Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kaun Banega PM? Watch on May 16

Kaun Banega PM? Watch on May 16
By M J Akbar

Sharad Pawar, it has been suggested, has thrown a cat among the pigeons by opening a can of prime ministers. He may have done something more worrisome than that. He may have thrown a pigeon among the cats.

Parties separated by geography, history, personality and ideology (or the lack of it) seem agreed on only one thing: that Manmohan Singh has had his moment. The NDA view is explicable; it has its own candidate in L K Advani. But why do politicians who have served in Singh’s cabinet for the last five years believe that they should get the job for the next five?

Marxists dislike Singh with exactly the same fervor that Singh dislikes Marx. The Left has a second reason for demanding a new order, which has not been widely recognized, far less appreciated. The Congress has accepted all conditions laid down by allies in order to forge anti-Left unity in Bengal and Kerala. But it refused to be equally accommodating to allies in key states where such unity could have hurt the BJP, whether in Jharkhand, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. The Left sees a double game behind the Congress rhetoric.

The only nationally-known politician who has not cast an eye on Singh’s job is Karunanidhi, possibly because he can foresee the results of Tamil Nadu. Even the Congress is ambivalent. On the record, Singh remains the once-and-future PM. In its ads, the transition has taken place from Rajiv Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi.

In theory, the bidders in this auction house cannot be faulted. The prime minister is only the first among equals in a democracy, hence there is merit in the argument of meritocracy. But there has been a caste system in the UPA, with the Congress using its Brahmin status to seize all the major offices of state, and all the important instruments of state authority. Pawar, who made a serious bid to become Congress prime minister in 1991, was sent to the comparative wasteland of agriculture. The price of 58 months of silence is two months of questions.

Ambition is not restricted to one party. It is hardly a secret that the most vociferous defender of the government in this campaign, Pranab Mukherjee, would not mind becoming prime minister himself. If Congress numbers are fewer than its well-paid pollsters predict, Mukherjee’s name will be mentioned by allies, even if it is eventually rejected by his own party. This is why he plays word-games on whether he has an alliance with Mamata Banerjee or a seat-arrangement. The implication is that an alliance is a marriage while a seat-arrangement is flirtation. One of the many difficulties facing the next version of the UPA is that the Left will not support a government with Mamata in it, and vice versa. It was all so much easier when Mamata was such a good friend of the BJP. Her conversion to secularism is terribly inconvenient.

The path of ambition is paved with more than one theory. The simple one is the purchasing power of numbers. You have to bring MPs to the bargaining table if you want to sustain your claim. People underestimate Sharad Pawar when they think his numbers are only restricted to Maharashtra. He has received verbal assurances from other parties, some of which may even be sincere. But each assurance is subject to post-poll reality. Naveen Patnaik may want Pawar as PM, but that will be a secondary concern if he cannot get a majority in the Orissa Assembly. He will have to worry about who, between BJP and Congress, will want him as chief minister. A quid pro quo will be attached to the answer.

The second theory is more piquant. It believes in survival of the weakest. This least-resistance model has been tried and tested on Inder Gujral and H D Deve Gowda in the early days of the coalition era. It is a variation of the old hare-and-tortoise fable, in which the backrunner will be the only person in the race when the frontrunners have cancelled themselves out. In this scenario, a powerful personality will be perceived as too much of a threat to one or more of the partners, leaving Mr Humble Smiley the eventual winner.

But such tortoises are heroes of fables. Every contender has a right to dream till 8am on May 16. That is the hour at which the wake-up call will sound.

Appeared in Times of India - April 26, 2009

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Array and disarray in the Left

Array and disarray in the Left
M.J. Akbar

Leaders come in two cultures. One sort of leader accepts the necessity of accountability in public life. This group is in a minority. The majority follows a law, which their followers know only too well: “If we win, I get the credit; if we lose, you get the blame”.

It is ironic that the best democrats in Indian democracy are the Marxists, whose ideology demands class war rather than the more genteel business of planting your finger on a symbol. They treat their party as an institution, not an individual’s or family’s private property.

Decisions are made through a collective system, not sent to a single individual for a royal assent or dissent. Responsibility is assigned to individuals, and individuals are stripped [as far as is humanly possible] of their ego. This is perhaps why ex-Marxists become so egotistic; all those decades of suppressed ego is suddenly let loose upon the world. There are rewards for success, even when this leads to stagnation. During 33 years of Marxist rule in Bengal there have been only two Chief Ministers, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadev Bhattacharya. Basu left because of age; he was not pushed out. No one is pushed out. More remarkably, there have been only two finance ministers, Dr Ashok Mitra and Ashim Dasgupta. Dr Mitra resigned on an issue of principle, otherwise he might have retired only along with his friend, Jyoti Basu, once again because of age. If you win elections you can do no wrong.

And that is what the problem might be in 2009. Buddhadev Bhattacharya could lead the Left in Bengal to its first major setback in three decades.

The buzz in Kolkata has already moved towards post-modern: Bhattacharya has decided to resign if he cannot ensure 25 seats out of 42 for his side. How do the Kolkata addawallahs know? Political information is always porous. The man at the top of the pyramid has merely to make an observation to a confidant or two; the latter discuss the possibility with their close comrades, and word rolls down along the sides of the pyramid to reach the dabblers and journalists on the lower ledges.

There are at least three distinctive aspects of this story.

First, a Chief Minister is planning to take responsibility for failure. Politicians across the country will do badly; after all, someone has to lose for another to win. Every other politician is thinking deep thoughts on how to cling on despite defeat. This of course does not apply to dynasts, who will look for generals to hang.

Second, 25 seats out of 42 is still a clear majority. But the Left has set the bar high and will not lower it.

Third, by levelling the bar at 25, the Left has already psychologically conceded 17 seats to the Trinamool-Congress combine. Even at the height of the Congress wave following the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Left had conceded fewer seats.

There are two reasons for this. The Muslim vote, estimated to be over 35%, has switched away in large numbers. And there is no split in the anti-Left vote after Congress accepted the slightly humiliating terms that Mamata Banerjee offered during seat-sharing talks. The Marxists tried, with Pranab Mukherjee’s help, to sabotage this, but final orders came from Mrs Sonia Gandhi in Delhi and it went ahead. The Congress, which had six MPs in the last Lok Sabha, accepted only 16 seats out of 42. Mamata, who had only one, catapulted to 28.

The Left read a clear message in this decision. The Congress was treating the Left, rather than the BJP, as its principal enemy in this general election. How? Because in the states where an alliance would have hurt the BJP, like Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress rejected an alliance with leaders who could have helped defeat the BJP, like Shibu Soren, Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Mulayam Singh Yadav. The distribution of seats in Jharkhand had even been announced, but the arrangement collapsed suddenly, and inexplicably, at the last minute. As a consequence, the BJP will pick up vital extra seats in a state where it was comprehensively defeated five years ago.

The Marxists do not consider this accidental. They believe this to be part of a careful Congress strategy to marginalise the Left. There is nothing personal or sentimental about their response. They will not permit Congress to lead another Government because they are convinced that the Congress will use every tactic, political and administrative, behind a screen of conciliatory words, to pursue the same objective if it returns to Government. They know it is a battle of survival and they intend to survive.

They can also sense an opportunity to do unto Congress precisely what Congress did unto them: use power, with Congress support in Parliament, to target policies which the Congress has made part of its core personality, economic reform and the Indo-US nuclear deal. That is the dilemma which the Congress faces. Can it support a Government with a Marxist Foreign Minister who announces an abrogation of the nuclear deal? Surely Dr Manmohan Singh would never find the flexibility to support a Government in Parliament that sabotaged his main achievement. What would the Congress do in such circumstances? It is not a question of swallowing one’s pride. It would be political suicide.

Nor should anyone believe that Marxists would compromise in order to save a non-Congress, non-BJP patchwork Government. They have an agenda, which is in the public domain. They will implement it. The CPI[M] is not going to enter the history books — this is the first time they will join a Government in Delhi, if the chance arises — as having betrayed its core commitment, anti-imperialism, in order to stick to office. This is high on its list of campaign themes, as anyone interested in Bengal and Kerala will know.

The Left will not do well. It will be mowed down in both Kerala and Bengal, but it will still have around 40 seats in the next Parliament. Both Sharad Pawar and Dr Manmohan Singh acknowledge, the first happily and the second reluctantly, that a non-BJP Government is impossible without the support of the Left. Curiously, the Left, with 60 MPs, may have been less relevant to a Government’s survival in 2004 than it could be with 35 or 40 in 2009.

It would be paradoxical, would it not, if Prakash Karat were being sworn in as Foreign Minister in Delhi and Buddhadev Bhattacharya were submitting his resignation in Kolkata? But stranger things have happened.

Let me suggest one of them. If the BJP becomes the single largest party, you would be surprised by the number of small parties which suddenly discover the virtues of stability at a moment of economic crisis. The Left will be actually relieved: it can be where it is happiest — in the Opposition.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Feel of the Election Pulse


The really swish thing to do for visiting journalists is report Patna by night. No, the story isn’t Patna’s radical transformation into Beirut or Paris or even into the latest version of Baghdad, where the icons of modern civilization, nightclubs and bars, now jostle for attention with American soldiers and native bombs. Patna is a staid and quite conservative city, whose worst vice is the blitzkrieg of mosquitoes that descend upon the visitor at sundown with unerring inevitability. (The relationship between mosquitoes and the local administration is one of mutual respect: they leave each other alone.) The done thing is to sear notepads with observations and conversations on change, report the tinkle of rickshaws through city streets as night cools the city, and tape the guffaw of after-dinner chatter at the paanshop. Five years ago, when Lalu Yadav was famous merely for being a Chief Minister of Bihar rather than a management guru of Harvard, voices sank to a whisper at night as fear of kidnapping emptied Patna’s streets. Normalcy, that collection of minor amusements and sedate details of daily existence, is the big story of this Bihar election. The JD(U)-BJP alliance led by Nitish Kumar is ahead in the battle because the government has restored Patna to the comforting sphere of the ordinary after its extraordinary collapse of confidence during the Lalu regime.


A hot lively wind was blowing through the bright dust-flecked afternoon when I landed. This is the famous north Indian luh, which seems to boil the body beneath the skin. We drove out of the city, southwards, through the second Lok Sabha constituency of the capital, Patliputra. So far, only one of the city’s two seats, Patna Sahib, was worth a photographer’s attention. Making predictions is always a slippery business, but the consensus is that the contest between Shatrughan Sinha and Shekhar Suman is over bar the voting. Sinha is an authentic star, Suman has the look, feel and language of an also-ran. Sinha has the combined wind of a working alliance behind him. The confidence level of a campaign is always evident from the behaviour of its campaign. My trusted informant was my driver, who had done four days of duty for Suman Shekhar. Laws of libel prevent this item of an election diary from being more comprehensive. In comparison, the gentle manners and soft demeanor of Shatrughan’s wife, Poonam, who is in Patna Sahib while her husband tries to stoke his party’s fire across the country, evoke admiration. “This is Patna,” says my driver. “I may be in the front of this car and you at the back, but you have to treat me with dignity. I do a much more honest job than the politicians, don’t I?” Right, on all counts.


The second Patna seat was fated for an anonymous destiny until 16 April, when polling ended in Chapra-Saran, where Lalu Yadav was given a sharp reminder of the temperamental nature of democracy. As we have noted, predictions are perilous, but a candidate gets some hint of the news in his gut during the evening’s post mortem. If the gut begins to feel hollow, it’s bad news. The first clue comes from those manning the polling booths. Party volunteers read the telltale signs as voters arrive and depart. An effective indication of allegiance is which party’s workers a voter has sought assistance from. Unwilling to be messengers of disaster, the volunteers feed a gradual drip of alibis during the conversation. No one can gauge the precise numbers, but experienced politicians know instinctively when they need to take out an insurance policy. Lalu Yadav was lucky, since the spread of elections across three phases in Bihar gave him just enough time to bid for a second constituency. He chose Patliputra not because of its urban segment, but because its rural hinterland is a Yadav stronghold.

Warning: It would be a mistake to write off Lalu. News of his setback in Chapra could instigate a Yadav reaction in his favour. Lalu altered the momentum of his campaign as well after the first phase, shifting gear to attack the Congress as a co-accused in the demolition of the Babri mosque because he discovered that the Congress, while unable to find support from any other community, was attracting the Muslim vote that would have consolidated behind Lalu’s lantern. There is nothing sentimental about an Indian election.


Our politics does not function with the easy split-and-revive spirit of an amoeba. We talk glibly about UPA partners regrouping effortlessly after the polls. Politics is a human endeavor. Candidates fight elections with a ferocity that non-participants can barely envisage. This ferocity leaves scars. Scars can bleed. Lalu’s outburst against Congress may have been festering for a bit, but the explosion came when Congress put up a last-minute candidate in his second constituency that would do maximum damage to his chances. That was personal.

The “Third Front” and the “Fourth Front” may not agree on much, but they seem to be suggesting that even if they get together to patch a post-poll alliance, they will not accept a Congress Prime Minister. The Left is particularly bitter about Dr Manmohan Singh, who has recently begun to find virtues in those he scorned not too long ago. Precisely one year ago Dr Singh told the country, from the floor of the Lok Sabha, during the debate on the nuclear deal, how delighted he was to say to be rid of the Left, which had apparently treated him like bonded labour. I suppose it is a reasonable trade-off: no harm in returning to bonded labour if the Prime Ministership comes along with it. But Marxist politburos have longer memories than Congress Prime Ministers.


Much merriment among tense politicians desperate for some light relief over a district magistrate’s decision to arrest and jail an elephant in Uttar Pradesh. Reason? The elephant is Mayawati’s election symbol. Why the jollity in Bihar? Lalu’s symbol is a lantern, a more reliable source of light in many parts of Bihar than the tepid electricity that filters through the faltering grid. A wit wondered what the election commission proposed to do with everyone’s hands on the day of the vote: a hand, after all, is the Congress symbol.

- In Mail Today

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Imagine a day of life in the Politician's life

Byline by M J Akbar: Imagine a day of life in the Politician's life

Isn’t it extraordinary that the country with the largest Hindu population is unaware of the most remarkable holiday in Hinduism? The largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, declares a national holiday each year — this year, on March 26 — to mark Hindu-majority Bali’s day of silence, Hari Raya Nyepi Tahun Baru. This beautiful concept has been absorbed into the syncretic Muslim-Hindu culture of that unique nation.

We Indians are not averse to holidays, so we must be averse to silence. Since Hinduism went from India to Indonesia, the concept of Nyepi travelled the same route. Silence has been mislaid in the land of its origin.

The father of modern India, who could never resist the temptation of turning a virtue into a discipline, gave his voice a day off every week. Mahatma Gandhi would keep maun every Monday. If he had a meeting he could not avoid, say with a toff like a Viceroy, on a Monday, he would write down his answers on chits of paper and pass them on. It must have been a satisfying experience for the Lords of the Raj, because the British upper classes value eccentricity as a high art form.

One suspects that Gandhi had more than one reason for his wordless Mondays. One of the most strenuous demands on anyone in Indian public life is the pressure on vocal chords. In the case of Gandhi, it was an instance of unremitting pressure on divine vocal chords. People expected words of pure wisdom to flow each time he opened his mouth. What a relief, then, to take a day off from wisdom and words.

Gandhi surely had a supplementary use for maun. His closest moral relationship was to his conscience, and he used to be in continuous dialogue with his ‘‘inner voice’’. Every Monday he enjoyed the luxury of this conversation without interruption from the stream of supplicants looking for solutions to problems that should never have arisen. Gandhi’s ‘‘inner voice’’, which he called a ‘‘dictator’’, played a significant part in our history. Whenever he ran out of persuasive arguments to rationalize a decision, he turned to his conscience as the ultimate arbiter. Having made him their Mahatma, the others were duly stumped. If you begin to question the conscience of a great soul, then what is left of its mystique?

Such questions, even when leavened with mild levels of cynicism, are irrelevant today. Conscience is no longer a participant in politics. The only modern politician who attempted a weekly holiday for his voice, albeit intermittently, was the charming, urbane Ramakrishna Hegde: what a prime minister he would have made!

Since no government of India would dare risk its tenuous hold on popularity by celebrating silence, perhaps the Election Commission could impose the spirit of Nyepi on our democratic process. It should order a day of silence every week during polling season. Could you imagine the bliss of 24 hours without the prattle of commentators, the flinging dung of accusation and response, the flabby and often tired arguments of spokesmen irritated by the pesky demands of television but fated by their karma to become familiar to millions who can vaguely recall what they look like but have no idea what they said?

There is one potential danger, though: the voter might get confused. So far silence has been the voter’s prerogative, and he has become a master at the art, honing its many nuances to brilliant effect. This is why no one really knows what the outcome of an election will be. A candidate might sense the feel on the ground, but no candidate can afford to believe that he does not have support, or the psychology of defeat will ruin him long before the voter does.

Voters enjoy their right to silence, and protect it with great care from the intrusive opinion-pollwallahs who arrive with question board and notepad to photograph his mind. His expertise in posing for a false photograph, creating an image three frames away from reality, is becoming legendary. The honour of the last word goes to that splendid Malayali warhorse, Karnunakaran, who has been in politics for six decades. When asked who would win, he answered, ‘‘In every constituency whoever gets the most votes will win.’’ Touche, maestro!

On Nyepi in Bali a priest (sengguhu) exorcises an evil force (bhuta) from the island. Come to think of it, that is what the electorate does as well.

Appeared in Times of India - April 19, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

There is nothing called a dull election

Byline by M J Akbar: There is nothing called a dull election

The gem dropped in the middle of a convivial lunch when my friend, apropos of nothing, said: “There is some good news and there is some bad news. The good news is that there is no bad news.”

It has become so fashionable to be mournful about India that we frame current events in the opposite formulation: “There is good news and there is bad news. The bad news is that there is no good news.” My apologies to the professional pessimists, but every Indian election persuades me to remain an optimist. Around half a billion people, spread across a complex ethnic range, from every segment of wealth and poverty, vote to hold authority accountable, and their collective is distilled into the next government: as modern miracles go, this is top of the class.

For me the first day of the Great Indian Poll, henceforth to be known simply as GIP, was good news. From Kerala to Bihar, and through the Red Corridor (as the south-to-north Naxalite belt is now called) the voter challenged lacklustre politics and an overenthusiastic sun to send his and her message to the various shades of the ruling class. But there was a message as well to the insurgents. Voters refused to be intimidated by their guns and mines.

Eighteen died, including half a dozen policemen. Perhaps there would have been fewer dead policemen if the home ministry had not given instructions to them to carry only light arms. It is a bit distasteful to compare death counts, but not too long ago, in a state like Bihar alone, many dozens would die in inter-party, inter-caste and inter-ethnic violence during elections. There was a rather piquant situation at the end of polling on 16 April when Lalu Prasad Yadav, Bihar’s smiling slayer of political foes, demanded a re-poll because “Dalits” and the poor had been attacked with knives in three instances. Frankly, knives are a vast improvement on Bihar’s track record of guns as a means of coercion, but that was not the only catch in the story. It later transpired that in all three cases, Lalu’s supporters had done the attacking. Lalu’s body language was less deceptive than his language. He looked down, if not quite out.

“Extispicy” sounds like a sort of Asian nouvelle cuisine, but it is a form a divination. According to a friend who does a bit of foreseeing herself, it is “Derived from the word for entrails (exta) and the verb to look at (specto), extispicy…is the art of interpreting the entrails of sacrificial animals.” Apparently no Greek or Roman general in his senses would venture into battle without a check of the lungs, liver or intestines of a sacrificial animal. As is with so many things, the practice began in Iraq, Babylon to be precise, and travelled to the Greeks and Romans. The word ‘inaugural’, it seems, originates in the extispicy of chicken: ‘ave’ is bird, and ‘auvger’ the reader of the signs.

The entrails of the 124 seats that went to the polls in the first round lie in three regions and one section of the electorate. The three critical areas are Telangana in Andhra Pradesh, Vidarbha in Maharashtra and those sections of Assam that voted. The Congress numbers hinge on how well it can replicate its success in Andhra five years ago. All the opinion polls that give Congress in the region of 150 seats assume that it will get around 25 seats in Andhra. To reach that figure Congress has to do well in Telangana, since Rayalseema is a Chandrababu Naidu stronghold and Chiranjeevi could produce a few surprises in the coastal belt.

In Vidarbha, which has a long horizontal border with Madhya Pradesh, the BJP and Shiv Sena alliance won 10 of 11 seats in 2004, so there was a good chance of anti-incumbency bringing rewards to Congress and its ally Sharad Pawar. A reversal will dip BJP numbers, which is as much a Congress objective as increasing its own. This is one area from where Congress can offset losses incurred in other regions. In Assam the Congress took most of the seats in the last elections, but the reason why the three seats in which voting is taking place in the Northeast is important because they will indicate the way the Muslim mood is shifting, if it is shifting at all. Congress will be decimated in Assam without Muslim support, and the first indications from Assam are that Badruddin Ajmal, the successful businessman who is maverick enough to risk his finances for politics, has done very well against a heavyweight like Santosh Mohan Dev. It is impossible to predict who is going to win, but very possible to see which community is voting in which direction. Assam’s Muslims have deserted Congress for Ajmal. This will have serious implications for the party in a state that it tends to take for granted.

The news from eastern Uttar Pradesh, which also voted, is similar. In 2004 Muslims voted with passion and unity for either Congress or its allies. In this election, their vote is splintering, with the candidate rather than the party being the principal draw. In Varanasi, they have voted for Mukhtar Ansari, a man who they have not seen, for the good reason that he is in prison. Ansari is considered a criminal, but he had the right name. Elsewhere, the vote has gone to Mulayam Singh Yadav or to new parties that are unafraid to say that they will represent only the Muslim interest.

There is nothing called a dull election in India, which is why no one knows the outcome. The vote of 2009 is, as the saying goes, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The opinion polls are nothing but expensive opinions. Just check the entrails.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

There is nothing called the 'moderate Taliban'

There is nothing called the 'moderate Taliban'
By M J Akbar

If necessity is the mother of invention then politics is often the father. Barack Obama has invented a phrase that did not exist on January 20, the day he became president. Anxious to win a war through the treasury rather than the Pentagon, he has discovered something called the "moderate Taliban" in Afghanistan. Joe Biden, his vice president, has found the mathematical coordinates of this oxymoron: only 5% of the Taliban are "extremists".
Welcome to Obama's first big mistake.

The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not simply against some bearded men and beardless boys who have been turned into suicide missionaries. The critical conflict is against the ideology of a chauvinistic theocracy that seeks to remould the Muslim world into a regressive region from which it can assault every aspect of modernity, whether that be in political space or the social sphere.

Washington has a single dimension definition of "moderate": anyone who stops an active, immediate war against the US is a "moderate". Let me introduce him to a couple of "moderate Taliban". They are now world famous, having been on every national and international news channel these past few days, stars of a video clip from Swat. Two of them had pinned down a 17-year-old girl called Chand Bibi, while a third, his face shrouded, lashed her with a whip 37 times on suspicion of being seen with a man who was not her father or brother.

Obama should record the screams of Chand Bibi and play them to his daughters as the "moderate" music to which he wants to dance in his Afghan war.

These Taliban are "moderate" by the norms of the Obama Doctrine: they have come to a deal with America through Islamabad. Pakistani troops are not engaged in their medieval haven, nor are American Drones bombing their homes. All that remains, one presumes, is that they are placed on the Pentagon payroll as insurance of their ceasefire.

Perhaps, in their desperate search for moderation, Obama and Islamabad will promote the denial being manipulated into public discourse. The unbearable Swat-lashing video is now described as fake. It would be nice to know the names of the actors who played such a convincing part in the filming of this 'fake'. Chand Bibi has "denied" any such incident. Sure: but was any doctor sent to check the scars?

Such compromise with 'moderation' has also taken place next door, in Afghanistan, under the watchful eye of American ally Hamid Karzai. He has just signed a family law bill which compels Afghan women to take permission from their husbands before going to a doctor, seeking education, or getting a job. The husband has become complete master of the bedroom. Custody of children can only go to fathers or grandfathers; women have no rights. A member of Afghanistan's upper house, Senator Humaira Namati, has called this law "worse than during the Taliban (government). Anyone who spoke out was accused of being against Islam". It makes no difference to the Taliban, of course, that the Quran expressly forbids Muslim men from forcing decisions on their wives "against their will". Karzai's justification is the usual one: politics. He wanted the support of theocrats in the election scheduled for August this year. Under pressure, there is talk of a review but no one is sure what that means.

If it's democracy, it must be "moderate", right?

One can understand a post-Iraq America's reluctance towards wars that seem straight out of Kipling. But we in the region have to live with the political consequences of superpower intervention, and the casual legitimacy that Obama is offering to a destructive ideology will create blowback that spreads far beyond the geography of "Afpak".

Benazir Bhutto and the ISI did not create the Taliban in the winter of 1994 for war against America. Its purpose was to defeat fractious Afghan warlords, and establish a totalitarian regime that would equate Afghanistan's strategic interests to Pakistan's. The ISI conceived an "Afpak" long before the idea reached the outer rim of Washington's thinking. Pakistan worked assiduously to widen the Taliban's legitimacy and would have drawn America into the fold through the oil-pipeline siren song if Osama bin Laden had not blown every plan apart. In some essentials, things have not changed. Pakistan's interests still lie in a pro-Islamabad Taliban regime in Kabul. The "moderation" theory is a ploy to provide war-weary America with an exit point. India's anxieties will be offered a smile in public and a shrug in private.

History is uncomfortable with neat closures. Neither the Taliban nor Pakistan are what they were in 1994: the former is much stronger, the latter substantially weaker. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban this time could be a curtain raiser to the siege of Islamabad.

There is nothing called a moderate lash, or backlash, President Obama.

Appeared in Times of India - April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

When everyone is guilty, no one is guilty

Byline by M J Akbar: When everyone is guilty, no one is guilty

What would have been the reaction of Indians if the shoe thrown by Jarnail Singh at Home Minister P. Chidambaram had actually hit his face?

Sympathy is a sentiment best measured by mercury. A little shake of the thermometer and it can shoot off in either direction. Jarnail Singh did himself a great favour by missing. If the shoe had hit the Home Minister smack in the face, who knows, he may have shared some sympathy.
The errant shoe did far more damage than an accurate one might have done. It served Indian sentiment to a nicety, by delivering a sharp message without causing physical damage. Singh claims that he had never meant to hit the Home Minister in any case, but I am not too sure that he was in control of his actions when he suddenly spurted into the national limelight and Sikh lore. It was an involuntary gesture sparked by a deep, traumatic pain, a signal that the human spirit would not be defeated even when the hopelessness of an individual confronted a massive and even insolent cover-up by authority.

It would be a mistake to assume that this pain has only to do with the sight of two Congress candidates from Delhi who are believed to have been agent provocateurs during the three days of massacre in 1984. What is truly astonishing is the fact that not a single person has been convicted in twenty-five years. The 1984 mayhem took place in full public view. But the police could not find any witness. The obvious explanation is that beneficiaries of the anti-Sikh riots were in power between 1984 and 1999. V.P. Singh, who became Prime Minister in 1989, was a Cabinet Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s Government, and among his close confidants was Arun Nehru, who, according to his detractors, is alleged to have encouraged the rioting with a wink if not a nod. Chandra Shekhar, who toppled V.P. Singh, survived for a few months only with Rajiv Gandhi’s support. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who got his dream job in 1991, was Home Minister during the Sikh riots, and therefore directly responsible. The two Prime Ministers who succeeded him, H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral, were also in power with Congress support. Jagdish Tytler, incidentally, is right when he wonders why the man who was Home Minister while Sikhs were being killed on his doorstep [literally] was never considered unworthy of being Prime Minister.

That takes care of the first 15 years. The NDA Government went through the motions, but either could not, or did not want to, prod the police too hard. The police were safe in their stagnation once the Congress returned to power in 2004. The most important reason for their indifference was that the killings could not have taken place without the active collusion of the police, from constable to officer. Constables on duty literally directed mobs towards Sikh homes and localities in Delhi. Public pressure has ensured that there is some accountability for the Gujarat riots. There has been absolutely none for the Sikh riots, because the system collaborated with politicians to protect the guilty.

When everyone is guilty, no one is guilty.

Sikhs have had to live with this harsh fact. They had begun to come to terms with it. Many of them voted for the Congress in 2004 and 2008. Jagdish Tytler was elected in 2004. Has the shoe ignited an old wound that might be forgotten but will never heal? The answers, as usual, are more difficult than questions. But this much is certain: the Akalis, who looked dead in the water, have suddenly revived in Punjab. Momentum is a decisive asset in electoral politics.
One problem with sympathy is sustenance. Rajiv Gandhi came to power in the elections after the riots with the most decisive mandate in electoral history. His victory was routinely attributed to a “sympathy wave”. The voter simply eliminated the Sikh massacre from his consciousness, or even condoned it as the inevitable upsurge of anger after the assassination of a national icon, Mrs Indira Gandhi. But once Rajiv Gandhi won, the sympathy evaporated all too quickly. The electorate switched, as if it had paid its dues. The Congress began losing Assembly elections long before Bofors became a drumbeat and then a cacophony [one of the principal conductors of the cacophony was the Speaker of the last Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee].

The Indian voter is a tough bird. He knows his vote can turn an underdog into an overdog, but then waits to find out whether the overdog has become overbearing.

There is only one underdog in the 2009 election: Chiranjeevi in Andhra Pradesh. Conventional wisdom, of which we journalists are the unparalleled masters, places him a poor third in the results’ chart. But those who have seen the crowds swell with pride in his wake as he campaigns do not believe that they have witnessed a complete illusion. He doesn’t have to rent any crowd; people wait for hours in the blazing sun to see him pass. There is something happening which the beady, sceptical and perhaps even septic eye of the worldly wise cannot quite fathom.

Let us merely say that Chiranjeevi is one politician in the current mélange who need not be worried about a shoe hurtling in his direction at a press conference. It is noteworthy that some superstar politicians have already increased the distance between their dais and the first row of journalists. They used to dread the pen once. But so many pens have now been purchased that the only dread left is the shoe. The pen was generally considered mightier than the sword; the shoe is very definitely mightier than the pen. In Britain, no election is complete without a politician being hit by an egg or a pudding on the campaign trail. But that would be passé. Eggs are a bit jokey. The shoe is evocative of thousands of years of popular justice, since it has been used to beat the errant. It projects an intended element of humiliation. The shoe is essentially a non-violent weapon, and we Indians love to believe that we are non-violent. Is throwing a shoe libellous? This could turn out to be a lucrative debate.

I wonder if fresh instructions have already been issued to the elite VIP security squads, and there is now a posse trained to pick the slightest movement of a journalist’s arm towards a shoe at a press conference. No more bending, ladies and gentlemen of the press. You can kowtow of course, for that is what the high and mighty expect, but keep your hands in your laps, please.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

When political friends become opponents

When political friends become opponents
By M J Akbar

The first pattern of this general election has emerged: the really fierce contest is not between traditional foes, but between yesterday's friends, particularly where they shared power. The BJP's sense of betrayal in Orissa is palpable. The more decisive story is within the UPA, where shifting mindsets have ignited a splinter-explosion.

In 2004, the Congress had a single aim: to defeat the BJP. This time, its objectives have doubled. Its parallel purpose in 2009 is to expand its base. Where this expansion is sought at the cost of the BJP there is only minor confusion, created by large-scale intrusions by Mayawati or more modest forays by Mulayam Singh Yadav. The contradiction within the UPA lies in the fact that the Congress space in the Gangetic belt and Maharashtra has been usurped by its allies. The Congress clarified its intentions when it decided that it would not fight the 2009 elections as part of an UPA alliance, but seek partial adjustments as suited its purpose. It has prioritised its opponents from the list of allies.

At the top of the Congress hitlist is the Left, which opposed its heavy strategic tilt towards America. The Congress accepted a humiliating seat-sharing arrangement with Mamata Banerjee in order to maximise the damage to the principal Left citadel. In practical terms, this alliance will not help the Congress very much: it would have retained its six seats even without Trinamool. But the Congress vote could help Mamata Banerjee to poll vault from one seat to 10 or even more.

Curiously, the Congress walked away from similar electoral terms in Bihar, giving a lifeline to the BJP and the NDA. Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan offered the Congress what it had, three seats. The Congress could even lose all three seats, because it is contesting alone. It accepted a double jeopardy in Bihar in order to begin the process of revival.

Ditto in Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam was more generous than Lalu. The Congress had nine seats; it was being offered 17. A Mulayam-Congress deal would have pressurised Mayawati, squeezed the BJP and taken Congress from nine seats into double digits. Double jeopardy again: BSP and BJP will increase their tally now. The collapse of the Jharkhand pact with JMM will be even more beneficial to the BJP. Is there an explanation?

The Congress stuck with Sharad Pawar only because it did not want its chief minister to resign before the Assembly elections in autumn. But Sharad Pawar is also dispensable in the large scheme of things; he blocks Congress growth in the second largest state, just as Mulayam and Mayawati choke it in the largest. In Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi retained his alliance with the Congress only by increasing the latter's seat share to 14 out of 39.

Congress has calculated that when the tears dry and the numbers are counted, the cost will not amount to loss of power in Delhi. It believes it will still emerge as the largest single party, and then be able to cajole or bully the very allies it has damaged by whipping up a 'Stop BJP At Any Cost' campaign.

They would not be politicians if Pawar, the Yadavs and Ram Vilas did not instinctively recognise the dangers of this squeeze. They have responded by squeezing back. Pawar has pre-empted the post-election bullying with a question of his own: if the Congress is so anxious to stop the BJP, why doesn't the Congress support a Third Front government from outside, or even inside, instead of demanding primacy of power in any coalition? In 2004, he and the others were caught flat-footed. This time they have begun a dance to a tune of their composition. Pawar has made it clear that he considers himself a better future prime minister than Dr Manmohan Singh or Rahul Gandhi.

Prakash Karat, who has no debts to pay the Congress and feels betrayed, is categorical that the Left will not support a Congress-led government in 2009. If UPA is the modern coalition in Indian politics, the Marxists are saying that they are all post-modernists now.

Conflicts of regional interest have added a Fourth Front to the Third, but these parties will rearrange themselves after the results. Where conflicts are incompatible, parties like BSP and SP will be in different camps, depending on who has reached where first. Do not imagine that all 'Front' parties have closed the backdoor to the NDA. Indian politicians love the freedom of a two-way street, and some of them are dexterous enough to negotiate any roundabout.

But both the walk and the talk will start only on the afternoon of May 16. Professional politicians pay for opinion polls, and then dismiss those they don't like. This may occasionally reflect an inability to face the unpleasant; but they also know that polls are not necessarily the truth. An opinion poll is what it says it is: an opinion. The fact of the matter is that only facts matter. Till then, ignore the spin, enjoy a rest, but do wake up to vote.

Appeared in Times of India - April 5, 2009

Saturday, April 04, 2009

A right can sometimes become a wrong

Byline by M J Akbar : A right can sometimes become a wrong

I don’t suppose the Christian principal of Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School has looked at a picture of Jesus Christ lately, although it should be on more than one wall of the institution. If he had, he would have noticed that Jesus had a beard. The iconic prophets of the Old Testament certainly wore beards, at least according to the version of Moses popularised for the world by Cecil B. De Mille and Hollywood: Charlton Heston was given one as he brought the laws of God carved on stone from Mount Sinai. Not all prophets had beards; Solomon had one, but David seems to have shaved regularly.

There is nothing specifically religious about a beard in Judaism, Christianity or Islam. A beard is not a Quranic injunction, or a fundamental commandment of the faith. But some Muslims wear it out of admiration for, and in imitation of, their prophet, whom they adore as the true exemplar of humanity. There are those who keep it as a mark of identity, or even an assertion. Other Muslims keep their chins hirsute out of personal preference; perhaps the jawline is worth hiding from public view. Out of the six great Mughal emperors, Babar had a nicely cut beard; Humayun’s was more wispy (if the vague image I have of him is right); Akbar staked his visual reputation on the luxury of his moustache, as did his son Jehangir; Shahjehan had an immaculate beard which was clearly dressed by a superb royal barber; and only Aurangzeb had a beard that seemed straight out of a need for piety.

When the principal of Nirmala Convent forbade a student, Mohammad Salim, from coming to school in a beard, he was clearly objecting to what he considered was Salim’s aggressive assertion of a Muslim identity in a Christian school. He was, as the Supreme Court judgment confirmed, within the law. Article 30 of the Constitution gives a minority institution the right to determine the culture of its institutions.

Would this decision have become news if Justice Markandeya Katju had said nothing while dismissing the special leave petition in the case of Mohammad Salim versus Principal, Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School? Salim’s appeal was framed around Article 25, the right to practice his faith. Justice Katju justified the decision by saying, “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say she wants to wear a burqa — can we allow it?”

It was not a jocular aside made in an unguarded moment. It indicated the thinking behind the judgment. It is a bit of a mystery why he equated a beard with the Taliban: every Taliban might have a beard, but every Muslim with a beard is not a Taliban. Indeed, every terrorist does not appear with a beard attached, as the incidents in Mumbai last year indicated.

The judgment opens up an interesting can of minority rights. A large number of medressas in Bengal have Hindu students. Would the maulvis in the medressas be within their rights to demand that every girl come in a veil and every boy wear a beard? Should they make it compulsory for non-Muslim students to fast during Ramadan?

I would hope not. Hindu children in Muslim-run institutions come for an education in the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic, not in the fourth R, religion. Does the Supreme Court verdict mean that a Sikh child can be forced to shave if he joins a Catholic school?

It is curious how the most intelligent, balanced and learned among us succumb to stereotypes when faced with another’s faith. Perhaps this story of a lecture I gave at the Warsaw University might be instructive. It was around the time when the French government had stirred a huge controversy by banning the headscarf in state schools on the grounds that France was a secular nation and no symbol of religious identity could be permitted in a state school. The ban, incidentally, did not extend to wearing “small” crosses on a chain on the rather specious excuse that they were symbols of tradition rather than faith.

There are no mosques in Warsaw for the good reason that there are hardly any indigenous Muslims in Poland. There was surprise, therefore, when I mentioned that I had seen a woman wearing a hijab on my way to the University. Who? I had seen a Catholic nun, I explained. No one had ever viewed the nun’s dress as a form of hijab and abaya. The amazement widened to disbelief when I pointed out that the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, would never have got admission in France’s state schools. There is no image, statue or painting, in which she does not have her head covered.

India’s definition of secularism is very different from Europe’s. Between Voltaire and Karl Marx, a huge swathe of Eurasia from the shores of the Atlantic to the edge of the Pacific, has separated state from faith. Indians are not obliged to set aside their faith identities when they go to a government office or a state school. A Sikh can wear his turban, a Muslim may fast during Ramadan, a Brahmin wear his caste thread. Religion is private space. The only requirement is that no religion can impose its will on another. Indian secularism gives a Hindu the right to be pro-Hindu, but not the liberty to be anti-Muslim. And vice versa.

Denial can be counter-productive. Common sense suggests where limits can be drawn. Where an individual’s identity is not intrusive, or an assault on the social good, there is little harm in permitting leeway. One of the more welcome facts about South India is the rising number of quality educational institutions financed with charity donations by Muslims. They stress vocational skills and are therefore in demand. A sizeable percentage of the students are non-Muslim, which is an extremely positive development. But it would take just one incident of a principal of a Muslim institution objecting to a Brahmin’s sacred thread or sandal paste on the forehead for a positive to become a negative. He would be within his legal right to do so; but he would not be in his right mind.

Postscript: As I finished this column the story of a girl being lashed mercilessly by fundamentalists in Pakistan appeared on television. I could not bear to watch or hear the screams of the young woman, who was being held down by her elder relatives while the punishment was being administered: is this brutality, this atrocity, this barbarism the final fate of Pakistan?