Sunday, December 27, 2009

The 21st century began in 2002

The 21st century began in 2002
By M J Akbar

The 20th century ended in 2002, on the day the Godhra riots began. It was a turbulent age that ravaged society and broke the land as faith became the emotional spur of identity and the principal dialectic of politics. If Jinnah used the rhetoric of Islam to divide, then Gandhi used the metaphor of Ram rajya to unite. Both left an immediate legacy of incomplete dreams; it was up to history to decide which one had a better chance of success. Jinnah's Pakistan has crept towards theocracy, inciting blood-warm civil wars and cold-eyed terrorism. Gandhi's India, despite the able custody of Nehru, has had to struggle with the scourge of communalism, the one great impediment to its tryst with destiny.

The pivotal moments of faith-based passions were the narrative of the 1980s: the Shah Bano episode, and the Ram temple movement. Babri linked up to Ahmedabad through Godhra. But 2002 turned into a swivel point; the last of the lava spewed out, leaving those who had stoked the volcano a spent force. Hindsight confirms that after 2002, enough Indians turned away from fire to the forge of social and economic change. Congress understood this, instinctively rather than ideologically. The absence of ideology permitted tactical mobility between virtual laissez faire, a tilted partnership with America and state-financed handout programmes. Enough constituencies were onside, therefore, on polling day. The BJP flourished only where its regional leaders recognized the primacy of rice over anger. Narendra Modi, uniquely, has mined both seams, but he will find out in the next elections that one seam has run dry. Even the violence of the last eight years, spawned by Naxalites, has been motivated by hunger rather than faith.

The true business of the first decade of the 21st century has been business. It was both appropriate and unfortunate, therefore, that the last date on the legal calendar of this decade was occupied, in the Supreme Court, by the bitter gas case between the iconic businessmen of our time, the brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Their dispute has generated more headlines in six years than any political conflict.

Blood, we have been reliably informed, is thicker than water. Why does money become, all so often, thicker than blood?

There are two medieval models for inheritance. The Mughals opted for a life-and-death decision on the battlefield. The English graduated, possibly to preserve their nobility from self-inflicted wounds, to primogeniture, in which the eldest son got the estate and the younger son a book written by P G Wodehouse. Both models are unacceptable in more egalitarian times, but in our country the elder brother still has the edge. This is why Mukesh Ambani received nearly three-fourths of the Dhirubhai empire, and Anil accepted such an unequal settlement.

But it also becomes a duty on the part of the heirs to preserve this amity, for every empire, political or business, is a public responsibility. Businessmen are often called barons or the new 'Moghuls', but this is not a license to behave like a Mughal, consolidating power by eliminating kin.

There is a remarkable parallel between what might be justifiably called the two most powerful brother-heirs in the Indian private sector. Decorum prevents me from naming one pair of brothers. Both lost their patriarch in harness. The comparative bank balance is not the issue, since billions are beyond mathematics. But if the Ambanis possess the power of wealth; the others have the wealth of power. All four are brilliant, with the rare ability to nurture a seed into a plant and then transform it into a plantation. The Ambanis are an international phenomenon; no less remarkably, the other brothers lifted the dominant newspaper of a single city into a range of media products that made their brand an unparalleled sensation. Brothers inherit genes, not temperament; there were differences in both families. The contrast is that the unnamed heirs, prone as everyone else to human weakness, turned a kingdom into an empire in exemplary harmony, offering a template. Imagine the economic stratosphere in which both Ambanis would flourish without their epic war.

The difference between fortune and misfortune is not money, but the value of a family at peace with itself.

The Supreme Court has the task of Solomon, without the luxury of sentiment: it cannot suggest that the last word be left to the mother, since the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal, the supreme mother of Indian justice. It will be guided by merit, precedence, and the principles its judgment will establish for private and public sector. If India's destiny lies in its economy, if India is to soar above the neighbourhood towards a unique horizon, then the moral code of our faith in business will lie in the voice of the Supreme Court.

Appeared in Times of India - December 27, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Telengana lava melts Teflon

Byline by M J Akbar: Telengana lava melts Teflon

Teflon may be synthetic but it is not a negative: it is in great demand among both cooking utensils and politicians. It might even be called history’s finest non-violent armour, for it protects your reputation from stain. If everything greasy simply rolls off the skin, leaving neither scar nor wound, then you become impervious to criticism. For politicians it becomes a near-magical coat, since they need a double-defence mechanism: safety not only from the Opposition’s barbs but also from their own mistakes. Even when Teflon cracks it does so without a sound. The world gets to know of the breach long after it has occurred, leaving you time for repair.

Ronald Reagan used to delight in being called the Teflon politician. Even the Iran-contra scandal bypassed him, while frying half the White House that reported to him – or maybe he bypassed the scandal. The net result was the same. He kept on smiling till his last day in office, his only regret being that he could not get a better successor. But then, no American President has been overwhelmed by his Vice President, so that is not valid evidence in the evaluation of George Bush the Elder.

Two members of the present Union government have been blessed with Teflon: Dr Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram. Dr Singh was born with it; Chidambaram ordered it at wholesale rates for use in his public persona. As finance minister he concentrated on spreading the good news and left the bad news to lesser mortals like bureaucrats or even a permanent demi-god like Montek Singh Ahluwalia. He made all announcements about recovery and growth. It was brilliant political strategy.

Since the hone minister is the de facto chief policeman of the country, and the police are rarely blessed with good news, Chidambaram refashioned himself as the homeland security minister, raising his challenge to terrorism rather than mere crime. This clearly affected his mindset. He began to see every problem as an existential threat to the nation, treating Naxalites, for instance, as terrorists rather than a violent political movement born out of hunger and the state’s neglect of the poor. Even when he did not express say so, there always seemed to an “or else!” tagged to every statement he made. There was always an undercurrent suggestion in his demeanor that the home minister was not quite at home in his ministry, but Teflon was the great veneer that never let any uncomfortable thought emerge.

Telengana is the first crack in this Teflon, but of course we have not yet heard the sound of any crack since, as noted, the rupture is noiseless. The phrase “flip-flop” has been well imagined. The first flip may be necessary for purposes of either display or convenience, but a second flip is always a flop, leaving you open to ridicule. The home minister was handed his moment when he announced the formation of a separate Telengana state on 9 December. It was the kind of opportunity that Prime Ministers reserve for themselves, for new states are not born each day.

But Dr Manmohan Singh let his junior change the internal map of India. He might have been too busy: after all, he has been rushing from one country to another, with nary a day even for Parliament. Or, more likely, the Prime Minister might have been a better politician than others think he is. Dr Singh can measure the heat of a hot potato from a long distance, and Telengana was the hottest potato in a decade. He left this potato in the mouth of Chidambaram, and its heat melted the Teflon. Close observers of Delhi’s power plays might have noticed a press release that suggested that the statement on the reversal of the Telengana decision would be made jointly by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh. They did not do anything so rash. The hot potato went back to Chidambaram. All he could do, once again, was juggle it on his tongue. Justifications for the second tongue-twister fell flat. Some over-clever types in Delhi tried to make a scapegoat of the new Andhra Chief Minister Rosaiah, even though the latter had warned his high command not to divide the state. All they managed was to weaken yet another branch on which their authority rested.

The union government has sent a message to Andhra Pradesh: pile on the pressure, and Delhi will buckle. Chandrashekhar Rao went on a fast and got his wish in rather quick time; the rest of Andhra picked up the hint and tweaked its own pressure points, inducing a back-breaking somersault. It is Telengana’s turn once again to indulge in rampage-politics.

A question needs to be raised: why is coastal Andhra Pradesh so insistent on keeping a region that is so adamant on divorce? It cannot be a territorial matter since Telengana is not seceding from the Indian union, and there is no law which says that an Andhra businessman cannot own a Telengana company or, for that matter, property in Hyderabad. Language is clearly no longer the most important glue for states, and if people get convinced that there is imbalance in development they will demand a better option – and seek it in their own lifetimes. There is no point offering them gold in 2020 and coal today. It won’t work.

Chandrashekhar Rao surely believes that he is the father of Telengana, but this child would never have been born without the mismanagement of Delhi. This volcano could have smoldered for many more years without exploding, and perhaps this period could have been used to redress the economic imbalance. But Delhi fired the volcano, and it now has lava on its face.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Getting used to a new world order

Getting used to a new world order
By M J Akbar

When end of year coincides with end of decade, the number of theme-questions for a columnist multiplies by 10. Most are as boring as an honest obituary. But one did hear an unusual question: Have you changed your mind about anything in the last 10 years?

I celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the consequent downward slither of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s for two non-sustainable reasons: Principle and self-interest. In retrospect, the second is more comprehensible than the first. As a journalist one had a vested interest in free expression, and the Soviet regime was its boring antithesis. But that is so last century. There is today a vacuum where once lay the brooding, looming Soviet shadow, a force which kept its own citizens under a form of house arrest and yet, inspired enough fear in Anglo-American hawks to restrain their imperial tendencies. Would the Bush-Blair partnership have invaded Iraq in 2003 with such impunity if Uncle Stalin, or even Cousin Brezhnev, had been living in the Kremlin?

My faith in principle was foolish. Principle is an impotent yardstick if it is used to measure Saddam Hussein but not Tony Blair. Few emperors have been as airily indifferent to their own deceptions as Blair has been on Iraq. The politician who sent Britain to war against the will of his own party, told British television some days ago that he would have invented another excuse if he had been caught out on the weapons-of-mass-destruction subterfuge. Blair now admits what we knew all along — that the Iraq war was never about its stated cause.

Coincidentally, President Obama chose to dwell on the complexities of a just war in his Nobel Peace prize speech, delivered around the time Blair was shrugging off any pretence to morality. If the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq was based on a lie, were those who resisted American troops fighting a just or an unjust war? How many more nations would Bush-Blair have sought to conquer had there been no resistance in Iraq?

Obama waded into uncharted territory when he stated a proposition with the confidence of conviction: That a holy war could not be a just war. He was, of course, taking a sideswipe at jihad, understandable in the context of his need to be closer to American opinion than Muslim dogma. In the process, he slashed at Hinduism. Its two great texts, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are war epics, and a Hindu would be aghast to hear that the holy wars of Lord Rama in Lanka and Lord Krishna at Kurukshetra were unjust. The moral code of most eastern faiths is deeply ingrained into popular belief, for we remain believers. Obama will probably be surprised to learn that the iconic holy warrior in the Holy Quran is David, king of the Jewish people.

The balance of power between the principal victors of the Second World War, the alliances led by the US and the Soviet Union, has given way to an imbalance in which the space for a legitimate counterweight has been handed over to shadow armies impelled by private agendas but mobilized in the name of nationalism. Patriotism gives theocratic movements strength that they might never have achieved by a more transparent declaration of intent. This was the story in Iraq; this is the shifting narrative in Afghanistan. In Iraq, most of the insurgents have been co-opted into the system, where they bide their time, waiting for local politicians to self-destruct and American forces to leave. They will shape Iraq to their will when they get the opportunity. In Afghanistan they have history and geography on their side.

A nebulous battle zone is perfect territory for shadow-warriors like the terrorist David Coleman. We must not confuse him with cannon fodder like Kasab; he is much higher in the Lashkar-e-Taiba hierarchy. His expertise in terrorist tradecraft is evident from the confusion: Was he double-crossing the Americans or triple-crossing them? (As for India, Coleman needed only to cross a line, for which we happily provided a visa.) Coleman wore a cover, which could have been stitched from a perfect spy story: He became an informer for the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. He could now trawl, with American blessing, the drug-trade marts between Mumbai and Af-Pak. Maybe, we should call this region Maf-Pak.

In the best of all possible worlds, we would have had a quasi-Brezhnev as head of a muscular Union of Semi-Socialist Soviet Republics in which Pravda was as free as The Times of India. What we have is a single superpower, America, in offensive-defensive siege mode, focussed on its own security even if the collateral damage is visited upon an ally. That seems like a policy worth imitating.

Appeared in Times of India - December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Bird’s Eye View

Byline by M J Akbar: Bird’s Eye View

At long last there is a foreign minister on the international scene with ice- cold blood in his veins and an uncomplicated, unemotional comprehension of national interest. His name is Kieren Keke. He carries the flag for Nauru, an eight-square-mile island-nation of 11,000 inhabitants in the South Pacific famous on two counts. It is the smallest republic in the world, and its principal source of revenue was through the export of phosphates formed by bird droppings. That was undoubtedly the most valuable bird waste in history, but the republic killed the local version of the golden egg by selling more phosphate than the birds could drop.

When the money ran out, Nauru’s imagination blossomed. It invested millions of dollars from its national saving in a London musical. The musical flopped, wrecking the country’s bank balance. It then tried to solve Australia’s troublesome problem by providing a base for immigrants en route to the Pacific El Dorado, in return for suitable compensation. Regrettably, the refugees wanted refuge in Australia rather than amidst lost bird droppings.

But Nauru’s imagination remained fertile. In 2002 Nauru took $130 million from China to break relations with Taiwan. In 2006, presumably after this sweetener was exhausted, it reopened links with Taiwan. It is not known whether there was a financial angle to this decision, but the track record tells its own story. This year Nauru recognised Abkhazia [population: 215,000], one of two “nations” that Russia “liberated” from Georgia in 2008. The price: $50 million. Mr Keke has also paid a visit to the second region, South Ossetia, possibly with an accountant as travelling companion. The message has gone to every chancery: if the price is right, Nauru, a full member of the United Nations, will oblige.

There might even be a touch of High Marx about Nauru’s foreign policy: to Nauru according to its need, from China and Russia according to their ability.

Regrettably, international relations are rarely conducted with such Nauruvian clarity. Big powers tend to offer middle-class nations either a promissory note, if they have been good, or a demand notice, if they have strayed off the indicated path; there is never a clean transaction, let alone a gift voucher.

Transparency may indeed be harmful to bilateral relations, because governments may have to script one narrative for their domestic audience and quite another for the international one. This was Barack Obama’s dilemma in Copenhagen. He could not summon his predecessor’s less-than-sublime indifference to Kyoto, which played well with an electorate that has been trained to believe that the world owes it the luxury Americans have become accustomed to. Neither could he open himself up to a cavalry charge by his opposition. Republicans, led by Don Sarah Palin Quixote, might be racing towards every windmill in sight, but the careful politician knows that even an insane spear can draw blood from a weak spot. Clever Obama bought peace at home by a hard-line text, and deflected criticism abroad by creating a sort of B-Grade Security Council on climate change along with four well-behaved nations, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. This is one of those Christmas presents with packaging from Tiffany’s and a gift from the sale at Woolworth’s, but it does have the advantage of sparkling impressively at the Christmas party. It is only when you open the package in the silence of your room that you discover that this is just another off-the-peg necktie.

Pakistan’s gift from Washington is the usual: food coupons wrapped in a set of demands. Rarely has a wartime alliance been as fraught with tension as the US-Pak war against terror. Roosevelt and Stalin were more compatible. This had nothing to do with personality. They had no confusion about the identity or nature of the enemy. When last reports came in, America was sending Drones to kill Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani in their suspected hideouts in North Waziristan. The Pakistan establishment considers them past and future assets, and potential rulers of Afghanistan once American troops begin to depart in 18 months, leaving a crumbling Karzai regime in their wake. A second Drone target was Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has a truce with the Pak army. The short-term Washington interest is now in open confrontation with the long-term Islamabad perspective. America is engaged in one battle from the air, Pakistan in a separate one on the ground.

Such divergence may be sustainable on the surface since it would be foolish to fracture the alliance, but there will be turmoil below surface calm. Pakistan is already placing curbs on the movement of American personnel, including civilians. One wonders if Richard Holbrooke, who has been placed in cloister for a while, will soon be brought back to show his customary heavy hand. Of course the left hand will never know, or seek to know, what Holbrooke’s right hand is doing.

Eighteen months takes us into the middle of 2011. There is, in the meantime, 2010 to get through. I don’t know what you make of the immediate future, but my depressing feeling is that 2010 is going to be The Year of the Bloody Mess.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Andhra split opens up a Pandora's box

Andhra split opens up a Pandora's box
By M J Akbar

The public school of politics has only one subject in its tutorials: Events. The big boys of Delhi have been playing truant, lulled by an imposter's mantra. Two victories in five years convinced them that delay is a solution.

Do not underestimate the siren call of procrastination. Fudge always remains an option when you have to straddle irreconcilables like partition and unity demands. There could still be an effort to delay the process necessary for the creation of Telangana through simulated disputes, like over the status of Hyderabad, which, geographically and historically is the natural capital of Telangana.

If Delhi had been as worried over the climate change in Hyderabad as it was over climate change in Copenhagen, it would have foreseen the tsunami. But Union Home Minister P Chidambaram did not whisper the word 'Telangana' until he was compelled to talk of nothing else. The speed with which the government slipped from stonewall to capitulation was bound to trigger anger in those who felt they had lost out. The government had five years to manage reconciliation; it did nothing. The Congress made a deal with K Chandrashekhar Rao in 2004 in order to defeat Chandrababu Naidu, and forgot the boatman once it had crossed the river. Complacency is a criminal offence in public life. The verdict may be delayed, but will not be denied.

In 2009, two constituencies tipped Congress into the comfort zone where it was seemingly safe from the threat of foes and nagging of friends - Andhra Pradesh and the Muslim vote. Within six months both have sent a powerful message: Deliver or face the consequences.

Drift has boxed the government into a lose-lose situation. If Congress had accepted Telangana a day before Rao began his fast, Rao would have been history, rather than an historic figure. Delhi has also sent a dangerous signal to half a dozen disparate stakeholders in a new map of India: Mere crying won't help; in order to get milk you need to pick up the kitchen knife and threaten murder or suicide. As also, that milk comes in cartons rather than by the glass. The hills of Darjeeling have ears, as do the sugarcane stalks of western Uttar Pradesh.

Behind all the sound, fury, mistakes and exultation, the promise of Telangana marks a significant but largely unnoticed shift in the dynamics of federalism. Language was the basis on which the States Reorganization Commission, consisting of Sayyid Fazl Ali, H N Kunzru and K M Pannikar re-fashioned India's internal geography. The untidy parts were sorted out under public pressure - Maharashtra in 1960, Punjab in 1966 - but once again on the basis of language. Only hill regions and the North East were offered criteria that were at a slight variance.

The shift came, logically enough, when the nation's priorities changed. Once it was evident that no regional language, or culture, was under threat from unitary pressures, language melted as a focal point of identity. The new federal politics is determined by economics. Telangana and the rest of Andhra speak the same language, but have diametrically conflicting economic interests. Telangana, in fact, accuses coastal Andhra of exploiting its resources. This fundamental change was evident in 2000, when Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh were created. Parent and newborn shared the same language. Indeed, the absence of fuss nine years ago is a template in consensus building, in the difference between negotiation and appeasement. Wounds were treated before gangrene could set in.

The seed of every demand lies in the perception of economic neglect, in the belief of a people that they have been left out of the story of rising India. Small then becomes sensible because big has proved to be bogus.

The ferment in the second decisive Congress constituency, Muslims, also has everything to do with economics. The dialectic is faith-based because Muslims have a nationwide presence rather than any specific space. Dr Manmohan Singh has sought to pre-empt a crisis by promising to table the Ranganath Mishra Commission report before the end of the current session of Parliament, but that will be only the beginning of his problems. The Commission has recommended 15% reservation in all government jobs, educational seats and resources for minorities, 10% of which is to be allotted for Muslims. Muslims will treat this as a benchmark and demand to know what action has been taken. None so far; since any action might fuel an equal and opposite reaction. Inaction has served Congress well, for Muslims did not raise the matter in the last elections since they understood the political fallout. But that alibi has been used and cannot be recycled.

The Congress dilemma is familiar to those who win elections: A promise that restores you, can always return to haunt you.

Appeared in Times of India - December 13, 2009

Muscular Instability

Byline by M J Akbar: Muscular Instability

Can a stable government be a weak government? Yes. There is no compulsory correlation. Strength comes from concern, purpose and commitment, while fragility is the first manifestation of complacence — and sometimes the popular mood kicks in, turning the first into the second. Defeat in the China war punctured the strongest government we have had, Jawaharlal Nehru’s.

Mrs Indira Gandhi’s tenure can be divided into three phases: January 1966 to the 1971 general elections; then up to the Emergency and the elections of 1977; and the final, tragic term between January 1980 and October 1984. She inherited a government with the lowest ever majority, and then proceeded to turn it into a minority by splitting the Congress. Bangladesh apart, the most decisive period was when she was in a minority. She reshaped the domestic agenda, breaking almost as many moulds as had been nurtured in the previous two decades. Ironically, it was when she became a near demi-god, after Bangladesh in December 1971, that she lost control of the tides of public opinion. By 1973 India was in ferment; by 1974, in revolt.

Opposition parties have rarely been the principal architects of challenge to government, even if they do end up the principal beneficiaries. In 1972, the Left was defeated and sulking in Bengal; the Socialists were bickering and split [that has not changed] and the Jan Sangh was a flickering lamp in pockets of Hindu-Muslim antagonism without much oil. Mrs Gandhi returned to power in January 1980 with an astonishing majority, but her government never got into second gear and finally stalled over Punjab and Assam. In this phase too, the traditional Opposition parties had little to do with the establishment’s disarray. Rajiv Gandhi led the most powerful majority in Parliament’s history but in three years his government was defensive, and by the fourth year, immobile. Each time, the people mobilized, in one way or the other, while the regular Opposition leaders spent time in self-important confabulations.

Narasimha Rao, in contrast, never had a majority, even after he purchased one. He stumbled from crisis to calamity, propelled largely by cynicism. But despite instability in both Parliament as well as on the street, he managed to navigate economic reforms through turbulence, leaving an important legacy.

An election victory does not necessarily breed complacency in the sinews of authority, but re-election almost certainly does. The high-five of a renewed mandate persuades politicians to believe that they are sitting on a peak from which they cannot be moved for twenty years. I have no idea why they believe they have been given twenty years of eternity; maybe the human imagination, restricted by the limitations of lifespans, cannot be self-delusional beyond that. But the moment you step into that self-satisfied zone, your descent begins.

The Andhra crisis is a self-inflicted wound. When Telangana leader K. Chandrashekhar Rao began his fast unto death, or at least unto partition, he was treated with such supreme indifference that no minister in Delhi even bothered to treat it as a problem. The earth was warming in Hyderabad, but the statements and newspaper headlines were only about climate change in Copenhagen. Rao was dismissed as an irritant without a cause. After all, the Congress had just triumphed for a second time in the state. I suspect that the complete disconnect with Delhi multiplied the anger and brought Osmania University’s students out. Youth provide critical mass to any momentum and, as we have seen in the past, there is enough volatility in the state to induce the ultimate sacrifice of suicide. Rao himself could no more have ended his fast than he could have abandoned his dream of a separate state; it would have been political suicide. Those with a memory know that the Telugu speaking areas of Madras Presidency were merged into the Nizam’s Telugu domain as a result of a fast, by a Gandhian called Potti Sriramulu. Nehru allowed him to die, by 15 December; but even the enormous credibility of Nehru and Congress in 1953 could not stop the realisation of the demand. Sriramulu achieved in death what he could not in life, and forced Nehru to accept the principle of linguistic states. Rao has achieved what he may never have obtained without a Russian roulette gamble. The Congress of 2009 had neither the wisdom to negotiate on the first day of the fast, nor the strength to let the fast continue. The high command succumbed with startling speed, signalling to Gorkhaland, Vidarbha, Harit Pradesh and Bundelkhand that if they keep their eyes open and focused the government will blink.

Is this the point at which the Manmohan Singh government begins to bleed from an Achilles heel? Much depends on how well the Prime Minister and Mrs Sonia Gandhi bandage the breach, but the Andhra story is going to be in play for a while and will expose the contradictions inherent in a unitary national party that was unable to manage an epochal change. If the Andhra Congress bleeds from a local civil war the stain will spread.

Tension is good for governance; taut nerves keep your body on its toes, and the mind alert. After this year’s general election, the tension fizzled out from government, and rushed directly into the Opposition. Tension, by the way, is not good for Opposition, as is pretty obvious, isn’t it? If the government does not recover its balance we could have a very curious dilemma: authority is in disarray, and the Opposition spread-eagled. But the Indian people will be in array.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A Date with Theocracy

A Date with Theocracy
M.J. Akbar

Barack Obama is clearly a post-modernist Commander-in-Chief. He announced the date of defeat in the Afghan war on the day he sent more troops in the hope of victory. The day American forces begin to leave Afghanistan in 2011, as promised by President Obama, the Taliban will begin its countdown to Kabul.

It is now clear to the Taliban what has been obvious to many observers. Obama is not interested in an American victory in Afghanistan by 2011. He is interested in an Obama victory in America in 2012. He wants to campaign as the President who brought the boys home without giving the impression that he has been weak in the process. He inherited an Afghan war with some 10,000 American soldiers in combat. That figure has been short-tracked upwards to 100,000, partly because Obama purchased his way into the muscular pro-war segment of the American vote by criticising Iraq and upgrading Afghanistan into the war of necessity. He is paying his dues to that section of American opinion by fighting a cosmetic war. The Taliban have often said that while NATO has a clock, they have time. In 2011, irrespective of ground conditions, the NATO clock will go into reverse sweep.

The enigma of this Afghan war, the fifth against a Western power since 1840, is located exactly where it was in the other four. It lies in the meaning of victory and defeat. For the occupier, victory means subjugation of the ruling authority to its will. For the defenders, it means the departure of foreign troops from Afghan foreign soil. Afghan fighters in the 19th century did not want to shape the way the British Raj should be run, and they resented the idea that they should be told how Afghanistan should be run. In the 20th century, the jihadis did not want to destroy Communism in Moscow [that they played a great role in actually doing so is incidental]. They simply did not want Communist soldiers in Kabul and Kandahar and Mazaar-i-Sharif.

The Afghan war of the 21st century could have been, and should have been, different, because a terrorist group with sanctuary from Taliban provoked America. Eight years later, roles are getting reversed for the Taliban and its allies have, increasingly, in the Afghan mind, begun to occupy nationalist space. Washington made a basic error at the outset, when it confused Al Qaeda with the whole of Afghanistan, gradually shifting the focal point of the war. This was understandable in the heat of 2001, but less so with the passage of time. Privately, Pervez Musharraf would surely have suggested this but subtleties were lost on the Bush White House.

Obama may be erring in the other direction. He has announced the three pillars of his Afghan policy: a strategic partnership with Pakistan empowered by finance and weapons; the creation of a “military condition” within 18 months that will enable “transition”; and “a civilian surge that reinforces positive action”. The third is the kind of gobbledygook that bemuses friends and consoles office-bearers of the speechwriters’ union. Does Obama expect Hamid Karzai to surge towards Kandahar in 2011, wafting on doves of peace?

The biggest problem may lie in the first proposition. Pakistan does not have the good fortune of being 8,000 miles from Afghanistan. Islamabad’s ruling elite, including the armed forces, will display full commitment in the war against Al Qaeda, where and when it can be found, and against the Pak Taliban, because both are serious threats to the Pakistan state and system. But it will have unexpressed reservations about America’s war against the Afghan Taliban, since the latter have been and will continue to be Pakistan’s ally in the geopolitics of South Asia. Pakistan’s war within its own country has become, willy-nilly, America’s war, but America’s war in Afghanistan has not become Pakistan’s war. Washington, for reasons unknown and incomprehensible, does not get this.

In fact, America’s primary partner in the war against the Afghan Taliban should be India, not Pakistan, since both nations have an ideological commitment against the forces of theocracy, as well as a strategic interest in keeping Taliban out of Kabul. Pakistan has no such motivation. The best period in the troubled history of Pak-Afghan relations was when Taliban was in power, since the Taliban looked at foreign policy through the prism of Islamic brotherhood rather than just the compulsions of national interest.

The real war in Afghanistan is between modernity and theocracy, but the wrong side is winning that battle. In the last eight years, for many Afghans, modernity has become synonymous with corruption, cronyism and non-Pakhtun warlords — the three hallmarks of the Karzai regime — while the Taliban has revived its image as God-fearing, honest, clean and able to offer stability and security in the villages. It is an American tragedy that while it seeks friends across the world who reflect its own values, it makes friends with those who ruin its reputation.


by M J Akbar (In Covert 1-15th)

Going by the dubious precedence set by Justice M.S. Liberhan, a half-truth about the catastrophic events of Mumbai 26/11 should become available to Parliament and the Indian public by 2025. Bad luck if you want the full truth, or you want it within your lifetime; you can never hurry a judge determined to be slow.

A fate worse than death awaits the judge whose conscience cannot be purchased at the going rate of a Government bungalow in Delhi. In Mumbai, Justice Srikrishna delivered his findings on the violent consequences of the Babri demolition, a far more difficult and sensitive assignment, well in time. His report has not been allowed formally into the public domain, since it tells the truth, and truth is injurious to the health of a Government that was complicit in the mismanagement of the riots.

The duty of an enquiry is not to restate the obvious, but to repair any faults in the system through a thorough diagnosis of the malady, to lay out the findings fearlessly, and hold the powerful accountable where there has been a violation of trust or a betrayal of the responsibilities of office. A judicial enquiry is much more than a police investigation into guilt. It invokes the highest sense of justice, which is far more than legality. We have become indifferent to the corruption at the lower levels of the criminal-justice system. Are we now being trained to accept partiality and collusion in a judicial enquiry? If nothing is sacrosanct, we will be subject to the dictatorship of the profane.

We did not need 17 years of casuistry to reveal something that was visibly evident within 17 minutes of the first assault on the dome and structure of the Babri mosque on 6 December 1992 – that the BJP, RSS and Shiv Sena were involved. They had led the emotional movement that climaxed on 6 December. BJP leaders like Vinay Katiyar, the alleged mastermind, wear it as a badge of pride. Justice Liberhan has done us no favours by “concluding” what was reported in every newspaper the next day. But he has done the nation and the people a huge disfavour by twisting and contorting elements of the truth in order to hide the conscious collusion of Prime P.V. Narasimha Rao, his home minister S.B. Chavan and eventually, through a conspiracy of silence, the whole Cabinet. It requires a tremendous backward leap of logic to find Rao innocent and hold those who were working to protect the Babri mosque, like leaders of the Babri Masjid Action Committee, guilty. It is true that a few Muslim leaders were shrill in some speeches, but so what? Emotions were high, and their tenor was nothing compared to the rhetoric of others. Incredible as it might seem, this is one of the findings of the Liberhan report.

WITH THE credibility of enquiry commissions in tatters, it is hardly surprising that the protagonists and victims of the barbarous terrorist invasion of Mumbai a year ago are not waiting for any Government-sponsored investigation to run its course. I presume they do not, for starters, want to wait for 17 years. Officers at the very top of the hierarchy, like former police commissioner Hassan Gafoor, have begun to tell their versions to a hungry media. This is not the whole of it. Leaking by police officers on an off-the-record basis has reached monsoon proportions in Mumbai. This constitutes, in theory, an astonishing collapse of discipline; in practice, the Government is utterly incapable of taking any action because anything it does will also expose its own sins of omission and commission.

Widows of martyred police officers have no faith in the Government’s ability or desire to establish a credible narrative of what actually transpired, and why. They are publishing their impression of events, backed up by their individual research, like Vinita Kamte, wife of Assistant Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte, who died doing his duty while others chose survival over challenge. They are filling a black hole into which the Government has sought to consign that terrible memory. In the process, allegations have been made against serving police officers that cannot be ignored; they must be investigated, and the officers either exonerated or punished.

The reluctance of the politician to pursue the past can be easily understood. Much drama surrounded the resignation of the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. Where is he now? Why, in the Union Cabinet, of course, a loyal colleague of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, responsible for managing the whole nation rather than just one State. The resignation drama of 2008 was highly effective, since it staved off any punishment at the polls in 2009. Politicians are certain of one thing if they are certain of anything at all: the voter has a short memory.

Ruling party politicians might find it useful to recall, however, a well-known rule of democracy. When Opposition parties fail to play their role, the people become the Opposition. This takes a long time, and people give their Government a very long rope. But every rope is finite. And a rope can so easily become a noose

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bhopal: 25 years of sheer apathy

Bhopal: 25 years of sheer apathy
By M J Akbar

Every anniversary of a trauma, whether Bhopal, Bhagalpur, Bluestar, Ahmedabad or the anti-Sikh riots on Delhi's streets, turns into a struggle between anger and amnesia. It is a no-contest. Amnesia wins every time.

Eyeless in Bhopal. Heartless in communal riots. Clueless in Ayodhya. Mindless in government. And, maybe, pointless in rage. Perhaps the determining fact is that everyone, apart from the victim, has a vested interest in silence since the guilt, active or passive, extends beyond the obviously culpable. Governments might inspire and abet riots, but they are never possible without participation of the people. Every political party has an inconvenient truth in its history.

What, however, explains the callous indifference to the perpetrators of the Bhopal tragedy, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical? Twenty-five years ago, Union Carbide's factory in Bhopal spat out 40 tons of aerial poison in the form of methyl isocyanate, killing nearly 4,000 immediately and some 15,000 since then. It was a crime of greed, since this gas was used because it was cheaper than safer alternatives. The cover-up was dubious, at the very least. Carbide attributed the accident to sabotage by a disgruntled employee who was never named. This evasion was prelude to escape. In 2001, Dow Chemical bought Carbide for $11.6 billion.

Dow priced the Indian dead at an average of $2,200 per corpse, or around Rs 1 lakh at today's exchange rates. The blinded and maimed were dismissed with a compensation of $550 on average. That, explained a Dow spokeswoman, was "plenty good for an Indian". When Dow Chemical sets the price for Indian lives, we natives had better accept with folded hands. How much, incidentally, do you think your infant's eyes are worth? Raghu Rai, who gave the world the iconic image of Bhopal, of a dead child's face, could have provided the answer, but which establishment, political or corporate, has time for a photographer's pain?

Our governments, whether led by Congress or BJP, made the usual thundery noise in public and, in private, cooperated with Carbide/Dow Jones, starting from the day Carbide chief Warren Anderson was airlifted out of Bhopal to escape local wrath. Over time, even the noise has become a passing perfunctory statement. We have never asked for Anderson's extradition, although there is an international arrest warrant against him. Is Anderson hiding in the Amazon forest? No. He is living in a luxurious American suburb. Why should American authorities worry about accountability if we don't? Our unstated reason has been that action against Anderson would frighten foreign investors. Why let a few thousand corpses interfere with the balance sheet?

In 2006, Dow wrote to America's then ambassador in India, thanking him for obtaining our government's assurance that Dow would not be held liable for the mass murder of Bhopalis. Dow should now send a letter to our present minister of state for environment, who went to Bhopal to jeer at those who are still protesting against continuing death from left-over toxic waste. According to critics, from 15 to 30 people are still dying every month.

Dow Chemicals dare not be as casual about Americans. In 2002, it set aside over two billion dollars to cover Carbide's asbestos contamination liabilities. An American cough is far, far more expensive than an Indian life. Why? Because America cares for Americans. The poor in America have won their right to justice, and every company knows that it cannot sweet-talk its way through sleepwalkers in power.
If there is any explanation for Delhi's fudge-and-fuss approach, it can only lie in the Indian elite's very real indifference to the poor. What, one wonders, would have been the reaction if Carbide had leaked its poison over Lutyens' Delhi rather than five kilometers from the old Bhopal city? Would Anderson have spent 25 years in Tihar rather than a villa in Hampton's? You can bet your last silver dollar that Dow would have been both poorer and more contrite.

Abdul Jabbar Khan, convenor of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan, had much to say to the media as he led a rally from the homes of the dead to the death factory on the 25th anniversary. One sentence said as much as was needed: "We got no justice, no adequate compensation and not enough compassion." He was expecting justice from a meandering legal system, compensation from a caustic foreign company - and compassion from fellow-Indians. Of the three, the last hurts most.

Media has done what it could. The Times of India has done some moving reportage of the 25th anniversary in the last few days. It would be interesting to find out, possibly through market research, whether the readers of the nation's most powerful newspaper have been moved at all.

Appeared in Times of India - December 6, 2009