeran'. Tourism flows through the sinews of the Bali economy. The street is lined with countless shops churning out Buddhas and gods that will seem fashionably antique in some western drawing room. The West begins next door, in Australia. The printed advice we receive at the hotel is frank. Never buy anything without haggling. All prices should come down by thirty to forty per cent. But such candour destroys the charm of haggling. There is no sense of victory when you know that prices have been marked up already to account for the haggle. A shopkeeper must look as dejected and defeated as a Lebanese trader who has sold a magic carpet at a plastic price. The Balinese look too happy.The afternoon darkens suddenly as I check in. Lightning splits the clouds and a thunderclap from the pages of a Somerset Maugham novel shakes the skies. Rain pours down in a furious rush; the intensity would have left any city flooded but the water slips down the terraces of the mountainside. The shower stops, but is replaced by a thin invisible spray that keeps you cool without leaving you wet. Organisers of conferences in Bali tend to take a precaution against the rain becoming too disruptive. The price for a puja to appease the rain gods is forty two dollars.

There is prasad everywhere. Deities do not live only in temples, but on walls, parapets, even within conference halls. Fruit is left in a small leaf bowl, presumably after a quick puja, perhaps for decorative effect, perhaps in memory of the prayer, in front of the idol. Faith, and its symbols, are a constant assertion, subtly, not aggressively. A taxi driver was rather more regretful than he might have been elsewhere after hitting a buffalo: he had to pay atonement
expenses for three pujas at three temples before the Brahmins exonerated his sin. The challenge to ritual comes, one understands, not from the non-Hindu presence but from Indian sects like the Krishna Bhakts and the Brahma Kumaris who come here and advocate a more spartan form of Hinduism. It would be a tragedy if the Balinese began to conform. The world comes to Bali precisely because Bali refuses to go to the world.

If you need to discuss the role of Islam in multicultural Asia, where better than in Bali? We are guests of the Asia Society, the highly esteemed New York-based intellectual powerhouse. Both Richard Holbrooke, its chairman, and Vishakha Desai, its president, are present to lead the discussion. Vishakha has enough power in her drive to make academics quiver and mere mortals quail. The conference is conducted under Chatham House rules, which means that we cannot report or quote from the proceedings without the specific permission of the speaker. I hope I break no rules when I convey that there was (by and large) recognition of the damage done by the rhetoric and myopia of George Bush. But we were a liberal group, which did not make us homogenous but certainly persuaded us that a fresh future could only rest on a concept that we
in India have made a cornerstone of our political philosophy: tolerance of diversity, respect for the difference and equality for all.

Question from the Olde Curiosity Shoppe: why do so many panelists at any conference, whether in Bali or Timbuktoo, want to make just three points? Making just one point, which is really the ideal, would seem as if you had nothing to say. Two points might suggest that you had not thought through your views. And four of course would be too excessive for the audience, which would switch from slumber to sleep. So the magic number is three: remember that when you are invited to confer at any conference.