Sunday, November 29, 2009

Liberhan: 17 years and few surprises

Liberhan: 17 years and few surprises
By M J Akbar

A mere handful of professions are honoured with an honorific that survives beyond the office. Priests, judges, armed services officers, professors and doctors, of both the medical and academic disciplines: that’s about it. Journalists, even editors, and politicians, even cabinet ministers, would invite ridicule if they handed out visiting cards marked ‘Editor X’ or ‘Cabinet Minister Y’. Indians are, at best, ambivalent about media and politics. They respect our guardians of law, knowledge and security. There is a new tendency among former envoys to add ‘Ambassador’ before their name, a practice borrowed from America, but this is a title snatched from vanity rather than bestowed by popular acclaim.

Ego sometimes persuades a pompous politician to flaunt a bogus ‘Dr’ on his nameplate. This is not a reward for academic brilliance but an upgrade to a peacock feather, the ‘honorary doctorate’, a worthless piece of paper handed out by an institution desperate for attention. However, this does not matter too much, since we do not expect a high level of honesty from our politicians. Only two letters separate use from abuse, so there will always be a quack preening himself in the garb of a doctor. But when a person held in high esteem dilutes the trust reposed in him, it affects the collective reputation of the brotherhood.

Justice M S Liberhan did not need 17 years and a thousand pages to tell us what has been public knowledge since December 6, 1992. The Babri mosque was not torn down in the dark of night. It was brought down slowly, stone by stone, in Sunday sunlight, before hundreds of journalists, to the cheers of countless thousands of kar sewaks in and around Ayodhya. The mosque was not dynamited in a minute; it was demolished by crowbar and shovel.

Of course, senior leaders of the BJP and RSS were present, for they were kar sewaks as well. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not there, but he was in nearby Lucknow, albeit a reluctant guest, but unable to refuse the invitation to the party. Newspapers the next day, and magazines the next weekend, published their pictures, some of which became iconic. We did not need a wait of 17 years to learn that Vinay Katiyar was responsible: he has been claiming responsibility for over 6,000 days.

Sharad Pawar, then defence minister, showed a filmed record of December 6 to an invited group at the home of a party MP a few days later. The Liberhan Commission could have completed half its report by taking a look at that film. The media was equally comprehensive in its coverage of the brutal riots that followed: The Sri Krishna report has done far greater justice to the truth in its findings on the Maharashtra riots, so much so that there is all-party collusion on its non-implementation. There was only one question trapped in doubt: What was prime minister P V Narasimha Rao doing while Babri was destroyed on the longest day of the last two decades? Why was home minister S B Chavan, father of the present Maharashtra chief minister, immobile, inscrutable and stolid?

Shock raced through Delhi when word filtered through that an assault had begun in Ayodhya. Phone calls began to pour into the prime minister’s residence in the hope that he would use the authority of the state to uphold the rule of law and fulfil a political and moral obligation. There was a monstrous response from the prime minister’s personal secretary. The PM was either unavailable or, worse, asleep. It was a lie. Rao’s inaction and Chavan’s collaboration were deliberate.

Liberhan protects Rao with an equally conscious fudge, shuffling the blame on to unspecified intelligence agencies. Everyone knew what was going on, IB officers better than most. Rao called a Cabinet meeting only in the evening, when there was nothing left to be saved — not even reputation. By this time, fires of hatred were lighting up the dusk of Mumbai and dozens of cities across the nation. An elaborate programme of blame, reward and punishment was put into place. Those (including bureaucrats and journalists) who acquiesced in Rao’s charade were rewarded; Congress Muslims got a bonus for silence. Rao remained in power till 1996, but he neither ruled nor lived in peace.

The words of this column will make no difference. A government can reduce the past to rubble as easily as an Opposition party can erase a centuries-old mosque. My apologies for a rare detour into the personal, but this is a rare moment. I was a minor part of the Rao government and resigned on the night of December 6 since the stone wall constructed around the prime minister’s house had become impervious to anything except sycophancy. Words demand a different kind of loyalty, and one was relieved to return to the world of words.

Appeared in Times of India - November 29, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Terror threat: We have lost the plot

Terror threat: We have lost the plot
by M J Akbar

The ebb from outrage to rage, its decline to umbrage, and then a drift to amnesia is the narrative of the 12 months since the terrorist assault on Mumbai, which shook India and startled the world. America's immediate response to 9/11 was over the top; our phased reaction has been under-the-table. But a message went out from Washington: you provoke the US at your peril, no matter what the collateral damage. We play piped music before one trapped cobra and call it an opera. Then we fall asleep at our own show.

It is both easy and pointless to blame the government. Every government keeps a thermometer in its holster and calibrates its decibel levels according to ground temperature. If it's warm, it will blow hot, as Delhi did so vigorously between November and January. If it has cooled, Delhi will cool it as well. It is meaningless to blame our Opposition. We have an Opposition that has become impotent without ever turning potent. The politician will only be as resolute as the citizen, and our sensitivities have been dulled by a culture of complacence. Even trauma has been reduced to television drama; once the scenes are played out, our bluster slowly splutters into silence.

It is possible that the military-intelligence-political establishment of Pakistan understands us far better than we understand them. They must have dismissed us as a soft state whose breast-beating is easily calmed by tokenism. On the first anniversary of 26/11, it is not Pakistan alone that is laughing at our weakness. Washington too has measured the tensile strength of a nation that finds unique ways to postpone its threats to the next calamity. Last year, we gloried in the belief that the US had promoted us to the ascending plateau of a regional power, en route to the status of world player. This week, President Barack Obama used a communiqué in Beijing, of all capitals, to tell us where we stand in his estimation, as one of the nations of South Asia whose border problems the worldwide partnership of equals, US and China, would help sort out.

The lean and lissome Obama has learnt to slap with a long hand.

Obama did not have a word to say, incidentally, about Dr A Q Khan's latest revelations on Chinese help in fuel and technology for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, a clear instance of illegal proliferation. Do not be surprised, however, if India gets a lecture or two on nuclear proliferation.

War is not the only definition of strength. This fallacy has been promoted to disguise a policy of inaction. We have been cheated by this argument since it is obvious that war can have attendant consequences capable of deadly havoc. But there is a whole array or diplomatic and economic instruments that can be mobilized, nationally and internationally. We had the world's sympathy a year ago. We squandered it with inaction. Pakistan maneuvered its way out of international condemnation with some brilliantly painless promises. Islamabad bought the time that Delhi sold.

This week President Zardari presided over a meeting of the PPP's Central Executive Committee during which, in the words of Najam Sethi, an eminent Lahore editor, there was "a reassertion of Pakistan's maximalist position by both the prime minister and foreign minister on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute". This is probably a pre-emptive measure. Obama is likely to lean on Dr Manmohan Singh during the latter's visit to the White House, and push for a compromise on Kashmir acceptable to Pakistan. He might even wave a lollipop called a future seat in the Security Council as a distant prize for good behaviour.

Normalcy with Pakistan is a good idea: put me down as lead advocate of the band of peace missionaries. But before we seek normalcy, we must know what it means. Does it mean reward for unrepentant terrorism by post-Shimla Pact adjustments to the map of Jammu and Kashmir?

It used to be said that we do not have a foreign policy, just a Pakistan policy. We could have moved ahead; we may not even have a Pakistan policy now. We seem to indulge in a series of engagements with different nations, as if the world were an old-fashioned marketplace in which you could haggle your way through different shops, purchasing what was available at whatever price, without a coherent theme linking departure to destination.

Some politicians take recourse to fudge, and sell the notion of India as a soft power. This is a useful screen when you have turned the nation soft, instead of making it powerful. If we were in the midst of the Garden of Eden, this would have been laudable achievement. But we live in a region where terror haunts the headlines.

Amnesia is an invitation to the next terrorist assault.

Appeared in Times of India - November 22, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The news behind the teleview

Byline by M J Akbar: The news behind the teleview

Dr Manmohan Singh’s American month began with a warm lunch for George Bush in Delhi and will end with a more constrained dinner with Barack Obama in Washington. Always happy to oblige on cosmetics, the White House has awarded this meeting the status of a state visit, although in India’s parliamentary system the Prime Minister is not head of state. But there is a hard question behind the glitter. Dr Singh signed a landmark nuclear deal with Bush last year. Was that a mere sentimental knot with a “best friend” or was it a substantive document capable of survival beyond the predilections of a President?

The value of the nuclear deal, which was about much more than peaceful nuclear energy, lies in its tactile strength, but Delhi and Washington have begun stretching in different ways. Dr Singh expected it to be the launchpad of strategic and economic privileges. Condoleezza Rice did, a trifle gratuitously, promise to make India a superpower. But that was so last year. This year, the broad Democrat view is that Bush surrendered too much on core issues like proliferation for too little, and this is payback time for India. This is compounded, in Delhi, by the apprehension that India does not occupy primary space on the specific Obama agenda. The cynical interpretation is that India has been allotted 1.5 billion words a year and Pakistan 1.5 billion dollars.

Behind the smiles demanded by “teleview” international relations, Singh and Obama will find their flexibility hedged by compulsions. Obama inherited an economic catastrophe and a military crisis. He took advantage of both to win his election, but his victory was someone else’s punishment. Answers are more difficult to get than votes.

It is evident from the time invested during ten months in office that Obama’s axis of interest is a direct line between Beijing and Islamabad. He has been forced into a tightrope walk between his banker and his security subcontractor. It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that while Obama was walking the talk on the Great Wall, his national security adviser General James L. Jones dropped in to scold Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. The Pakistani armed forces, it seems, are so busy eliminating the extremist threat to Islamabad that they seem to have forgotten that American money is meant to solve America’s problems. Jones carried a letter asking Zardari to broaden the war to those elements of the Afghan Taliban who were using Pak territory as sanctuary.

America is discovering what India has known for a while: all terrorists are not equal. Those who serve Islamabad’s interests are kept in play through screens. It is common knowledge that Obama is increasing troop levels reluctantly, and wants to leave the Afghan battlefield as soon as possible. Hillary Clinton was candid recently on ABC’s This Week programme: “We are not interested in staying in Afghanistan. We have no long-term stake there. We want that to be made very clear.”

Pakistan, conversely, does have a long-term stake in Kabul, and America’s current foe, the Afghan Taliban, was its most useful regional ally till 9/11. It can hardly be lost on either Dr Singh or Obama that they will be meeting exactly one year after India’s 9/11: a year ago Pak-based terrorists launched an audacious and bloody attack on Mumbai. Doubtless there will be some variation of the two-minute silence in their talks, but tokenism has long past its sell-by date on the subcontinent. When American officials like the Ambassador Timothy Roemer in Delhi urge Islamabad to get serious about the masterminds in Lahore, it sounds worse than tokenism. America, which launched two wars in search of the perpetrators of 9/11, displays fleeting concern for accountability when India demands some from Pakistan.

Pakistan treats terrorists who attack India as “freedom fighters”: Islamabad may need the Afghan Taliban for strategic reasons; it supports anti-Indian terrorists for ideological reasons. China has a vested interest in the Kashmir dispute, since its own border disputes with India extend across the Himalayas. China has even tried to block efforts in the sanctions committee of the United Nations Security Council to name known terrorist organisations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Obama seems to have little interest in the complex regional conflicts in the nations south and north of the Himalayas, apart from what is necessary to pursue the American agenda as he has written. You do not have to be psychic to read Obama’s mind: he needs China on-side to prevent a collapse of the dollar; and his ideal end-game in Afpak would be to outsource the fighting completely to Pakistan so that American soldiers could return home. He was happy to project China as a benevolent partner in the effort to resolve disputes in South Asia, including Kashmir. Islamabad has not heard any music above the gunfire recently, so this particular aria must have sounded particularly mellifluous. But Obama’s next Asian engagement is with the Prime Minister of India. Delhi has already asked America and China to stay out of the Kashmir dispute.

For the last decade, since Atal Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister, each bilateral between India and America has been preceded by high expectations and succeeded by an expanding comfort zone. Dr Singh has invested hugely in the America relationship. He goes to Washington, however, engulfed in uncertainty. There will be pomp and circumstance enough to please television crews. The hard news could tell a more muted story.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why some political parties lost the plot

Why some political parties lost the plot
By M J Akbar

Defeat is the distance between a bedtime story and a wake-up call. The former starts with ‘Once upon a time...’ and lulls the voter to sleep. The second is an energiser that addresses a fresh dawn.

Three political parties have become victims of their own success: their narrative has run its course, and they have not been able to find a further chapter to their saga.

The BJP story is the simplest: the fairies have abandoned its fairy tale. It began as the party of refugees from Pakistan. The robust economic and social resettlement of the dispossessed, evident by the 70s, paradoxically, liberated them from the party which helped them. After the high-drama blip of the Emergency and Janata Party phase, the BJP reinvented itself as a champion of a psychological rather than an economic need.

The temple movement brought great rewards, culminating, albeit through a parabola enhanced by the charisma of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in six years of power at the Centre. But within this time, the Indian mood turned. Economic aspirations took primacy over psychological needs, particularly since the temple movement was made irrelevant by the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya. A functioning temple has come up on the site, a fact that seems to escape the attention of those writing the BJP manifesto, which keeps promising to build a temple.

Every political party has colluded in this change; even though self-proclaimed secular parties encourage Muslims to indulge in the self-delusion that a dispute exists. In truth, all that the BJP can offer is to build a bigger temple, which does not quite have the same emotive force as ‘Mandir yahin banayenge!’ The BJP’s cousins, the Senas of Maharashtra, have regional chauvinism to fall back upon. If the BJP wants to reclaim national space, it will have to establish another horizon.

When socialism became passe, Mulayam Singh Yadav resurrected himself brilliantly as the anti-thesis of the BJP, blending it with a distinctive element of Lohia socialism, empowerment of the backward castes. However, when the thesis is faltering, the anti-thesis cannot be robust. That is the Samajwadi Party’s problem vis-a-vis the Muslim vote. As for the Backwards: Mandal has been milked dry. Mandal has delivered for those whose prayers were answered in 1990. A new generation of Backwards needs solutions for the 21st century.

The last time the Left had anything original to say was more than three decades ago; and it had remarkable staying power in Bengal. But Bengali Muslims, critical to any democratic algebra, are now tired of the Left’s soft secularism, a formula in which their lives were secure from communal violence but their livelihood was left to the wolves. The subalterns of Bengal, across the religious divide, have adopted an interesting strategy: they have become, to a great extent, a non-partisan opposition. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress is merely expanding its elasticity to contain voter anger to the extent it can.

There are no internal structures, nor is there any serious thinking being done by Mamata on how to fashion an alternative delivery system when she assumes power in the state. It is now a question of when the Left will be driven out, not whether. But in the current turmoil also lies an opportunity for 2016, if there is anyone left with the imagination to think ahead.

Mayawati survives in Uttar Pradesh, despite setbacks, because she is still waking up her support base. The Dalit deliverance is far from over; and her cross-ethnic alliances are still in infancy. Mayawati was out of her depth at the national level because she could not promise stability. In regional waters, she is still an Olympian. Her personality may be her biggest obstacle, but her agenda is intact.

The key to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s future will lie in his ability to unlock the next dimension of Muslim demands, and spearhead it. There is a transparent anger, leavened by confusion, among Muslims which is provoking a drift to the most familiar port, the Congress. But the Congress has nothing new to offer.

What the Muslims of UP are looking for, but have been unable to articulate, is a defined political space within which they can find food-and-faith security. Given the passions that such a demand could arouse, this quest might surface obliquely rather than directly. On the table is Ajit Singh’s dream of a Harit Desh in western UP. Such a state will have a substantive Muslim population, as well as a string of important Muslim educational institutions, from Aligarh to Deoband. It will become a natural socio-economic magnet for Muslims of the north. The idea is still in an embryonic stage. Whoever articulates it, will have rung a wake-up call.

Appeared in Times of India - November 15, 2009

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Unicorns in Kabul

Byline by M J Akbar : Unicorns in Kabul

At 11 a.m. on 11.11 a cannon boomed in London. For the uninitiated it was a puzzle edged with apprehension. For the British the moment was 91 years old. It marked the end of the bloodiest — till then — conflict in history. The last soldier died only seconds before truce as officers continued to waste “inferior” lives till the last gasp. War can become an addiction.

Enemies change; war never seems to end. The British this week mourned past and present, as coffins arrived from the opium fields of Afghanistan. This Afghan war had nothing to do with the British Raj. Empire had dribbled away after 1945, for the Second World War exhausted victor as surely as it obliterated the vanquished. But the victors barely paused before investing blood and treasure on a cold war which also ended in November, the 9th, two decades ago, when a popular uprising brought down the hated Berlin Wall.

The Afghan war of 2001 has been a war in search of an enemy. It began as a legitimate hunt for Osama bin Laden. When the combined skills of the Pentagon, the CIA and satellite science failed to find a six-foot-plus terrorist with a two-foot beard, the focus moved a few degrees. The Taliban, who had spread into nationalist space by challenging the foreign military presence, became the new reason for the military occupation of a rugged nation. Since the Taliban has refused to keel over, a supplementary logic is being disseminated in a bid to shore up ebbing public support: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal [estimated at between 80 to 100 bombs] must be protected from capture by “Islamists”. The proposition begs an obvious question: can a state which cannot protect its nuclear weapons be trusted to keep them?

The fog of war is being compounded by a mist of confusion over its rationale and finale. The Guardian warns, in a page-wide headline, that it could degenerate into a fiasco of Suez 1956 proportions. President Barack Obama seems keener on an exit strategy than an arrival plan. He dithers about whether to send 36,000 more troops or 40,000, as if 4,000 will convert potential humiliation into a historic victory. The US ambassador to Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, cables the State Department that he wants no extra troops until Hamid Karzai has ended corruption. The officer-diplomat has a powerful friend in Washington, for his secret missive is leaked to the Washington Post. We soon know who the friend is, for a jet-lagged Hillary Clinton echoes this view during an ASEAN summit in Singapore.

If America is waiting for corruption to end, these troops will arrive in 2109 or Judgement Day, whichever comes first.

I have no idea whether Obama and Hillary have managed to instil some fresh fighting spirit into the Afghan armed forces, but they have certainly aroused the warrior in Hamid Karzai, who seems to have launched a vigorous offensive against Washington. Karzai publicly accused Britain of ferrying Taliban elements by helicopter from their base in the south to the northern provinces of Baghlan, Kunduz and Samangan, attributing this knowledge to his intelligence agencies. The fecund tribe of conspiracy theorists in Kabul, and elsewhere, eagerly linked this to the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban manoeuvre floated by no less a personage than Obama, near the start of his presidency. Obama refuses to fight a war which George Bush knew how to begin but no one knows how to end.

The perfect end from the Pakistani perspective is the replacement of Karzai by a non-Mullah Omar Taliban, which could declare peace through a bearded mutter and let America leave Kabul at a stately pace rather than via the rooftop helicopters of Saigon. In the absence of any other proposal, this must seem to have some merit. The “good Taliban” would send Afghan women back centuries and the country into puritan coma, but they would be allies of Islamabad and, by implication, its mentors in Washington and London. At least, that would be the theory. Of course Islamabad might have sounded more persuasive if a domestic Taliban had not been detonating its backyard.

Let us leave the last word to a warlord who has never been disturbed by sentiment. I have met the Uzbeg General Abdul Rashid Dostum once, in Mazar-e-Sharif; his views are always forthright even if they are not necessarily right. But he had valid points to make in an interview with Dean Nelson and Ben Farmer of the Daily Telegraph [published on 13 November]:

* Not one Afghan officer of the rank of captain or major has been killed in battle in six years, since Afghans do not consider this their war;

* Western leaders are mistaken if they believe that Taliban soldiers will defect, or betray Osama;

* Western aid has not touched poverty, but only killed local initiative and enriched the political elite;

* Taliban can only be defeated by a pragmatic military strategy that avoids categories like “good” and “bad” and involves local communities.

Dostum dismissed the anti-corruption sanctimoniousness in a classic sentence: “They are demanding unicorns in Kabul.” Touché.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sex & scams: How we turn a blind eye

Sex & scams: How we turn a blind eye
By M J Akbar

Our Indian response to a scandalous mess is neat and categorised. Cash and sex are the north and south pole of mass interest, each with a sprawling magnetic field. We divide the hemispheres with the equator of logic. Cash and corruption are the preserve of politics. Sex is the province of glamour. We refuse to recognise any cross-over evidence.

No one wants to know how much black money floats in cinema, although the float might be a flood from dubious sources. Film publications are apathetic to finance. Their cover stories are devoted to who is sleeping with whom, or, more likely, pretending to sleep with whom. Lead stars are sometimes required to manufacture an affair as part of a film’s pre-launch publicity even when it is obvious, from body language, that the hero and heroine are heartily sick of each other.

Equally, mainline media shrugs off a politician’s private life. This is in sharp contrast to the Anglo-American press and public, who hold a public figure to standards of probity they do not apply to themselves. It seems odd that societies so liberated on Friday nights should turn so puritan over politicians’ weekends, but there it is. The French are more honest. They vote for lunch hour frisson.

No journalist worth his or her laptop, therefore, would waste a moment on the private life of Madhu Koda, the 38-year-old Jharkhand politician who worked in a mine in the early ’90s but is apparently purchasing Liberian mines today. If CBI leaks are to be believed, then young Koda has enough left over to lubricate the silent wheels of hawala and make a bid for a Rs 4,000 crore SEZ. Think. If this is what Koda can do at 38, what might he have achieved by 76, which is within the age band of our PMs. Think again. If this is the loot from a small state, what could another Koda earn from Maharashtra, Andhra or Karnataka? The BJP government in Bangalore is not coming apart because of a deep and riveting ideological debate on Hindutva. It’s the money, honey. If the figures seem insane, just remember that greed spits at limits.

A relevant measure of Indian democracy is the shift in the scale of scandal. V K Krishna Menon was pilloried because he arranged some 50-odd jeeps for the Congress in the first general election in 1952. At the end of the decade, Feroze Gandhi, Mrs Indira Gandhi’s husband, commandeered the headlines by exposing a couple of businessmen. Their names are unimportant now. Suffice to say that it was all very secular: one was a Hindu and the other a Muslim. The sums involved were a piffle. No inflation-escalation calculation is going to bring them to Liberian levels.

The connivance of major parties in the Koda scam is the icing on the story. They all helped his upward mobility in one form or the other, with Congress support for his chief ministership being a stunning example of cynicism. Local journalists had reported much of this while he was in power. No one bothered.

The news from the south pole is actually far better. The filmstar scandals of the ’50s were often tainted by the communal acrimony of the post-Partition decade. A film paper like ‘Mother India’ used to go apoplectic when Nargis and Raj Kapoor practised in real life what they preached on-screen. Today, Raj Kapoor’s granddaughter lives with a man born a Muslim and no Indian owl cares two hoots. Nor is box office affected. Indians have shed much of the compulsive bitterness in Hindu-Muslim relations.

The north pole, however, is in meltdown, the body politic ravaged by venality beyond the voter’s comprehension. What was a nick in Nehru’s time, needing a mere Band-Aid, has spread into an incurable cancer.

Patriotism, goes the proverb, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The first refuge of a man charged with swindling thousands of crores of public wealth is clearly a stomach-ache. The second refuge is high blood pressure. Between the two, you can always smuggle yourself out of the dreary confines of custody, with mere mosquitoes for company, to the more salubrious environment of a hospital, which is where Koda reached at a brisk pace. The stomach-ache is key to this life-enhancing, if not quite life-saving, switch. High blood pressure, regretfully, can be measured and lowered. A stomach can always ache at will, swerving away from the locational probes of a doctor, particularly in a well-nourished stomach.

In any case, time, and a generous bank balance, tends to soften the discomforts of incarceration. If the cash flow is supportive, a prison can even become a health ashram, with badminton thrown in as an optional extra. You never know: with diet control and regular morning walks that stomach might never need to ache again. It is not the health of a robust Koda that should be our concern, but that of a more fragile entity called democracy.

Koda has a stomach-ache. Democracy has cancer.

Appeared in Times of India - November 8, 2009

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Davutoglu’s Doctrine

Byline by M J Akbar: Davutoglu’s Doctrine

When Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul visits India early next year he will be representing a nation that has reinvented its geostrategic role through an independent foreign policy in barely eight years. I hope he brings along Ahmet Davutoglu, who shaped the theory and then structured the practicals, first as principal adviser to Prime Minister Recip Tayyab Erdogan, and now as Foreign Minister. He must be one of the few academics fortunate enough to get a chance to make ideas work.

The starting point was 2002, when the Justice and Development Party [AKP] won the elections and ended the monopoly on power exercised by a military-bureaucratic-civilian Istanbul-centric elite which claimed the inheritance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his European-style secularism which still prohibits a Turkish woman from wearing a headscarf to university. This elite protected Ataturk’s secular vision, but, somewhere along the way lost sight of Ataturk’s independence.

The wives of Erdogan and Gul wear headscarves, but that is not the point: the wives of many Cabinet ministers and high officials do not, and are not required to. What is relevant is that AKP subtly shifted a policy that had become synonymous with America’s, without the angry rhetoric that has become a regrettable hallmark of so many who strut as lead actors on the anti-American stage. AKP proved that change was possible without compromising an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship with Washington. Their predecessors had America’s friendship. AKP has America’s respect as well.

Turkey has played a pivotal role in two of the three great wars of the 20th century. It was an ally of Germany and the Central Powers in the First World War, but refused to declare war on the United States even when the latter joined the Anglo-French alliance. Even though it lost its empire in the fighting, Turkey did not permit a single enemy soldier on its territory during wartime. Istanbul was occupied only after truce. Ataturk, victor of Gallipoli, was the great hero of this conflict; but took his true place in his nation’s history after 1918, when the vainglorious trio of Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Clemenceau, leavening their intent with anti-Muslim Crusader sentiment, armed and financed a Greek invasion of Turkey. Their aim was to partition the country and leave Turkey as a rump Anatolian state. Ataturk mobilised a proud army and people, and shocked the victors of World War I by destroying the Greeks after they reached the outskirts of Ankara.

Ataturk, protecting his nation’s independence, kept Turkey neutral in the Second World War. Historic fears of next-door Russia, now the Soviet Union, drove Istanbul into Washington’s embrace in the Cold War. But when in the 1980s flexibility became an option, and in the 1990s a necessity, Turkey remained rigid. When it looked south it could only see Israel; when it looked east it could see nothing more than Pakistan. Both were American allies. Turkey did not have a policy or a vision for the 21st century.

Davutoglu selected the moment of departure with uncanny vision: George Bush’s war on Iraq in 2003. It gave an early sign of change, when it refused to let American troops pass through Turkey on their way to Iraq. It also realised, fairly early, that America would be weakened by Bush’s Iraq folly, creating space for new players, since the Soviet Union was too weak to play any role at all.

Israel and Iran have sufficient muscle to fill a regional vacuum, but both were inherently belligerent. They would be able to intervene, but as destabilisers rather than stabilisers. Iran had a natural advantage in Shia-majority Iraq, but it simultaneously provoked deep suspicions in the Arab world. Turkey set itself up as the region’s centre of stability. Ironically, this was its role during the days of the Ottoman Empire; but this time around, it could create an arc of influence only through diplomacy and harmony, not imposition.

Turkey set about strengthening its relations with Arab nations. It distanced itself from warriors in Israel, without breaking ties of trade and cooperation. It criticised Israel’s Gaza war unambiguously. But it realised that a critical key to peace lay in the amelioration of its own antagonisms with its neighbours. This was, given the emotionalism that is attached to the past, difficult.

But Turkey has now signed historic protocols with Armenia, warmed icy relations with Syria to the point where visa has been abolished, lifted ties with Iran and become a vital partner of Iraq in the reconstruction of the country. In October Erdogan signed 48 MoUs covering energy, commerce and security (among other things) with Baghdad. Davutoglu paid a visit to the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, which is equivalent to an Indian Foreign Minister dropping in on Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Not too long ago, Turkey’s air force was bombing this Kurdish region as punishment for being a base for terrorism. Turkey, America and Iraq are working together to bring the long and bitter Kurdish war against Turkey to an end -- another sign of Washington’s new respect for Istanbul.

Pakistan has recognised the change as well, but done so in its India-centric manner. It has asked Turkey to help solve the Kashmir problem. Istanbul is not so green as to try and do so; and certainly Delhi will be frosty towards any such misguided initiative. But Turkey has found its role on the world stage. A stem in the Cold War greenhouse has flowered in the fresh air of an open mind.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Indira: Great heroes make great mistakes

Indira: Great heroes make great mistakes
By M J Akbar

Gandhi gave us freedom, Nehru protected our independence and Indira Gandhi saved the nation. Is that too neat to be correct?

A leader, unlike a mere office-bearer, possesses the ability to define the existential challenge of the moment, and guide a generation towards a promised destination. Gandhi, Nehru and Indira were leaders, albeit on different tiers of history, each a mixture of success and failure. Gandhi's pedestal is secure from controversy but elevation tends to deflect his achievement. As Jawaharlal observed, Gandhi freed Indians from fear; freedom from the British was a consequence. Gandhi's most significant failure, by his own values, was surely that he could not free Indians from violence.

Did Gandhi insist on non-violence for both moral and tactical reasons? He was committed to the principle, of course, but did he also suspect that only an inherently violent people needed the imposition of non-violence in order to save themselves from themselves? Did he suspect that armed Indians might destroy each other in the name of caste or creed long before they identified the true enemy? Untouchability is best described as insidious and silent violence. Gandhi lost his life to the gun he could not eliminate, but his cathartic death exhausted India's surge towards civil war.

Nehru understood, better than some of his successors, that freedom was not synonymous with independence. Neo-colonization is, after all, the grant of independence on condition you do not exercise it. British India was both colony and neo-colony, the latter being the status of princely states. Nehru saw, all around him, how quickly the post-colonial world sought the sanctuary of nurseries set up by both Washington and Moscow. He believed that India's tryst with destiny was something more substantive than occasional lollipops; that India's success could not be outsourced to even a well-wisher, let alone any cynical superpower searching for allies in a Cold War. He needed to look no further than Pakistan for a narrative of dependency. He stumbled when he trusted the Third World as much as he distrusted the First. His Himalayan blunder was a calculation, or miscalculation, that China would be a partner in such a world view. He confused himself with others, and the Chinese laughed at his commitment to peace. Trust is so often the ultimate naivete.

India welcomed the realism of Indira Gandhi after the travails of Nehru's idealism. Her two decades, between 1964 and 1984, as cabinet minister and prime minister, constituted an age of violence in all its myriad complexities: communal, ethnic, linguistic, Communist, secessionist. Language riots in the south; Hindu-Muslim mayhem across the map; Naxalite insurgents lighting a Maoist prairie fire; radical trade unions; a war with Pakistan; Emergency; and, in her second term as prime minister, upheaval in Assam, explosions across the North-East and a full-fledged rebellion in Punjab led by a charismatic theocrat. Calm was not written in Mrs Gandhi's fate lines. Was Bangladesh her high point and Emergency the nadir?

India could have gone the way so many post-colonial dictatorships in Africa and Asia if the Emergency, justified by sycophants as essential to the national interest, had stratified into long-term one-person rule. Some of her closest advisers were determined that it should continue for 20 years. The government had survived the initial outburst by sending the Opposition into prison and the press into coma. Individuals and institutions were gradually co-opted into the quasi-dictatorship. But just when hope for democracy had begun to ebb, one person realized that a government without a mandate was illegitimate. That person was Mrs Gandhi. In January 1977, she shocked friend and foe by calling a general election. In March, she was shocked when the Congress was routed. Democracy has never been challenged again.

It is odd that a leader who was so adept at war in 1971 should prove so gullible in the subsequent peace process. No matter which way you look at it, the Simla Agreement of 1972 was an opportunity thrown away. The cease-fire line of 1948 should have been converted into the permanent border, sealing, thereby, the 1966 Tashkent Agreement in which India and Pakistan inked a commitment to respect this line. Mrs Gandhi held all the trumps in 1972, and lost the hand to Zulfiqar Bhutto. His successor, Zia-ul-Haq, took revenge for Bangladesh by helping foment the Punjab revolt: its apex, in 1984, saw the destruction of the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the frenzied massacre of Sikhs. Zia-ul-Haq could not tear India apart, but he left a wound in India's heart.

Mrs Gandhi's martyrdom washed away her mistakes from public memory. But only great heroes make great mistakes.

- Appeared in Times of India - November 1, 2009