Sunday, May 31, 2009

Will India ever have a Muslim Code Bill?

Will India ever have a Muslim Code Bill?
By M J Akbar

As power settles into the comfortable grooves of a five-year plateau, a useful question awaits a response: what does India want to be by 2014? If the answer was simple the query would not have been raised.

To suggest that Indians want a better, more egalitarian economy is both obvious and inadequate. Indians have demanded a high growth rate since 1947. They desired independence because they believed it would offer a better life, free from exploitation by a taxing state and accompanying layers of smug middlemen. The horizon has not remained static for 60 years, even if the poor and the indigent might still wonder if the State cares quite as much for them as it does for middlemen.

What is the skyline like in 2009?

What Indians seek more than anything else is the economic equity and cultural freedoms of a modern nation-state. Poverty is anti-modern. It stinks of a colonised past we would rather forget. But modernity is much more than money. There are countries that have money beyond the definition of avarice, or resources beyond the limits of good fortune. But they are neither modern, nor do they show any sign of trying to become modern.

Modernity is a basket of aspirations interlinked in the subtleties of an expanding mind, from gender equality to bakeries to highways to English medium schools to elections to a thirst for newspapers in unknown small towns. Modernity is not about an immature rejection of habits or tradition. A muffin may sit easily beside a dosa during breakfast in Kottayam or Hubli; and a croissant beside a parantha in Rampur. The bar in Mangalore is not about alcohol. It is about choice and freedom from the grey shadows of a moral police. But this is the easy part.

A modern nation is defined by four non-negotiable rights: equality of citizenship across origin and gender; secularism; liberty of speech; and economic equity. It is obvious that the politics of our country works, which is why every election result is a surprise to politicians.

If Mahatma Gandhi is the Father of the Nation then Jawaharlal Nehru is the Father of the Modern Nation, for the alchemy of India's transformation into modern India can be sourced to the passage of the Hindu Code Bill. This remarkable legislation, pushed through serious internal opposition, released Hindu women from the coils of bias and, by the '80s, had made them productive equals in a nation that would be unrecognisable from a telescope rooted in the '50s. Nehru's modernising vision was deeply etched in the imagination of his grandson Rajiv Gandhi, whose ideology might be called liberation-technology. Every computer in India is a living child of a Rajiv dream.

But Jawaharlal and Rajiv were also guilty of one massive failure. Nehru refused to offer Indian Muslims the gift he had given to Indian Hindus; there was no Muslim Code Bill. It is perfectly true that social legislation in Muslim personal law was much in advance of the rights of Hindu women until Nehru altered the dynamic. But it would be self-delusional to suggest that it is perfection. The accidents that control history offered Rajiv a chance to complete his grandfather's unfinished agenda, and his initial impulse was precisely what a modern mind would suggest. But Rajiv was betrayed by the same vested interests that had stopped his grandfather, a powerful class of Congress Muslims for whom the status quo is both comfort food as well as lucrative sustenance. It is entirely logical that those who used the most vituperative language against Rajiv Gandhi over the Shah Bano case should be considered stalwarts of Congress today, without having changed their views.

The price of compromise is rarely paid by the powerful. It is paid by the girl child who is thrust into the seclusion of purdah and driven into forced marriage before she has learnt to discover her social and economic potential. The visible rise of the veil in Indian Muslim communities requires little elaboration. It is a paradox of secular India that one definition of secularism has become the right of minorities to retreat into conservatism. Politicians accept the consolidation of communal identity as the inevitable antidote to insecurity, but that is a dangerous diagnosis. It implies a helplessness on the part of the State in eliminating threat and seeding educational and economic opportunity.

A sedative is not a cure. Will Rajiv's son Rahul Gandhi seek what might be called a Shah Bano moment, or will the need for votes sabotage the compulsion of reform once again?
The pleasant facade of the moment should not delude us into believing that the turmoil of history is now behind us. Such a moment will come, uninvited if we do not seek it out deliberately.

India does not want to become a Hindu-majority Pakistan, and cannot understand why Pakistan refuses to become a Muslim-majority India. This is not criticism of Pakistani nationalism; every Indian today is either delighted or relieved that Pakistan has gone its own, separate way. Only those who truly mean well seek a neighbour that moves towards the 21st century instead of sinking towards the 19th. However, India cannot afford the option of a curate's egg, and be modern in parts, leaving sections that drift slowly towards the mindset of tribal behaviour. The pace of India's advance will be curtailed by a septic limp if Indian Muslims do not march in step with Indian Hindus and Sikhs and Christians towards the horizons of 2014 and beyond.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Political Safari

Byline by M J Akbar: A Political Safari

Victory and defeat in an election are a judgement call between options, not an epic choice between good and evil. It takes a couple of days at most for the celebrations to peter out and the tantrums to ease; then it is back to the difficult business of delivering governance against the background of raised expectations.

Dr Manmohan Singh is showing every sign of being a sensible victor. Being sensible means taking decisions in silence, instead of churning out a statement a day to keep television channels in play. The wisest victor cherrypicks the best programmes in an opponent’s manifesto, takes note of any criticism that may have stung without being a fatal bite, and absorbs it without any fuss into the agenda of Government. The smart thing to do is to make this so much a part of your commitment that the voter forgets the origin when it comes to making a choice yet again. The evidence for this assumption lies in the decision to give Kamal Nath, one of the stars of the last Government, Road Transport and Highways.

It is possible to argue that Kamal Nath, now the oldest sitting member of the Lok Sabha (not in terms of age, but in number of elected terms) turned Commerce into a glamorous ministry by the force of his personality. By the measure of any political yardstick he has had every right to feel that he is both senior to and at least as competent as P. Chidambaram, who has had the better portfolios. However, politics is less about justice and more about being in the right place at the right time.

The most suitable metaphor for power in Delhi comes, appropriately, from the safari park, with variations to extend the nomenclature beyond the cat family. At the top are the Big Five. The Prime Minister is the lion, though hopefully with the diligence of the lioness rather than the feed-me indolence of the male cat. The Finance Minister would be legitimately the tiger. Defence and External Affairs would be elephants, controlling their patch with hauteur, but essentially vegetarian by nature. Elephants might trumpet and trample, but they don’t bite. I suppose the Human Resources Minister could lay claim to being the leopard. That gives the job status in the eyes of the jungle, but over the last decade the claws of this leopard have been manicured to non-existence. Both the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led UPA allotted Human Resources to seniors in order to minimise the damage he could do to the Big Boss. Dr Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh considered themselves worthy of the Prime Minister’s job, and were convinced that it was only a matter of time before summons arrived from destiny. It may sound a bit cruel, but the fact is that P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh converted the HRD office from a waiting room for promotion into the ante-room of oblivion. Dr Joshi left office with a faintly malodorous air, and Arjun Singh left in tears. His relevance in the Congress Party is more or less over. Kamal Nath’s name was bandied about as the HRD minister of this Government because he was considered too senior to take a lesser job. But being a sharp man, wise in the ways of the Congress, he decided to avoid the trap of a first class waiting room with second class prospects.

The Prime Minister has sent a signal, picked up early and clearly by Kamal Nath, that the quality of infrastructure development in the next five years will be a vital key to public perception of the success or failure of this Government. This was one area in which the BJP’s charge that the Vajpayee initiative had tapered off was received well by the voter. Dr Singh fought hard and successfully to keep the DMK out of infrastructure because he knew that this perception had some truth in it. These nodal ministries are much in demand because of the massive spending involved. Spending is a gilt-edged invitation to corruption. Road transport and highways is a responsibility that extends equally to every part of the country, urban and rural. It is the most visible measure of change. The manner in which Praful Patel transformed Civil Aviation into a dynamic development office, rather than a status quoist job riddled with babu-level favouritism, is an indication of what a good minister can do with opportunity. A quiz question will perhaps clarify what I mean a bit more. What was the name of the last highways minister? The fact that you would probably have to be the last minister’s close relative to recall his name is evidence of the decline it suffered in the last five years. Trust me, you will not forget that Kamal Nath is in charge this time. Neither will the contractors.

Every Government will have its share of file-shufflers. That is a demand of the Cabinet system we operate, in which political considerations have to take some precedence over competence. If Vilasrao Deshmukh was a disaster as Maharashtra Chief Minister, there is no earthly reason to expect that he will be a paragon of Harvard business school now that he has been put in charge of heavy industries. He is being, as they say, “accommodated”. I presume the Prime Minister believes that all the heavy industrialists in the state sector have competent managers and the best thing that the minister could do is limit his intervention in their lives. The case of Chemicals and Fertilisers must be similar. The only really in-demand ministry that he has given the DMK is Communications, and he has put two Congress Ministers of State as guardian angels -- to guard Congress interests.

There is no confusion this time about the pecking order at the top. Pranab Mukherjee is the clear second-in-command, while A.K. Antony comes next. The highest table has no fourth place. There is a high table after that, shared by the External Affairs Minister, Finance Minister, the Law Minister and the Road Transport Minister. The rest contribute to the attractions of the political safari, but they don’t sell tickets

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nothing personal, this is Business

Nothing personal, this is Business
By M J Akbar

Fish, said Mao Zedong, do not swim in pure water. Dr Manmohan Singh is no Maoist but he should, by now, know a thing or two about swimming upstream. He could, of course, point out that pollution is not very good for the health of fish either.

Realists know that integrity is a variable virtue. If Dr Singh were to impose fiscal-virginity on his cabinet ministers, Saint Antony of Kerala would be burdened with too many portfolios. Those who choose to believe that the kerfuffle with the DMK was only about incompetence, or its elder brother corruption, or a triple-deck sundae with one family layer too many, is confusing facts with television coverage.

The operating law in politics owes much to a management principle made immortal by Mario Puzo in Godfather. There is nothing personal about it; this is business.

The Congress has begun its campaign for the next general election. It shed some allies during the polls; it has begun to pluck feathers from others after the results. It wants to check today those it seeks to displace tomorrow. Tamil Nadu has entered its radar screen since the Congress increased its share to 14 seats in the alliance. Why not 39 tomorrow?

As Kanshi Ram, the founder of BSP, used to say if there was anyone around to listen, elections are the only time that a party grows in substantive terms. Congress has done far better than expectations in Maharashtra, so it makes no sense to settle for stagnation. Its stark message to Sharad Pawar has political logic: merge, or find your own way to nirvana. Old allies may be tolerated during transition, but on a basis of diminishing returns.

The feast of 2004 was egalitarian. The menu at the high table in 2009 will differ sharply from that at the low table. Allies who want something better than peanuts are welcome to dine elsewhere. In 2004 the mood was inclusive, barring odd guests like Mulayam Singh Yadav. In 2009 the door is wide open for those who want to leave, and barred for late arrivals.

Neither tears nor trauma are useful in such circumstances. On Thursday evening Lalu Prasad Yadav, who once floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, wondered why he was being treated like a fly without a wall. (The wall may be my contribution to the image, but the fly was certainly his metaphor even as he promised that he would return.) The sharper allies picked this up quickly. When it comes to political poker, Karunanidhi plays blind with his eyes open. When the stakes were raised, and his government in Tamil Nadu was threatened, he doubled the stakes. If he was at risk in Chennai so was Dr Manmohan Singh in Delhi. Karunanidhi was right.

Dr Farooq Abdullah’s flight to some salubrious Friday evening entertainment was equally to the point. Everything is political, even a ticket to a T20 semi-final. Sharad Pawar is the supremo of IPL. Pawar and Abdullah are close friends. The signal from South Africa was in double code. Delhi deciphered it quickly. On Thursday evening, Dr Manmohan Singh tried to disguise the hard news that there was no place for Farooq in the cabinet with a soft, even sentimental touch. By the time Farooq had landed in South Africa, the hard news had changed. He would become a cabinet minister by Tuesday. Two men leaving on a jetplane, one to Chennai and the other to South Africa, turned the inaugural ball of Friday evening into an interim arrangement.

The Congress has not won power in order to lose it. But a fundamental question has shifted on its axis. In 2004, it was about how many friends the Congress wanted. In 2009, it is about how many adversaries the Congress can afford as it maneuvers its way to the next plateau. A cost-benefit analysis is being done for every state. It is easy to be high-minded about Shibu Soren in Delhi, but his displeasure will draw blood in Ranchi.

Congress and Mamata form the perfect fit, because they are still only half-way to a common destination, Writers Building in Kolkata. She wants a stable government in Delhi because there is compatibility in Kolkata. Both are determined to destroy the Left. Mamata wants supremacy in Bengal, the Congress has primacy in India. Her needs in Delhi, unlike the DMK’s, are limited. She would not know what to do with a second cabinet post, for it would force to promote one person from a tier of deputies, creating volatile peer resentment as throwing up a parallel star within her orbit.

Sharad Pawar and Congress remain married but don’t look as if they are made for each other. Maharashtra, like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is an inevitable target for Congress expansion, and there is an Assembly election in four months. Congress won 15 seats, Pawar only nine. The Congress will demand a restructuring of the seat in the Assembly around that ratio. Will Pawar be able to absorb a cut without marginalizing his party? Or will try and emulate the courageous Naveen Patnaik, break free and offer himself as the next chief minister of his state?

The results were a verdict on the past; government formation is about shaping the future. A comprehensive victory has created some apprehensive allies.

Appeared in Times of India - May 24, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Season of Mellow Music

Byline by M J Akbar: Season of mellow music

Has the BJP got trapped in the Bosnia joke: nothing can succeed, not even a crisis? As the party thinks its way through the present impasse, it needs two things that politicians avoid since both come with uncomfortable demands: clarity and honesty. Arun Jaitley, the general secretary who played a significant part in shaping the campaign, summed it all up succinctly when he said, “Shrillness does not pay.” It would be too much to expect Jaitley to dwell in public on the shrillness that characterised the rhetoric of too many disparate BJP candidates, the most notable of whom was of course the overblown Varun Gandhi, but one presumes that he has made the point in private confabulations that must be taking place in the BJP leadership.

No one, and particularly not anyone young, wants the shriek of conflict to disturb the peace of India. Throwing pebbles at any caste, community or gender is a vote-loser. India still loves a preacher, as the epidemic of religious channels on television would indicate, but it has no time for the bully. Independence is not an esoteric political fact, handed down to us by Gandhi and his remarkable generation. Independence is now the motif of individual life. Young people who go to bars do not interfere with those who might seek solace in the brotherhood of the Bajrang Dal. In return, they expect the Dal to leave them alone to their definition of pleasure. It is with great difficulty that Indians tolerate the police; reason forces them to do so even when their instinct tells them to ride around or beyond the law in the small matters of daily existence. Why on earth would they have any patience with a moral police in a free society?

It is perfectly possible to note trends of political behaviour in the changing patterns of Indian life. Urban middle class Indians throng towards malls; the poor aspire for them. The mall is now a community centre for the young. They see merit in order, availability, convenience and of course the air conditioning. The corner shop is being replaced. The vendor will gradually be displaced. The old market, a collection of individual vendors, now represents haggling and uncertain quality. Regional parties are the vendors of the political marketplace, and the sound of their haggling, compounded with their uncertain quality, has begun to grate on the voter. He did not abandon the corner shop completely — neither has India — but he preferred the mall. Between the two principal centres available, he chose the tricolour variety in 2009.

The BJP can take comfort in the fact that it is also a mall, but in need of serious redecoration as well as a radical reorientation in its display of goods. In some basics there is no difference between the saffron and the tricolour malls. They share a common economic policy, which is after all the meat and bones of the political shop. There is not much difference in foreign policy either. The divergence comes in the culture of the environment. People want pilau and papad to coexist even if they are not available in the same restaurant. You cannot impose a vegetarian code on a public environment. Freedom means the right to choose, and you can choose only if there is choice.

A modern nation is much more than a collection of skyscrapers or fantasy cities shimmering in the middle of nowhere. It is an idea that permits the individual to live without fear. Sometimes (often?) this absence of fear can degenerate into licence. We need to go no further than the nearest urban street to see how an Indian can stretch freedom into chaos. I often feel that we need our new highways not for speed but simply for mobility, for they eliminate the Indian driver’s ability to overtake illegally, or cross lanes; the only real damage he can now do is to himself. But no Indian is going to exchange the confusions of intemperate behaviour for dictatorship. Governments have learnt to abjure dictatorship after the Emergency. Parties who feel that they can invoke fear, whether against women, or lower castes, or upper castes, or minorities have missed the social and cultural nuances of a changing India.

It is entirely symmetrical that Dr Manmohan Singh should be the first Prime Minister to be re-elected after Rajiv Gandhi gave the 18-year-old the vote. The young did not give the Congress all its 206 seats. And there were young voters who supported other parties as well. But I suspect that more detailed analysis will show that the young tipped perhaps forty or fifty seats towards the Congress, turning a victory into a decisive victory. In this fact lies a serious danger for the Congress.

The young are wonderful when enamoured; they turn deadly when disappointed. In 2004, India was a bit surprised by the sudden presence of a new government. This time, it was the turn of the Opposition to be surprised by defeat. A deliberate vote for continuity has raised expectations to a point where non-delivery is going to extract a heavy penalty. The days of politics, as usual, are over. You cannot be blasé about a claim that only five or ten paise per development rupee reaches the voter. You have to change this corrupt equation, because it is corruption, by the rich and middle class that is denying the poor their rights. We talk glibly of the young. Our image of them is the one promoted in media, in tees and jeans. But this fringe of rich or middle class youth is vastly outnumbered by youth on subsistence levels, in slums and villages. The Naxalite brigades are full of Indian young, and you cannot dismiss them as pernicious enemies or terrorists, without asking what has driven them to the safety of a jungle and the anger of a gun. They were born in India, and are asking for the jobs that can bring them food, T-shirts and jeans.

A party’s crisis is nothing compared to a nation’s crisis, and vast stretches of India are in an unprecedented crisis. If the BJP wants to get out of its Bosnia trap then there is only one way out: the rhetoric of conflict must be replaced by the calm of consensus; and the promise of wealth creation has to be accompanied by radical wealth distribution. As Jaitley has recognised, discord is shrill. India wants more mellow music.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

BJP, Left face existential dilemma

BJP, Left face existential dilemma
By M J Akbar

It may be difficult to deal with defeat, but the regret of a drowned dream is quickly overtaken by the compulsions of survival. Both the BJP and the Left now face an existential dilemma, and will require honesty to pare away that part of the dogma that has checked the growth of one and undermined the success of the other.

The BJP might want to consider a fundamental fact about our country. India is not a secular nation because Indian Muslims want it to be secular. India is a secular nation because Indian Hindus want it to be secular.

It would be wrong to dismiss everyone in the BJP as communal. But L K Advani's efforts to sustain the inclusive image fashioned by Atal Behari Vajpayee were constantly undermined by the rhetoric of leaders who did not understand that the language of conflict had passed its sell-by date. The turning point came with Varun Gandhi's immature speech. The BJP condemned it but did not disown it completely, for fear of losing the extreme in its search for the centre. What seems obvious now did not seem so clear then. Varun Gandhi should have been dropped as a candidate. Worse, Varun Gandhi fell in love with his new pseudo-aggressive image, and projected it in statements and pictures that went into every home through television. This young Gandhi even began to fantasise a future as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. It is interesting that regional BJP leaders understood that this was toxic. The Madhya Pradesh party bluntly told Varun Gandhi he was not needed while the Bihar unit was relieved when Nitish Kumar refused hospitality to both Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi.

The national ethos is shaped by one predominant desire: the hunger for a better life. Prosperity is impossible without peace, so the passions of sectarian politics, whether based on community or caste, have been replaced by the clear understanding that peace is non-negotiable. Prosperity, on the other hand, has always been negotiable, since it has never been a universal fact. India remains a poor country with rich people rather than the other way around. The poor want to be part of the India Rising story.

It is odd that the Marxists should have missed this. They lost the Muslim vote in rural Bengal, not because of Islam but because of poverty. The message from Nandigram and Singur was that land was being taken away from the poor in order to create jobs for the middle class. Nitish Kumar has won because he created peace, and took his promise of prosperity to those at the very bottom of the top-heavy caste ladder. He will be the envy of his peers at the next meeting of the nation's chief ministers.

It might be even odder if one draws a potential parallel between Bengal and Gujarat, but Narendra Modi's industrialization just might become a problem if he does not take corrective action. Taking the Nano that Bengal lost is only one chapter of a more complicated story. The poor are sensing that this cosy relationship between politicians and industrialists is benefiting either the rich or the middle class. The landless and peasants could turn against Modi if he does not resurrect rural Gujarat with the high-profile vigour he has offered industry. The DMK survived in Tamil Nadu because it gave the poor cheap rice and free entertainment. Buy shares in television companies. Every political party is soon going to hand out free television sets to voters.

The Berlin Wall has been breached in Kolkata. Is it only a matter of time before the Communist bloc collapses? Are Prakash Karat and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the problem or the solution? Is there any alternative chief minister in Bengal who can fashion correctives and implement them with a hammer? The CPI(M) politburo meeting on May 18 was meant to be a celebratory event in the game of thrust and parry that was supposed to follow the results. It will now have the excitement of a dirge. Prakash Karat summed up this election pithily when he said, "We failed". It was not an individual's failure, since Marxist decisions are collective.

It is easy to sneer at the defeated, but a paradox needs to be noted. The Left may not be missed in Kerala and Bengal, but it will be missed in Delhi, since it injected serious debate into economic and foreign policies. It is not important that the Left was right or wrong. What is important is that it generated a debate.

It is obvious that governance is being rewarded, and Naveen Patnaik's vindication is sufficient evidence. But there is also a model profile for a politician that has emerged. The voter wants three qualities in his leader: honesty, competence and modesty. This is what he saw in Dr Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi added the flavour of the future to the Congress offer. He has won his place in power through this election. In all likelihood there will be a transition within the foreseeable future, particularly since the Congress has silenced its allies as effectively as it has neutered the Opposition.

Chief ministers like Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh delivered on all three qualities respected by the voter. Others got by on two, but they should not confuse reprieve with victory.

The dangers of success are more dramatic than the perils of failure. Complacence is an easy trap. Arrogance is seductive. Dr Manmohan Singh has been given freedom to govern, but his first watch has to be on a slippage by colleagues. By giving him freedom, the Indian voter has denied him an excuse.

Appeared in Times of India - May 17, 2009

The Real Game Changer

Byline by MJ Akbar: The Real Game Changer

Contrary to a view inspired by late Raj fiction, the British valued India as much as they held Indians in contempt. The British Empire on the subcontinent owed far more to the man who saved it around the world, the Duke of Wellington, than to Robert Clive, who has got excessive credit from history. Clive defeated a tottering, self-indulgent Nawab of Bengal; Wellington buried Scindia’s ambitions at Assaye and destroyed Tipu Sultan at Seringapatnam. They were the two most powerful Indian princes of the 19th century, perhaps the only ones who could have checked the British. Indians, said Wellington, were “the most mischievous, deceitful race of people… I have not yet met with a Hindoo who had one good quality and the Mussalmans are worse than they are”. At least he was secular in his prejudice.

When the British Raj was on its deathbed, its great champion Winston Churchill sneered that Indians would never be able to understand democracy. He thought that they would be a disaster and come running back to Mother England. I shall spare you the precise quotations; we don’t want you to get unnecessarily angry on a day when there is so much else to digest. He was not alone. In 1967, the Times of London, now the pipsqueak of a fading power rather than a thunderer of the Empire, wrote the obituary of Indian democracy. It survived.

However, there was a growing view that the 15th general election would leave behind just the kind of mess Churchill predicted.

The Indian voter has just proved once again that those who underestimate India do not understand India.

The most important result of this election is that the elimination of regional parties from national space has begun. This was the message in north, south, east and west where Congress expanded its space at the cost of both friends and foes. Chandrababu Naidu will survive to fight another election, but the votaries of Telangana have probably been marginalised out of reckoning. The Congress did better than Sharad Pawar, grew in Punjab, hammered the Left, aborted Mayawati’s national ambitions and checked Mulayam Singh Yadav. In fact, Mulayam Singh Yadav may face the humiliation of being the unwanted guest at the party for a second time, since the Congress can now afford to sniff at the support he offers. The two regional powers that triumphed, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, won because of their individual qualities rather than because of the parties they lead. The Congress and the BJP, between them, will occupy two thirds of the seats in the next Lok Sabha. This is the real game-changer because the next general elections will be a straight contest between these two parties in most of India.

This election was a successful base camp for a much higher ascent. The true Congress summit is the achievement of a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha after the next general election. When this peak was outlined against a still bleak horizon during the Panchmarhi resolution years ago, it seemed a thrust too high, but its moment has come. Just as it did in this election, it will seek to grow at the expense of either ally or enemy. The Congress already had candidates in 14 seats in Tamil Nadu; the next time, it might contest all 39. It will pressurise Sharad Pawar to merge into the parent party or perish. Mamata Banerjee in Bengal might be more resistant, because she knows that she cannot dominate the Congress as much as she can her own party, and total power can be very alluring. But the Congress can live with a variation or two, as long as Mamata does not through self-inflicted wounds revive the Left in Bengal. In any case, there are great pickings elsewhere for the Congress.

It will of course hope to exploit the anti-incumbency factor in the BJP States in the North, particularly if the BJP goes into disarray after its second collapse from high expectations. The last time the Congress had a majority on its own was under Rajiv Gandhi.

The restoration will be in the hands of the son, Rahul Gandhi, who has earned his political legitimacy in this election. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s role as leader of the party will ebb as the pace of transition speeds up. It is highly likely that at some point there may even be a transition in Government, with Dr Manmohan Singh making way for Rahul Gandhi. Dr Singh has already done more than anyone expected for the party, and he might prefer the comfort of retirement since he has had a serious heart attack.

Will the BJP, suffering from a second unexpected defeat, be able to resurrect its fortunes and face an aggressive Congress? Some things are apparent. It will need to choose the person who can lead the party into the next general election without much delay.

The BJP realised that development and governance were the decisive issues. But although its venerable leader L.K. Advani tried to define the party around modern needs, he was tripped by the rhetoric of those who thought that the country still wanted to hear the war cry of social conflict. The swivel moment of the campaign came when Varun Gandhi, in a flurry of immaturity, revived every toxic memory that Advani wanted the electorate to forget. He compounded the mistake by glorying in its aftermath. BJP leaders realised the danger. The Madhya Pradesh party publicly asked Varun Gandhi to remain in UP, and not bother about the neighbouring State. But the leadership merely distanced itself from the young man, when it should have disowned him.

This is the major lesson for the next leader of the party: India wants peace with prosperity because Indians realise that prosperity cannot come without peace. Narendra Modi may be a powerful and effective leader in Gujarat, but the stamp of one defect will always mar his future. He can be a successful number two at the national level, but will remain a divisive number one.
We have also just witnessed the last election of the older generation. Youth is not just arithmetic; you have to be young in your outlook, and be able to identify with the aspirations of those seeking a profitable place in the international economy, as much as the poor who feel that they are being marginalised in the domestic economy. It is difficult to span both edges of this challenge, but no one said that public life was easy.

Defeat can be a moment of transition, unless you succumb to despair.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Prepare for a Marathon at the 2009 Racecourse

Prepare for a Marathon at the 2009 Racecourse
By M J Akbar

Astrologers and bookies rise to the top of the trust-totem-pole in the last lap of any election because neurosis is healthy for both callings. Here is a less expensive option: those who want to look ahead might want to look behind.

The excitement of May 2009 has blotted out the excitement of May 2008. The seeds of this election were laid in the glory days of "Singh is King", when Dr Manmohan Singh celebrated independence from Left-slavery and pushed through the nuclear deal amidst chaos in Parliament and hallelujahs on television.

The curse of Prime Ministers is surely the adulation of journalists.

In May 2008, Congress not only undermined the alliance that had kept it in power for four years, but also the equilibrium that could have ensured its return to power. Instability is contagious; it has spread to every relationship within the UPA.

It is curious that the nuclear deal, on which Dr Singh staked the future of the Congress, does not even figure, except through stray references, in the party campaign. Kingdoms have been famously lost for want of a horse. Was a kingdom in Delhi lost for want of horse sense?

We do not know the results yet, and it would require a braver columnist than me to venture into that swamp. We can only read the tea leaves that are strewn after any press conference. But the wounds of actual or perceived betrayal are on public display. They will demand a price when the time comes to patch a government.

We have had many kinds of government in Delhi since 1952, from predictable to stable to ideological to accidental to opportunistic. The next one may be safely labeled a patchwork. It will be a quilt in which each patch struggles for more space than it has been allotted by hasty needlework.

Uncertainty has prompted the inexplicable. It is customary for parties to claim victory before the result, but why would they want to claim defeat? Digvijay Singh envisaged the Congress in opposition. Mrs Sheila Dikshit praised Nitish Kumar, implying that the two politicians who had been unstinting in their praise for Mrs Sonia Gandhi since 2004, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, had collapsed. Rahul Gandhi, who has now taken over as leader of the Congress Party, snubbed Lalu Prasad on the eve of his crucial second election in Patliputra. Such flexibility suggests that Karunanidhi should not make the costly mistake of losing an election.

Dr Singh has suddenly remembered that Buddhadev Bhattacharya is his friend. Sentiment is a weak argument against hard policy. As Marx should have said, if he didn't, politics is not a tea party. There is still some legislation necessary (on liability-cover) in the next Parliament to implement the nuclear deal. Will Congress abandon the deal and the efforts it has made to become a strategic partner of the United States in order to remain in power with the Left's support? The Congress would prefer Prakash Karat and A B Bardhan to become as irrelevant to its needs as Mulayam Singh Yadav was in 2004. But would it be blowing come-hither kisses to the Left if it believed that the Congress would remain natural leader of a new coalition after May 16?

Both know that the only compulsion that could bring them together is a desire to keep the BJP out of power. That argument seems to have been overridden by other considerations. The Congress has said repeatedly that it would prefer to sit in Opposition rather than see anyone other than Dr Singh as Prime Minister. Dr Singh is unacceptable to the Left. What gives?

There is more than a single negative in play. Kings and kingmakers both know that there is a zero-sum game in the states. The Left and Mamata Banerjee will not sit at the same table, nor will Mayawati and Mulayam. Can Rajashekhar Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu co-exist? The government in 2004 was formed by straight arithmetic. The one in 2009 will need algebra.

Perhaps the only states where it might be reasonable to predict the outcome are Bihar and Tamil Nadu. The politician who has matured best in the rigors of battle is Nitish Kumar. Anyone who can keep his cool in the ebullience of victory, instead of slipping into fantasy, has the capacity for leadership. Bihar is giving him victory, and he has responded by reasserting his commitment to Bihar. He has the legs for a marathon.

For the rest of India, back to astrologers and bookies. Bookies are considered superior because they seem to put their money where their mouth is. A friend who was born intelligent but has grown wise over many an educational afternoon spent in the exquisite environment of the Kolkata race course, reminded me of the first law of racing. Bookies only make money when the favourite loses. What would a bookie prefer? To get it right, or to get rich? Dumb question.

Appeared in Times of India - May 10, 2009

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Get ahead, get a headache

Byline by M J Akbar: Get ahead, get a headache

‘The elections are dead. Long live the elections!’ This may not quite possess the grand flair of a Cavalier cheer for Charles the Second, but it does strike the more puritan populist chord so essential to the simpler creed of republicans.

Good Indians always take their time over weddings. Our funerals are faster. This is the obvious explanation for the Election Commission’s decision to drag the electoral carnival through six mind-numbing weeks. The results will be known next Saturday within six hours, bringing to an end one set of tensions and generating a new round of headaches. I sometimes feel that a stonemason should construct an Indian politician’s head. There is no other way to prevent headaches.

The relevant question, which cannot have escaped the reader’s traditional eagle eye and Einstein brain, is of course this: why have I pronounced the final rites of the 15th general election when there is still one round, with 86 seats (one more than the penultimate round) still left to deliver its verdict? If the results are obvious then an election is more or less over, isn’t it? I suppose apart from immediate kith and kin, and perhaps hardcore cadre, no one else in Tamil Nadu believes that the DMK is going to win this time. The Congress, which is the DMK’s principal ally, is obviously worried that it is going to lose big time in the state. You can see the depression on home minister P. Chidambaram’s face, and reporters are sending back stories that the candidate is snapping at voters with questions, always a bad sign (for the candidate, not the voters). It must be doubly depressing for him to imagine a scenario in which the Congress can form another coalition in Delhi, but there is no Chidambaram in the ministry. The Congress dilemma is reflected in the crisis created by Rahul Gandhi’s implicit overtures to Jayalalithaa. The overture might, or might not, be the prelude to a symphony after 16 May, but on polling day the atonal message will only echo in dysfunctional music for the 14 Congress candidates trying to get into Parliament from Tamil Nadu.

It is similarly obvious that the Akalis are under pressure in Punjab, and all the backroom boys with calculators have factored in Akali losses as they project the numerical mix of the next Parliament. The one place where the election is far from dead is Bengal, where there are 13 seats still waiting to decide whether the state will drive on the left side of the road or the right. There used to be a theory that heavy polling indicated bad news for the ruling party, since it meant that voters had been energised by anger. But such certainties are vulnerable in Bengal, since it is one state where the party cadre can be mobilised. The Left knows that this is its toughest election since 1984, and it will certainly have maximised what is politely known as booth management. Two remarkable aspects, however, have already emerged from the pattern of voting. First, violence has been minimal, so intimidation has not kept voters away. Credit for this goes to both the voter and the Election Commission. Second, there has been an exceptionally heavy turnout of women. Women constitute the most powerful silent vote in the country. The Left has been worried about the shift in the Muslim vote, and may have underestimated women as a distinct and independent category. There was 75% polling in the second round, which must be a record for a May election.

The good thing about time is that it passes — or is that a bad thing? There is less than a week left for the czars of democracy to fidget. But now that there is just a day left for the last shreds of rhetoric to wend their way through tired airwaves and desolate print, the next set of propositions are being put into place. They are not necessarily as simple as choosing either the UPA or the NDA at the Centre. The Left’s priority now will be to break the alliance between Congress and Mamata Banerjee before the Bengal Assembly elections. The easiest way to do so is to support the Congress in Delhi. This would force Mamata to go towards the NDA. But what if the Congress decided to stick to its ally in Bengal and dared the Left to support the NDA if they could? That would throw some exciting loops into the game, would it not?

Will Naveen Patnaik stick by his new friend Prakash Karat if he does not get enough seats to become Chief Minister again? He could ask the Congress for support, but that would dilute his identity, which has been created on Congress space. Can Chandrababu Naidu accuse the Congress of destroying Andhra Pradesh and then help it in Delhi to destroy the country? That is what the logic of a decision to shift towards UPA would amount to. Of course the Third Front parties, shuffling on the horns of a dilemma, would like nothing better than to get the support of the Congress while they enjoyed a year in government. But would Congress support a Cabinet that sought to reverse its economic and foreign policies? There may be some substance in the view that the Congress and BJP have already decided that they will not support any concocted government.

I hope you see why one suggested that a stonemason would be the man of the hour in Indian politics. The headaches of the second half of May might turn out to be migraine proportions.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Why Mumbai's Voters went Missing

Why Mumbai's Voters went Missing
By M J Akbar

Normally, media chases news. Sometimes, news chases media. Occasionally, there is a deadlock. That is when media is forced to look for rabbits in a hat. After all, news can exist — albeit forlorn and forgotten — without media, but media can’t survive without news.

The media search for the missing Mumbai voter was a bit of a non-story.

In 2004, 47% of Mumbai voted, in 2009, 44%, or perhaps a bit less. The instant shock-horror analysis asked in a wailing monotone: whatever happened to the 100,000 Mumbaikars who stormed television screens after the Pakistani invasion of Mumbai and threatened to start a revolution armed with blazing candles? They went back to their smoke-and-spirits parties after their 15 minutes of fame was over, darling. Those demonstrators had exhausted their discomfort-quota for years. Voting in May requires some serious tactical negotiations with the elements. If the price of democracy is going to be sunburn, why not wait for the vote to reach the net? It can’t be too long. We are the champions of IT, aren’t we?

Facts lay hidden in a different question: not in the absence of the rich, but the boycott of the poor. Most non-voters of Mumbai are either edge-of-nerves middle class or edge-of-hunger poor. They did not vote five years ago, and they did not vote again. The drop of about 4% is easily explicable, as long as you are not transfixed on celebrities framed by candlelight. In 2004, Mumbai Muslims voted aggressively to defeat the BJP-led NDA because of the Gujarat riots and lifted the average turnout to 47%. This year, they are indifferent to the Congress and hostile to the BJP-Shiv Sena. There is no one to vote for. The Congress has once again fudged its way through five years over the Srikrishna Commission report, which named the guilty in the 1992-93 riots. As for their other demand, job reservations: the joke is that other communities get jobs, while Muslims get enquiry commissions.

Anger has fractured Muslim voters in 2009. They are hostile to the Congress in states where it is in power, like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. But many are voting for the Congress where it is not in power, like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But there is no consolidation, of the kind we saw in 2004. In Kerala, a section has responded positively to the Left’s anti-American stance, but only May 16 will tell whether this has reversed the prevalent anti-incumbency. In Bengal, which has the highest percentage of minority voters, they are split.

Disillusionment, however, might lead the way towards yet another illusion. The most popular hope now is for a ‘Muslim BSP’. According to some estimates, Muslim voters can influence the result in 74 Lok Sabha seats. There were only 37 Muslim MPs in the last Lok Sabha. The maximum number of MPs, 46, was in 1980 when Mrs Indira Gandhi wooed Muslims back from Emergency trauma with higher representation. Since then it has been downhill. The Congress wants every Muslim vote in Delhi, but is never ready to name a Muslim candidate on its slate. It rankles.

Success is easier sought than achieved. It took nearly two decades of effort by two generations of leaders, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, to fuse the Dalit vote to the elephant symbol. Muslims seem to possess neither the time nor patience needed for unity. There are perhaps 30 small parties searching for minute conclaves on the electoral map, including exotic outfits like the Muslim Munnethra Khazhagam in Tamil Nadu. The only effective effort outside Kerala’s Muslim League has been Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s AUDF in Assam which won nine seats in the Assembly and, more important, scared the daylights out of the Congress in 20 more.

It has spread its wings just a bit, moving into Maharashtra and Bengal. There is much interest, also, in how the Azamgarh-centric Ulama Council will fare in Uttar Pradesh. This group achieved lift-off after the UPA refused to order an enquiry into the encounter at Batla House near Jamia Milia last year, and the consequent demonization by the police of young men from Azamgarh.
Such varied efforts might result in just one MP, probably from Assam, where Maulana Ajmal could produce an upset. What will be significant is the post-poll phase of mobilization. Will collective interest overcome individual ambition and that pervasive bane of Indian politics, distrust?

An invention awaits the next genius: a camera that can photograph the mind. Television politics has become a screaming contest between politicians, perhaps because the camera has lost the art of stimulation. Since there is no hope of getting a different kind of politician, we need a different sort of camera. It will chase the mind for news.

Appeared in Times of India - May 3, 2009

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Who lost Paradise?

Byline by M J Akbar: Who lost Paradise?

Lesson of the week: it is perfectly possible to simultaneously fool the United Nations, P. Chidambaram, much of the media and M. Karunanidhi with the same ploy, and within the same 24 hours. The outbreak of self-congratulation in Delhi when Colombo announced that it would cease using heavy artillery and air power against the trapped LTTE was not really self-delusion, because the mandarins of Delhi are not foolish. It was a desperate attempt by ruling coalition politicians to chalk up talking points for the elections in Tamil Nadu, where this government is being blamed for abandoning the LTTE. Typically, Karunanidhi over-egged the pudding by undertaking a fast. The fastest thing about the fast was how fast it ended.

The only Union ministers from Tamil Nadu not in electoral trouble are those who defected to Jayalalithaa. The others, whether from Congress, DMK or smaller parties, are anxiously shopping for any fig leaf to hide their impotence. Delhi’s spin doctors even tried to hype up the “heavy artillery” announcement as a ceasefire. This spin stopped turning when Colombo clarified that it would never agree to any ceasefire. Why would it cease fire when it has Prabhakaran in its crosshairs? The Sri Lanka government and army have not fought its most difficult war in order to make Chidambaram home minister or Karunanidhi chief minister.

Colombo has measured Delhi’s impotence carefully, and knows that Delhi will swallow any fudge it hands out, because there is nothing else it can do. The rest of the world can make the perfunctory noise, but that is about it. Some pompous types in the European Union hierarchy tried to flex verbal muscle. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Lanka’s President, could well have asked, qua Stalin, how many divisions does the Pope have?

For the record, LTTE is a terrorist organisation in the books of most western governments, including those who have long permitted LTTE operatives to collect a “war tax” from Lankan Tamils living abroad. This money, much of it repatriated, has financed the LTTE for two decades.

Colombo’s “concession” is meaningless because the war has entered a phase when heavy artillery is useless and aerial strikes counter-productive.

The combat zone, at the moment of writing, has been reduced to about five square kilometres of beachfront on the northeastern coast, in which perhaps 50,000 civilians have become double-hostages. Prabhakaran, leading the rump of the once-fabled LTTE forces, is using them as his last shield against the victorious Sri Lankan armed forces. The war has entered the close-combat stage, where each LTTE post and boat will be identified and eliminated through a process of attrition, even as efforts continue to offer civilians a route out of the trap.

Why would Colombo stop a war at the very moment when it has drained the growl out of the Tigers? Prabhakaran must be ruing the day when arrogance, or misjudgement, stopped him from accepting a deal through negotiations. Both Colombo and the world community gave him this chance, the former under compulsion, but nevertheless agreeable. Prabhakaran now faces the option that made his tigers, and tigresses, an object study in asymmetrical warfare, with their trademark use of the poison pill. We cannot say what he will do next, or indeed what realistic options exist for him. How long will the human shield of terrified civilians hold? Will the trapped Lanka Tamilians revolt against the person who was once a demigod? The armed forces surrounding the last battlefield have time, and morale, on their side.

It was perhaps bad luck for Delhi that this war came to a climax at just the moment when India’s long general elections are also heading towards theirs. I suppose the Election Commission did not factor in events across the Palk Straits when it decided that Tamil Nadu would be among the last states to vote. Delhi is busy formulating, and discarding, plans. In one of them, Prabhakaran would escape and then be forced to negotiate with Colombo. But such a scenario is riven with difficulties. Would escape be possible when the Lanka navy is keeping a 24-hour vigil on the waters? If he did escape, would the assassin of Rajiv Gandhi receive a warm welcome from a Congress-led Union government? Open arms? I think not.

I hope not.

Delhi lost the Lanka plot some time ago. Rip Van Winkle would not make a good foreign minister. You cannot wake up suddenly after a long sleep, and imagine that last-minute hysterics are an adequate substitute for two years of lazy drift. Foreign policy is a continuous pursuit. A crisis needs to be monitored on a regular basis. Foreign policy means shaping events towards the national interest long before denouement.

Chidambaram’s recent statement on China’s role in Sri Lanka was mystifying. Is this the first time that he has heard about this? Then he has not even been reading the daily newspapers properly. China has been arming Sri Lanka for many years, as messages from our envoy in Colombo will surely have confirmed. Delhi did a whole lot of nothing when the first shipload of arms arrived in Sri Lanka, because it had no alternative strategy to offer towards a solution. Colombo played it brilliantly: it got arms from China even as it persuaded the UPA government to give it a favourable trade status. India nourished Sri Lanka’s war-starved economy. Perhaps Delhi never expected the LTTE to collapse before the Lanka forces. Did Delhi become a victim of LTTE propaganda?

The price of miscalculation in a game-changing crisis is very high. You have to be extraordinarily lucky to escape payment. The Chidambaram-Karunanidhi partnership may have run out of its share of luck.