Saturday, October 31, 2009

An Indira Gandhi Moment

Byline by M J Akbar: An Indira Gandhi Moment

If so many male members of the Delhi establishment were not irredeemably bald, the loudest sound in the capital would be that of hair being torn in frustration. Those who have rescued their pates with American wigs [probably made with recycled hair from Tirupati] or artificial implants are not going to risk their camouflage by an injudicious display of temperament. So the prevailing noise in Delhi is the sound of gnashing teeth. The despair is over the upsurge of Naxalite violence.

While it is understandable that successful India should get antsy over subaltern anger, perhaps we should pause to consider what the Naxalites have not done; this would shade the focus, which is at the moment concentrated on what they have done. They did not kill the police officer they picked up in Bengal. They released him in exchange for tribal women in Government custody. They did not bargain for the release of their leaders, sending a message to a vast constituency that tribal women were equal, on their scale of values, to the top brass. You can appreciate the electrifying impact on their support base. And while relief will be the overwhelming sentiment among the passengers of Rajdhani, who were unharmed after five hours as captives, they will, on reaching home, search in the debris of memory for some answers. The Governments of Bengal and India were helpless when the train was brought to a halt, and impotent during the hours in captivity. The authorities did not rescue the passengers. The abductors freed them. These Naxalites have decided that their war is against authority and its structures and symbols, and not against the people of India.

This is a significant shift from Naxalite thinking in its first phase, the decade between 1965 and 1975, when the leadership was with Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal [a tribal leader] and their intelligent, if apoplectic, student comrades like Ashim Chatterjee, hero and scourge of Kolkata’s Presidency College campus. Then they targeted civilians, whether clerks or kulaks, and semi-civilians like constables. For the first time, traffic policemen in Bengal were forced to wear firearms, and all traffic points had to have at two least two men on duty — one to direct the city’s horrendous traffic and the other to guard his partner. This should have led, at least in my view, to learned internal dialectic debate on “Is the constable a class enemy?” I do not know if it did. What I do know is that when dread of Naxalites seeped down from those at the top of the power-pyramid to those in the middle and the base, it fomented a government-people-political parties partnership that destroyed the Naxalites. The state provided ruthless determination; the people gave information; the Congress and the CPI[M] used their cadres in the counter-offensive.

The Naxalites made a second serious ideological mistake, which they have consciously avoided this time around. The walls of Bengal were daubed with the slogan “Chairman Mao is our Chairman”. The Chairman of Beijing may not have been consulted on this honour, but he was not one to kick away a garland strewn in his path. Those were turbulent times in China as well; the Mao-inspired Cultural Revolution was an exercise in havoc, and mesmerised young Chinese waved Mao’s “Little Red Book” as the magical panacea for their myriad problems. No one wanted any little red book in India.

Mrs Indira Gandhi, who was martyred a quarter century ago, was Prime Minister for most of that long decade of insurrection. She did not waste any sentiment while dealing with the Naxalite threat. She gave carte blanche to Bengal’s political leadership [first, the United Front and then Congress Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray], police chiefs like Ranjit Gupta and finally the armed forces who, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Jacob, played a decisive role in the state response to urban insurgency.

But Mrs Indira Gandhi addressed the fundamental cause of the revolt through a brilliant, almost instinctive manoeuvre. She realised that you could kill Naxalites, but you could not meet the challenge of Naxalism, unless the government brought the corroding problem of poverty to the top of its concerns. The theme of her re-election and government became “Garibi hatao [Remove poverty]”. She held out the hope that poverty could be eliminated through the democratic process, and was thereby able to convince the base that violence was not an answer.

In the event, Mrs Gandhi was unable to do very much to eliminate poverty — she was partly misled by the “Congress Left”, which was neither Congress nor the Left. But the special place she still retains in the hearts of India’s poor is evidence of her powerful political achievement. The state would not have succeeded as effectively without the parallel political mobilisation by Indira Gandhi.

In 2009, we are not short of Hurray-Henrys who would be happy to mow down Naxalites with blazing submachine guns in order to make India safe for themselves and their self-serving economic policies. They do not realise it yet, but they are going to miss Indira Gandhi.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Weak opposition and a sad state of Affairs

Weak opposition and a sad state of affairs
By M J Akbar

Rahul Gandhi is the perfect post-ideological politician. Those who think he is preaching to the choir are missing the point: a significant chunk of the electorate is tired of grand creeds. Rahul Gandhi leaves behind a trail of feel-good bubbles on his travels. Contrast this with the hyperventilation of his cousin, who believes that B-grade histrionics pave the way to stardom.

But disdain for ideology can make you indifferent to ideologues. Pakistan is more than ‘‘just a piece of land’’. It is a powerful idea that broke Muslims from Hindus in 1947, Muslims from Muslims in 1971 and has now fomented a toxic civil war that could prove contagious. The hinge of its conflicts is the ideology of the state. Every Pakistani is convinced that the country should be ‘‘Islamic’’ but no one is completely sure what this means. At the moment, the argument is being conducted with air force raids, field artillery, roadside bombs, tanks, machine guns and suicide missions.

Obviously, Islamabad does not have the same interpretation as Hakimullah Mehsud, who told Sky News, ‘‘We want an Islamic state. If we get that, then we will go to the borders and help fight the Indians.’’ The map of the ‘‘Islamic state’’ includes the Kashmir valley. Both sides of the civil war, Army and Taliban, are in complete agreement on the map, and co-operate on the snatch-Kashmir project when they have time left from destroying each other. It is now academic that scholars like Maulana Azad pointed out that faith was never a touchstone for nationalism. The simple fact that the Arabs are spread across 22 nations is evidence that religion is insufficient as rationale for a state.

We Indians are curiously tempted towards a phallic view of geopolitics: size is strength. This is unsupported by our own historical experience. How big was Britain when it conquered those parts of the world worth conquering? A hundred thousand British civilians and soldiers ruled 300 million Indians. They did not have to be WWF wrestlers to do so.

The external threat to the Indian state from the arc of theocratic nationalism is now compounded by an internal threat arising from the anger of the impoverished, who have turned to violence as the last resort since the benefits of economic growth have been creamed off by an acquisitive class. ‘‘Rising India’’ promised a theoretical trickle to the teeming base of a bent cone, the famous ‘‘trickle-down theory’’. But very little seeped down, for an acquisitive culture is defined by excess. After 17 years of economic reform, the percentage below the poverty line has jumped from 28% to an astonishing 38%. Add the marginals and the homeless, who live outside the fluctuating zone of census statistics, and more than half of India sleeps hungry and hopeless.

The Congress, BJP and CPM have reached a seamless consensus on the need for sustained war against Naxalites, because they have no solution for poverty except for palliatives as a tactic and violence as a strategy. They have the nervous support of some 300 million better-fed Indians. This is why, as even the October election in Maharashtra and Haryana showed, anger against the establishment is either opting to remain outside electoral politics, or searching for the fractious fringe and radical formations.

When the fragmentation of the Congress began in the 60s, it created huge fissures in the ruling space that Congress had occupied since Independence, and provoked the instability of ridiculous coalitions at the apex of power. We are seeing a reverse phenomenon now: the fragmentation of Opposition space, since no Opposition party seems capable of creating a coherent narrative for the poor. This has caused instability at the base, whether in the shape of the massive Naxal challenge or regional agent provocateurs like Raj Thackeray.

The well-armed and unemotional state will probably win the battles against Naxalites, but at the cost of weakening the nation. Weakness is an opportunity for the ideological foe as well as the opportunist. Could China extend the pincer around and within India by extending help to Naxalites? The Chinese, thankfully, have deified Mao and abandoned Maoism, much in the way we have elevated Gandhi to camouflage our disdain for Gandhism. China will be motivated by opportunism rather than ideology but, as any footballer can tell you, a good opportunist scores goals. Moreover, it is much safer to export rubber dolls than it is to export revolution. There will, however, be no reluctance on China’s part to destabilize a debilitating India, should we begin to totter under the burden of expanding inequity.

The strength of nations has more nuances than the single dimension of geography. If the new aspirants to high office do not understand this, they will serve neither their personal nor their national interests.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A gift for the past

Byline by M J Akbar: A gift for the past

When the ageing but still incomparable Groucho Marx, now trundling into his eighties, was asked what he most wanted as a birthday gift, his reply was succinct: “Last year.” Which is the year from their past that the BJP and Shiv Sena would most like as a gift? 2001. Since then it has been a steady trot downhill.

The Shiv Sena’s stagnation is easily comprehensible. After a lifetime of leadership by a dominant patriarch it confused the man with the mission. The Shiv Sena has two dimensions. In rural Maharashtra it is the regional, Marathi-centric alternative to the Congress, playing the democratic game with a slant but within the framework of conventional politics. Its urban manifestation is different. In Mumbai, particularly, and in Pune, to a lesser degree, the Shiv Sena’s success has been through the sharp articulation of grievance and local pride, through a sensational rhetoric and, when required, violent agitation. Balasaheb Thackeray has been, for some years now, unable to either breathe such fire or turn his rather mild heir Uddhav into a fire-breather. His nephew Raj Thackeray walked into vacant space; the sound of broken windows was sufficient to persuade the young unemployed that they had found their voice. Raj Thackeray picked up 23.35% of the vote in Mumbai. Translate that figure into ground reality and it becomes more comprehensible. If roughly half the vote of Mumbai is Marathi, then the nephew took around half the Marathi votes cast. This is a huge swing, with an impact extending far beyond the 13 seats that he won. The Shiv Sena, already down by three per cent in the Lok Sabha elections from its support in 2004, dropped a further three percentage points. Balasaheb still gets respect, but that is really a homage to his past. The mission has passed on to Raj Thackeray.

The BJP has a larger dilemma. It is simply out of focus. It has nothing by way of a new narrative to offer, and its old one is so tired that it can’t get out of bed. The party has gone through an identity crisis before. Its first incarnation, the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, submerged itself into the Janata, under popular pressure, in 1977. The Janata never functioned as the sum of its parts, and proved so incapable to understanding the compulsions of power that it collapsed and split.

The bruised Sangh resurrected as the Bhartiya Janata Party, preaching some strange form of pretend-Gandhism, and was promptly battered in the 1984 elections. It reinvented itself through the street politics of the Ayodhya temple movement, consolidated its gains with patience during the Narasimha Rao years and won unprecedented rewards in Delhi. The Atal Behari Vajpayee years can be summed up quite succinctly. As long as the party followed Vajpayee’s advice, it maintained a keel that was acceptable to the country. When the party imposed itself on Vajpayee, the balance went awry. It was only a question of time before the keel broke. Since then the BJP has been struggling to find the balance between regional demands and a national presence, emotionalism and shrill invective, communal rhetoric and the compulsion of social peace as the necessary bedrock of economic development — and, finally, an image that reflects concern for the future rather than the conflicts of the past. Such contradictions had a direct impact on the Maharashtra elections. When it joined the me-too Marathi manoos agenda of the Shiv Sena, which is essentially anti-Bihari migrant labour, its Bihar unit publicly disassociated itself from the decision.

And so, typically, the BJP fell between the traditional two stools. The Marathi shrugged and moved to Raj Thackeray; and one can safely assume that not a single Mumbai Bihari voted for the BJP. BJP leaders have neither understood the reasons for their now prolonged stagnation or decline, which is why they embarrass themselves and their party with silly excuses on the day results are declared. Some bright spark blamed the electronic voting machines the moment the trend in Maharashtra pointed towards defeat. That leader had not lost an election, he had lost his mind.

The BJP’s real problem is a sense that it has got lost in a time warp at a moment when young Indians, the decisive element in the vote, are either looking ahead or bursting with anger and frustration. The BJP has been unable to offer a road map for the next years, or — unlike say Om Prakash Chautala — become an effective mobiliser of voter resentment.

This has been a poor election for all major parties. The Congress actually lost one per cent of its vote from five years ago in Maharashtra; while its embarrassment in Haryana was plainly evident. The NCP vote dropped 2.4% from 2004. The ruling alliance won not because it was better but simply because it was less worse.

Depression engenders an enervating lethargy. Government is of course recognised as a full-time activity, but Opposition has become election season frenzy punctuated by a few forgettable speeches during Parliament sessions. Opposition is the time parties use to expand their base; the BJP can barely protect what it had two decades ago in a volatile state like Haryana.

You can only dream of the gift of a past year. To survive in electoral politics you need to create a future.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

No election is an echo of the past

No election is an echo of the past
By M J Akbar

In electoral science, statistics are illustrative, interpretation is critical and everything is fluid. Politics is evolutionary, and evolution - even Darwin’s - is a theory, not a fact. No election is an echo of the past, let alone a mirror of the future.

The statistics of this year’s general elections do not justify the self-evident depression that has overtaken Sharad Pawar’s NCP. He got as many votes (19.3%) as the Congress (19.6%). Moreover, he added support: NCP was up from 2004’s 18.8%, while the Congress lost 1.5% of its votes.

And yet, the seats went in the opposite direction. Congress led in 79 assembly constituencies in 2009 as against 69 in 2004 while NCP went down from 71 to 55.

The shock is that Sharad Pawar could not read the internal map of every constituency as well as he once did. Congress confidence lies in its brilliant management of the most important gene in democracy’s biology. It consolidated its vote, while Pawar dissipated his support. Congress has become the natural recipient of the non-Marathi and Muslim vote, both of which have well-defined geographies and therefore, tip their candidates into the lead. Congress strength in the next assembly election, too, will hinge around 40-odd seats within the Mumbai-Pune-Thane cluster. If there is any further dispersal of the NCP vote -- and do remember the ‘if’ attached - then its seat-slippage will continue.

Statistics across the partisan border are no less fascinating. Why is the BJP considered the junior partner of the saffron alliance when it got 18.2% of the vote against the Shiv Sena’s 17% in May? In the five years since 2004, the Sena lost 3% support, while the BJP increased by 4.5%. But, again, the seats were disproportionate. Both were ahead in 62 assembly constituencies. If the Sena had held on to its 2004 vote, the count in Parliament would have been substantively different. You can see the Raj Thackeray effect: he took 3% from Sena and 1% from other parties. Since the damage was not even, it rose to a decisive 20% in many areas. Despite these negatives, the difference between the two alliances is only 10 seats plus to Congress-NCP. Neither side has a majority in assembly-terms in May: it was 134 to 124.

The four big parties have nearly equal support, at least on paper. They should stop worrying about one another so much and take a look at the smaller parties consolidated into ‘Others’ on charts. ‘Others’ got 17.8% in May, and will fetch more in October since the Republicans have left Congress-NCP and are spearheading a separate front. If you add independents to ‘Others’, as one could, their vote share goes up to 25.9%. Madhu Limaye, the socialist veteran who passed away too early, had a theory that a political party began to convert votes into seats at geometrical progression only after its base crossed 23%. This figure will vary a little depending on circumstantial factors. Small parties tend to self-destruct through micro-rivalry, and independents are obviously individualistic.

The obvious, and key, question is whether the Republican-led front will damage Congress-NCP more than Raj Thackeray hurts Sena-BJP. If ‘Others’, including the persistent Mayawati, and independents cross the 30% mark they could skewer results into freakish numbers and produce an assembly with too many satellites and not enough planets. The argument against this possibility is that voters have tended to tilt sufficiently towards stability. A half-hearted endorsement is unusual. The sceptic may well ask how voters could possibly be full-hearted about a government that has driven Maharashtra down with relentless consistency, and an opposition that has driven itself into irrelevance with equal zeal.

A statistical approach to national elections is more likely to provide accurate predictions than to regional polls. A critical mass has now formed for a stable government at the Centre, but interest groups and legitimate demands in large states like Maharashtra have become too diffuse for coherent analysis. Maharashtra is now effectively a combination of four electoral zones with widely differing economies. In theory, good governance should ensure an inter-flow of resources and opportunities to create a better whole. In practice, there is uneven development, and sharp tensions not only along traditional urban-rural lines, but also big city-big town competition. It is a myth that votes gel or splinter only along a single dimension; there are variables even in the support that goes to Raj Thackeray. This is why opinion and exit polls have lost their excitement. The eventual truth tends to be far more exciting.

If you want to know who will form the next government in Mumbai, you will have to check with either God or Mayawati, and neither seem very communicative on the subject.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Hope Hype

Byline by M J Akbar: The Hope Hype

Diwali! Is The only serious danger in Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize for Peace is that he might take it seriously. The early indications are that he will. Obama might have saved himself a great deal of trouble by saying thanks, but no thanks. But he could not resist an award whose credibility collapsed the moment he got it.

After the obligatory reference to humility, he added, a little more grandly, “I will accept this award as a call to action.” At least he admitted that there had been no action so far. What on earth did the fatuous Nobel Committee see when they surveyed the map of the world in the last six months? Did they find that Mahmoud Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama had created an independent Palestine while Hamas was engrossed in playing Patience and Hezbollah had gone for a conference in Tehran? Or that India and Pakistan had signed a treaty solving Kashmir while benign Barack hovered gently in the background, always within camera range?

The only substantive decision that Obama has taken in terms of war and peace is to ramp up the war in Afghanistan far above George Bush’s scale of intervention. He is on the point of sending upwards of 50,000 more American troops so that Viceroy-Lord Dick Holbrooke, and his bevy of Pentagon generals, can fight for another decade on the killing rocks of a battlefield that saw serious action during Alexander the Great’s time and has not paused since. If outsiders do not turn up, Afghans simply go to war against one another. Alfred Nobel thought that his Peace Prize should go to leaders who disband standing armies. Obama may be perfectly justified in upgrading the still largely somnolent American presence in Afghanistan into a full-scale fighting force, but the chaps in Oslo might have waited till the shooting stopped. They waited for Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa to grow old. Why couldn’t they have waited for Obama to become middle-aged?

Their official excuse is that Obama symbolises hope. That’s nice. It broadens the scope for future winners. All you have to do is hope, and possibly pray, that the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba have reinvented themselves into vegetarian Gandhians and your postbox might have a nice letter from Oslo in October 2010.

The big ticket hope is non-proliferation. If you think about it coolly — very coolly — one chap who has done far more than Obama for non-proliferation in the recent past is Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. He actually dismantled a nuclear weapons facility. He may have done so under pressure, but he has done something. Obama has given a few pretty speeches and knocked on the table at the United Nations. Obama has made no effort to rein in the most powerful nuclear weapons power in history, a nation that refused to accept any international control or convention and continues to develop the most sophisticated nuclear weapons technology. That country is, of course, the United States of America. I suppose Oslo did not think of a Peace Prize for Gaddafi for fear of ridicule. Gaddafi does not belong, as it were, to the right sort of country, plus his acceptance speech might have taken a full day. But does anyone have any idea when the ridicule for the Obama decision will begin to ebb?

Obama is too sharp not to understand this, and it will further whet the temptation to lend some substance to the hype. He is not going to withdraw from Afghanistan because of this medal; and climate change is Al Gore’s parish. So his big push is likely to be on non proliferation. He dare not do anything about America’s nuclear muscle; and he has assured Tel Aviv that he will continue the policy of ignoring Israel’s secret cache. There is little he can do about the Big Five, and North Korea is Hillary Clinton’s show. Pakistan is too much of a military pal at a time of dire need, and Pakistan has a good excuse as well, India. So his options boil down to just this: abort Iran’s programme and bully India into as much compliance as possible. If warrior Bush was dangerous for the region between the Nile and the Indus, peacenik Obama could be troublesome for the land of the Ganges.

IS IT possible that the Oslo peace mafia had run out of people to hand this prize to? Not every recipient is going to get a chapter in the history books, even though they might be worthy enough. It is not easy to recall the name of the winner in 2008. But the range of the prize has been expanded from reformed warriors to humanitarians. We all know of course that Mahatma Gandhi was never found worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but then they would have probably considered Jesus Christ too good to be true as well. [Jesus was a non-violent opponent of European colonisation as well, in his case, Roman.] But we have not completely run out of worthy individuals or institutions. The doctors who do selfless work in conditions of utmost misery, like Darfur or other conflict zones in Africa, deserve both the applause and the money. The Aga Khan might not need the money, but there should be some recognition of the extraordinary restoration work his foundation has done to preserve the great monuments of human civilisation — that too is a commitment to peace.

But there is one good, even great, reason for giving Barack Obama the 2009 prize, although it was omitted from the citation. Barack Obama threw out Bush Republicans, the biggest band of warmongers in recent American history, from power in Washington. This must surely count as a signal contribution to world peace.

(In Covert Magazine)

The Lost Tribe of India

Byline by M J Akbar: The Lost Tribe of India
Is poverty boring? Or is it merely inappropriate, just too in-your-face during the holiday week that precedes Diwali? It doesn’t seem right to behave like a sourpuss when the national mood is celebratory, when traffic and shopping are indistinguishable from each other in Delhi and Mumbai, when those of us who can afford to be happy are happy with a bang, and when a strange form of cricket full of hugely unknown players dominates the television set.

I can blame it on Hindustan Times. This week it carried a front page report quoting a study done by worthies in the highest echelons of government, which showed that the number of Indians living below the poverty line had actually increased by ten per cent, taking the figure up to 38%. Add the marginals and more than half of India exists at subsistence levels. That sounds too polite actually. More than half of India does not sleep with a full stomach.

There are two categories growing in the Rising India of elephants, tigers and various Maharajah animals that grace the covers of silly books: the super rich, and the abysmally poor. At the top of the wealth peak are both legitimate businessman who have the skill, entrepreneurship and financial genius to turn enterprise into a pot of gold. Alongside them are the creators of illegitimate riches, the well-dressed, greasy scumbags who make deals with banks and politicians, loot the country and stash billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts that, naturally, our authorities can never access.

Since it is the commonly acknowledged dream of newspaper-reading Indians to turn our nation into a superpower within the foreseeable future, an objective question needs to be answered. Is poverty a hindrance to superpower status? Oliver Twist, Uriah Heep, Micawber and Scrooge lived in the world of Dickens and Charles Lamb wrote on chimney sweeps, young boys who climbed up chimneys to clean the soot. This did not prevent Britain from becoming a world power under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria and her successors. Did the British nabobs mope about the wretched beggars and prostitutes on the streets of London, or did they simply get on with conquering the world?

An impoverished population can actually be quite useful for such an enterprise. You need foot soldiers and cannon fodder for imperial armies: what would Britain’s generals have done in World War I without their local poor, or the million Indians ready to put on a uniform for a soldier’s pittance? The rich are not easy to turn into a battlefield statistic. A thrusting economy also needs cheap labour to keep prices competitive [owners never, of course, reduce the size of their profits and bonuses, they merely skim the wages of the lowest in the ranks]. China’s story is heavily dependent on the virtual slave labour on assembly lines; equally, Indian businessmen need sweatshops, just as Americans once did when they were in a comparable stage of economic growth.

Face it: those who invested in the poor for their political survival have been marginalised in the last two decades, and those who invested in growth have flourished. The latter had a ready answer, of course: only growth could eliminate poverty. The latest statistics show that it has not. Charity is alien to the culture of wealth, so the private sector is more interested in profit than welfare. The state, which should ensure that welfare gets priority, is more concerned with the glamour of growth. So, after nearly two decades of economic reform the poverty levels have increased at an astonishing pace, taking us back to the Seventies, at least on this count.

We began our exercise in nation-building with Gandhi’s talisman: whenever in doubt, think about the poorest amongst us and consider whether what we are doing would benefit him. Every socialist, whether inside Congress or outside, carried it around as a badge of honour. Look where the socialists have ended up, including of the tricolour variety. Socialists have become the lost tribe of India.

Communists had no time for Gandhi. They opted for either two beards or a moustache: the fulsome growth of Marx, or the pointy triangle of Lenin, or the Ottomanesque upper lip of Stalin. All three have been shaved clean in Kerala and Bengal. They might soon have to rename themselves the Communist Party of Tripura. Trade unions have become the spoilt brats of our system, limited only to their constituency interests, contemptuous of the unorganised poor.
Why have the poor turned away from povertywallahs?

They have not. The povertywallahs have abandoned the poor. The Naxalites, who had been virtually eliminated from politics by the mid-Seventies, have expanded into space vacated by the socialists and communists. Between them, they would have most of the seats in over 150 districts, which would probably have made them the largest bloc in Parliament. The true Opposition in India has moved away from Parliament, which is not good news for either democracy or India. The Naxalite vote does not get translated into seats, because Naxalites do not offer candidates, or indeed play the artful game of electoral manipulation along seams of caste or community or faith. It is perfectly understandable that the two principal parties in Parliament, Congress and BJP, are outdoing each other in schemes for massive state aggression towards Naxalites. It is in everyone’s vested interest that Naxalites are crushed, physically. The government throws around palliatives in time-honoured fashion, promising development the moment Naxalites are killed. Why did it need Naxalites to remind the government that these districts required development? That is not the only question. When Montek Singh Ahluwalia, honestly and bravely, reminds the country that Rajiv Gandhi was right, and that only 16 paise in the development rupee actually reaches the target, he is ignored. I suppose they will start calling him a socialist next.

Sorry for being a party-pooper, or at least trying to be one. Remember Queen Victoria, and have a happy Diwali!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The truth is, Gandhi is less of a draw than Jinnah

The truth is, Gandhi is less of a draw than Jinnah
By M J Akbar

It is curious that six decades after 1947 a debate on Jinnah can pack halls in Delhi and Mumbai but a discussion on Gandhi might not fill a front row. Is this because Jinnah offers the drama of a court trial, the speakers being advocates for defense or prosecution, and the audience a silent, but ultimately decisive, jury? Jinnah, one of the great barristers of his age, would have relished the metaphor.

Has Gandhi become, in our subconscious, an irritating nuisance, a mirror before our guilty conscience? Who wants to be measured by the yardstick of a saint who was so disconcertingly honest that he turned his autobiography into a confessional? Jinnah, on the other hand, was so private, and even secretive in life that, in death, he is vulnerable to endless post-mortem dissection. Gandhi has become as ephemeral as an ideal. We can disturb the memory of Jinnah. Gandhi’s memory disturbs us.

Where would Gandhi have been on his 140th birthday, October 2, 2009, if he were not safely dead? He would have been on a fast in Maharashtra. Why? The state police has slipped into the public space a statistic made even more astonishing by the indifference with which it has been received: there has been, on an average, a riot every 20 days in Maharashtra during the last five years. Print media consigned it to a couple of statutory paragraphs inside. Television, crowded with high-decibel celebrities, ignored this completely. It seems that our innumerable guardians of secularism need familiar villains for their rage. Faceless violence is not attractive enough.

Gandhi placed the facts of violence above the politics of conflict. He would have been an inconvenient presence for those who profess to live by his creed today. As for the heroes of modern India: they would not recognize him. There is no way to reinvent Gandhi as a happy symbol of a rising sensex, checking out the value of an investment portfolio at five every evening. It makes sense on every side to convert Gandhi into a token portrait on the wall of a government office.

Jinnah’s problem, conversely, has been that he has been appropriated, or misappropriated, by a range of vested interests, each determined to resurrect him in its own image, to serve its agenda. Pakistan’s political elite, forced to compromise with the culture of theocracy, has converted the natty, lean, handsome owner of 200-odd London-tailored suits into a shalwar-and-cap chameleon. If, instead of being clean-shaven, Jinnah had sported a slight, fashionable beard, they would have extended the beard by six inches in official portraits. Most Pakistanis would be shocked today to discover that Jinnah did not know Urdu, never fasted during Ramzan, had little interest in the rituals of religion, and that his concept of spiritual sustenance was very worldly indeed. Jinnah sent out invitations for a formal lunch-banquet in honour of the visiting Mountbattens for August 14, 1947, the day the new nation was born. The meal had to be cancelled when someone realized that they were in the middle of Ramzan. Jinnah had been oblivious of the fact that observant Muslims had been fasting for three weeks.

Indian politicians have restructured Jinnah more subtly. Contemporary Congressmen needed a cardboard Jinnah as the all-purpose villain who could soak up all the guilt of Partition. An obstinate, communal hate figure was planted into Indian schoolbook history. This was then morphed into something more insidious.

When Jinnah’s utility as the father of Pakistan receded, he was transformed, surreptitiously, into the symbol of the guilt of Indian Muslims, who became the whipping boys of Indian nationalism as practiced on all sides of the spectrum. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, forerunner of the BJP, latched on to this projection with great glee, since it perpetuated the politics of isolation and accusation. Indian Muslims, in this construct, were genetically unpatriotic and therefore, deservedly condemned to the status of second-class citizens. When Jaswant Singh challenged this single-dimension mythology by lifting the record from the private domain of academic archives and flinging it into public discourse, he had to be expelled. He had spread the guilt to others, who were Hindus, and disturbed the equanimity of a half-truth.

The secular parties, whose expertise in the dynamics of electoral behaviour has always been more astute, quickly understood that fear is the easiest route to the Indian Muslim vote. Fear of the past, Partition, was compounded by fear of its future consequences. Muslims had to choose between the communal cage and the secular trap. One offered a diet of gruel, and the other a scrap of cheese. After six decades, Indian Muslims are beginning to bang on the door of both the cage and the trap.

Mahatma Gandhi would have heard the clamour.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A paean to India's melody queen

A paean to India's melody queen
By M J Akbar

The 80th birthday of Lata Mangeshkar, surely the greatest popular singer of our lifetime and beyond, invites an irresistible question: which song is the best of her six-decade oeuvre? We are spoilt for choice, of course: she has 30,000 on offer, which makes it about four a day, not counting holidays. Phenomena do not get more phenomenal than that.

Her usual is so much better than the best around her. She lifted ordinary into memorable, and was superb when the musical score was minimalist. She excelled with Naushad, who distilled the purity of a raga with an aesthete's light touch, never better than 'Khuda meherbaan ho tumhara, dharakte dil ka payaam le lo/Tumhari duniya se jaa rahen hain, utho hamara salaam le lo'. The second line is not there to remind you of lyrics but to recall the music.

Compare Shankar-Jaikishan when Lata sang for them, and when they were with anyone else. They made fools of themselves when they fought with Lata and switched to Sharda, and were soon piling violins into the background to ameliorate the foreground. Suman Kalyanpur, the would-be alter ego, could hold a note, but was simply not in the same class.

My great regret is that Lata and Rafi did not sing together for three years because of royalty disputes. Individually they were masters; together they were magical. Witness the eternal song from Kaali Topi Laal Roomal: 'Laagi chute na ab to sanam, chahe jaaye jiya teri kasam'. Rafi deserved a Bharat Ratna too, even if he died at 55 and denied us decades of thrall. Hemant Kumar, of Hemantada to Kolkatawallahs, was absolutely right to refuse a Padma Shri. That genius could never be an also-ran. The silken bonds of the Lata-Hemant number from House No 44, 'Neend na mujhko aaye, dil mera ghabraaye' could capture you forever.

As for the big question: preference cannot be locked into the straitjacket of mathematical formula. Since the personal is creeping into public space through this column, there will be those who sniff and others who snigger. But, as any politician says on the eve of an election, ''Please saar listen please, with folded hands.''

The finest Lata solo, on my admittedly prejudiced list, is that sublime harmony of voice, word and music so delicate that you can hear it only through Lata's vocals, 'Ja ja re jaa baalamwa, Sautan ke sangh raat bitaayi kahe karat ab jhooti batiyaan'. See what heights Shankar-Jaikishan ascended when they got themselves out of the way. The verse, lifted by near-absence of instruments, is an exquisite blend of mischief hovering above pain and captures, with love, the ethos of an age. Sentiment steps outside boring adoration, and smiles at its own excess. A lover's complaint that never descends into the self-abasement of a moan. English cannot hope to convey the meaning of 'sautan', so we shall merely describe her as a woman's competitor for her lover's affections. He has just returned after spending nights with the other, and Lata's hurt voice keeps pushing him away, but never pushing him too far, for he belongs to her.

There are a hundred ways in which to rebuke a man for telling lies. Have you ever heard anything quite like 'Kaisa harjai, daiya!'? Hindi flowers in the spring of dialect. We might run our governments in English and write our balance sheets in Roman, but we sing, cry, laugh and love in Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Kashmiri, Tamil or any of the innumerable mother tongues with which our nation is blessed. The tongue of a mother could never write a proper balance sheet for it is too heavily overloaded with assets. How in heavens to do you translate 'daiya!'? Note, incidentally, the dexterity with which the short line is worked into seamless melody.

Lata sang the largest number of film songs for the first of the moderns, Laxmikant-Pyarelal. The partnership provided unforgettable music to eminently forgettable films like Inteqaam (the difficult 'Aaaa jaane jaan'). The Lata who could mesmerize you in Vyjanthimala's Madhumati ('Main to kab se khadi is paar...'), hypnotize you in Sadhana's Woh Kaun Thi ('Naina barsey rim jhim rim jhim') and perhaps tranquilize you in Bina Rai's Anarkali ('Yeh zindagi usiki hai, jo kisi ka ho gaya') could also energize you with Gen Next Mumtaz in 'Bindiya chamkegi, churi chamkegi...' This, too, is the song of a new epoch, as much of a breakthrough as 'Aayega aayega, aayega aanewala' in Madhubala's Mahal. In the 1970s, Lata skins the soppiness out of sentiment and tells her lover that she may or may not be around when he arrives with his baraat, and if he loses any sleep over this, tough luck.

Love is so much sweeter when sprinkled with sauce.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Facts, Truth and Strategy

Byline by M J Akbar: Facts, Truth and Strategy

Is there anything in common between an India-Pak cricket match in South Africa and China’s decision to give disputed status to Indian Kashmiris through disingenuous separate-sheet visas? Yes. Neither is a game.

China’s celebratory ascent into the top echelons of the modern world owes to a course correction by Deng Xiaoping, who recognised that Communism was injurious to China’s health. He replaced ideology with idealism and gave it pragmatic legs. The shift from pomposity to practical was based on an old Chinese principle: search for truth among facts. The only thing Maoist about China now is the portrait in Tiananmen Square and the mugshot on the currency notes.

China’s foreign policy is shaped by the same principle. It has looked long and hard at the facts of India, in particular at its defence. Thanks to the self-castration of a post-Bofors mentality, the hypocrisy of a system thirsty for bribes behind the burqa of bureaucratic-political piety, and the pseudo-morality of a defence minister who equates procrastination with self-protection, India’s defence capability is now at least a generation behind China’s in both conventional and nuclear warfare.

When an Indian air chief promises to bring his capability up to speed in a potential war zone like Arunachal Pradesh he is talking of what might happen by 2018 if all goes well. Make that a very big if. The Indian Air Force has been whittled down to a statistical accident. Our artillery has a goodwill-inventory. The communication infrastructure necessary to back up a fighting unit is waiting for the dust to be cleaned from the cover of the files.

China assessed Indian vulnerability years ago, and signalled its mood on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s last state visit, generally a time when states seek to stress points of mutual agreement. Instead, the then Chinese ambassador in Delhi chose to dwell on Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh, called Southern Tibet by Beijing. It was deliberate, calculated provocation to which Delhi responded with its familiar waffle.

The border provocations of 2009 have evoked a very queer reaction from National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan. He said, in defence of the Chinese, that the infringements had not increased beyond the normal. This begs a question: what is the normal level of infringements? A couple of hundred yards here or there – or, perhaps, there rather than here.

Jawaharlal Nehru once made the mistake of telling Parliament that the disputed territory on the China border was all rock and wasteland. In 1962 China proved how much it valued wasteland. Has China begun another “Mission Creep” which seeks to change facts on the ground so that the truth can be refashioned in fertile Delhi?

I do not believe that China wants war with India. The raison d’ĂȘtre of the post-Communist Communist Party is the promise, to its people, of stability. Stability is the cocoon in which economic growth can be spun. War would destabilise the Chinese stock exchange, if nothing else.

China also wants trade with India, now close to $60 billion. It is a useful hedge at a time of recession in the West. Moreover, the Indian market is undemanding. Wal-Mart will not accept toxic lead in toys, and American media do raise a typhoon if Chinese cat food ends up killing the cat. But the Delhi trader does not really care if the rows of Chinese Ganesh idols have been spray painted with death-dealing gamma rays as long as he can sell them for twice the price he paid. They must be laughing all the way from Shanghai to Lhasa.

The laughter in Beijing is probably restricted to the great debate on India’s nuclear tests. It takes courage, more than freedom, to pursue an argument on the most serious element of our defence spread through press conferences, the preferred methodology of both the plaintiff and the accused. If the eminent scientists who believe that the yield in 1998 was too low and India needs to test further are getting a hearing it is only because of their eminence, their knowledge [they are the hands-on people who actually created the nuclear deterrent] and their transparent sincerity. If they have no case, as a belligerent government [denied the right to test by the Indo-US nuclear deal] believes, then they have been utterly irresponsible. Why doesn’t the government accuse them of treason and bring them before the courts? They have shaken the nation’s conviction in its core assets and given comfort to the enemy. The government cannot clear doubts by a show of hands from within the establishment. It needs, at the very least, an independent enquiry.

There is a rational reason why China has decided to exploit Indian weaknesses and contradictions through rhetoric and provocative gestures on the border and in its Delhi embassy. It seeks to keep India off-balance, to the extent it can, at a time of great existential discomfort for its ally Pakistan.

Pakistan has always sought Chinese help in its confrontation with India. China has given it, although never to the point where it becomes counter-productive. The games theory in Islamabad and Beijing surely is that if Pakistan has to worry about two fronts, then, at the very least, so should India. Our weakness becomes an opportunity for China and an invitation to Pakistan. Witness the latter’s supreme indifference to concerns about the Lashkar e Tayyaba. A New York Times report published on 30 September could not be more categorical: “Ten months after the devastating attacks in Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, the group behind the assault remains largely intact and determined to strike India again, according to current and former members of the group, Lashkar e Tayyaba, and intelligence officials. Despite pledges from Pakistan to dismantle groups operating on its soil, and the arrest of a handful of operatives, Lashkar has persisted, even flourished…”

Pakistan cannot find Lashkar operatives planning another attack, but the New York Times can.

Nothing in the equation between India and Pakistan is a game, unless you include war in the list of games. Even cricket has become a war by other means. But that is another story, suitable for some future column.