Saturday, December 25, 2010

A strange democracy

Byline by M J Akbar: A Strange Democracy

India has become a strange democracy where Binayak Sen gets life in jail and dacoits get a life in luxury. It takes years of pressure for government to move against those looting the nation’s treasury; and when the majestic forces of enforcement do go on a “raid” they give their quarry enough time to remove every trace of evidence. You have to be exceptionally stupid to store evidence of your own culpability in a telecom scandal where deals were made and money paid three years before. Or, for that matter, even six months ago, as in some instances of the highly lubricated Commonwealth Games. By this time the money has either been spent, converted into assets, or sent to a convenient haven abroad. The political-industrial nexus is above the law, because it controls enforcement. But if the ruling class of India could have hanged Binayak Sen instead of merely trying to send him to jail for the rest of his life, it would have done so.

Binayak made a fundamental, mortal mistake. He was on the side of the poor. That is a non-negotiable error in our oligarchic democracy. Christmas must be truly merry in the homes of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and of course Raman Singh this year. The Congress and BJP dislike each other with a passion that only a thirst for power can generate; they disagree on just about anything and everything. But there is perfect harmony between them over Naxalite policy. End the Naxalite problem by elimination of the messenger; and the poor will not have the courage to ask for more than the trickle allotted to them by a gluttonous government.

Media is obedient doorman of this nexus, protecting its interests with a zeal that should surprise even the benefactors. The arrest of Binayak was converted into instant accusatory headlines. His trial was ignored by the press, which is why we do not know that there was virtually no substantive evidence. Suffice it to say that two of Binayak’s jailors, during his detention without bail, were declared hostile by the prosecution. Prosecuting lawyers are in the pay of government, as are the jailors. And yet two policemen refused to back the prosecution. A fabricated unsigned letter, apparently cooked up on a computer printout, seems to have been sufficient to convince the honourable guardians of our judicial system that Binayak Sen deserved a sentence reserved for only the most hardened murderer.

It is another matter that Binayak Sen, who was senior to me in school, was and remains the gentlest of people, distinguished only by a fierce commitment to his cause of choice. I do not agree with his political views or inclinations; nor does the political system. But it is only in a dictatorship that disagreement is sufficient reason for incarceration. India seems to be developing a two-tier democracy: generosity of the law for the privileged and vindictive, distorted application on the underprivileged.

It is ironic that the Binayak judgement appeared on the front pages of the Christmas day newspapers. We all know that Jesus was not born on 25 December; it was only in the fourth century that Pope Liberius declared this date to be a birthday because mystery and miracle has been associated with the winter solstice from time beyond memory. Christmas has become an international festival because it represents the most important values that give life some meaning and hold the complex social web together: peace, and goodwill towards all men, without which there cannot be peace.

This goodwill is not sectarian; it is easy to have goodwill towards some men, friends or benefactors. Christmas is the festival of the Other. It is the embrace of the dissident, or even the enemy. The most famous display of the Christmas spirit was the pause on the frontline in the First World War, when a few British and German soldiers announced an impromptu truce, played football, shared a drink and became human for a day before their superiors ordered them to return to the savagery of a terrible war that wrecked Europe.

If Binayak Sen is guilty of sedition on the basis of fictitious evidence, then, as was famously said during the great Gandhian movement against the British between 1919 and 1922, there are not enough jails in India to hold those equally guilty. The reference is not accidental. Governments have begun to opt for a colonial approach towards Naxalism and its myriad manifestations. The reason? Fear, perhaps terror. The corrupt can recognise their nemesis.

The Radialogue Wound

The Radialogue Wound
By M.J. Akbar
Third Eye in India Today
3rd January 2011

New words are an annual media byproduct without a balance sheet. The profit is not immediately visible, and loss not worth the count. The New York Times has produced a thirty-plus list that seems more obligatory than essential. Most words show the strains of artifice. Fortunately, terms like “sofalize” [socializing from home, through the net] will die a natural death after their fifteen seconds of fame. The hideous “mansplainer” just might get fifteen minutes of life, since it denotes a compulsive male opinion-giver and is therefore perfectly suited for TV pundits, but it is really too weak to survive.

Some deserve the immediate sentence of capital punishment. Put “Porno scanner” [synonym for the full-body security search at American airports] down for quick execution. Others are so tortured they seem to have spent time at Guantanamo. “Poutrage” [false anger] has clearly been put through a sadistic lexicographer’s tweezer. The accidental genius of Sarah Palin, which gave us “refudiate”, will survive as a joke as long as Sarah Palin survives as a joke.

But I do hope two words acquire momentum. “Coffice” comes from South Korea, a busy little country where the diligent can turn an internet café into an office for the price of a cup of coffee. In India, of course, we would need to rearrange the word a bit, since our specialty is turning an office into a café. Ficecof, anyone? Perhaps not. Any word that sounds like an interrupted gurgle can’t be good for conversation.

“Halfalogue” also has the feel of a strangled academic’s last wish, so all optimism about its future must be guarded. It means half an overheard conversation; and that makes it interesting. It first appeared in a semi-obscure research paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, titled “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech is More Distracting”, which multiplies its interest level. What a natural for Delhi’s chatterati: “The Niira halfalogue was just too much, wasn’t it? Do you think Manmohan carries a mobile phone?”

In fact, the Prime Minister doesn’t. Niira Radia, apparently, had at least eight mobile phones, only one of which was tapped. If one phone could inflict so much havoc, we can only wonder, enrapt in awe, at the destruction that a tap on all eight mobiles would have caused. Once upon a time, not very long ago, a mobile phone was at best an instrument of need and at worst a symbol of self-importance. Niira Radia has turned it into an instrument of caution for the large majority whose imagination is restrained by limits, and a weapon of duplicity for the few blessed with Machiavellian wile. If you are confident that your phone is tapped, you can always plant any story you want about anyone you dislike.

Even the most extravagant astrologer could never have predicted that Dr Manmohan Singh would be fatally wounded by a mobile phone. He has withstood, with great calm and fortitude, six years of Opposition artillery without a scratch on his reputation. Suddenly, he has become victim of friendly fire. A remarkable aspect of a scandal that has weakened the government to the point of fragility is that conversations which revealed part of the truth were between politicians, lobbyists, businessmen and journalists on the same side. This is collusive detail, not accusatory condemnation, from lobbyists and journalists who were friends of those in power. An investigative arm of government exposed a Cabinet minister. The lethal icing came from the anonymous sources who leaked the Radia tapes. Their names may not be public knowledge, although they are privately known, but this much is certain: officers of this government were intent on the destruction of its credibility.

“An old Chinese saying” is a tautology, for all Chinese sayings are old. The new ones are trapped in artificial ideology; the old ones were nurtured in the crucible of observation. Do not judge a man, goes one, until the coffin is closed, for he still has time to make a mistake. The Prime Minister made one mistake. He did not stop the DMK loot when he should have and could have. He permitted daylight loot from the nation’s treasury in order to survive. The true tenor of the Congress-DMK equation is revealed in a letter written by former telecom minister A. Raja, in which he virtually orders the Prime Minister not to interfere on telecom pricing. The moment Dr Singh meekly conceded, his credibility cracked. The Radia tapes reveal the hemorrhage of a self-inflicted wound.

Dr Singh came to office in 2004, but took a while to come to power. He may remain in office, but his power has begun to ebb.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Divide and Fool

Divide and Fool
By M J Akbar
In Third Eye: India Today
December 17, 2010

It is a bit surprising that Digvijaya Singh proved to be too clever by half. Imitating Abdul Rehman Antulay is not the most intelligent option for anyone who wants to make Rahul Gandhi the next prime minister.

The quality of governance is recognised by the management of a crisis; the depth of a politician measured by his ability to convert a crisis into an opportunity. A good prime minister controls events; a poor one becomes their victim. Each event demands attention, for politics is a daily diet, but all facts are obviously not equal. It can take time for a headline to etch its way into the national memory; the spectrum scandal took two years to become a scar in the collective psyche.

Scars might fade but only if the wound is light; in any case, they never go away. It may sound like a paradox, but every politician knows that when corruption becomes a joke in the voters' discourse, it is no longer trivial. Each time an Indian pays some exorbitant price at the vegetable market, he is reminded, at some subconscious level, of the number of zeros in Rs 1.76 lakh crore. The figure has become a symbol of merciless greed in a culture of elitist loot.

A historic event is easily defined; it lives across the lifetime of at least one generation, and shifts perception and faith imperceptibly but irrevocably. Bofors is 25 years old, but still works as a metaphor. The attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008 has changed the attitude of Indians towards Pakistan; there is no longer space in their spirit for adjustment with a neighbour that breeds, feeds and protects callous mass murderers and then trots out self-serving theories to justify criminal abetment of terrorism.

A significant charm of democracy is that every political crisis is a public carnival, open to censure of a judge, reproof of the victim, anger of the preacher and buffoonery of the jester. Do not underestimate the joker; a politician may find it easier to survive rage than lethal, viral caricature. The current crisis in the Congress is too evident to bear repetition, except that context is always a useful companion for text. The party has self-destructed in its secure southern base, Andhra Pradesh, and fragmented a vital alliance in Tamil Nadu, states that catapulted it to power in two general elections. The compensation in Karnataka, where the BJP is taking a beating, is insufficient in electoral terms. But it is the situation in the north which is probably more worrisome. The returns from its only reliable northern vote bank, the Muslims, have suddenly depreciated. In Bihar, more Muslims voted for the Nitish Kumar-BJP alliance than for the Congress. A repetition in Uttar Pradesh, where Assembly elections are likely to be brought forward to November 2011, could deflate the party into corrosive depression.

Digvijaya Singh, the party general secretary for Uttar Pradesh, is a clever man. It is a bit surprising that he proved to be too clever by half. Imitating Abdul Rehman Antulay is not the most intelligent option for anyone who wants to make Rahul Gandhi the next prime minister of India. Like Antulay after 26/11, he sought to resurrect a conspiracy theory that had become passe even in the Urdu papers where it once flourished.

The sheer audacity of an event as astonishing as the Mumbai attacks encourages doubt, which is the first step towards conspiracy. But surely Digvijaya Singh has common sense, unless he sacrificed that virtue at the altar of power. The Urdu paper theory is, in brief, that 26/11 was organised to kill Hemant Karkare, a brave police officer, because he was on the verge of exposing Hindu zealots. This implies that Hindu zealots came to a deal with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose leader Hafiz Saeed was so delighted that, with the help of ISI, he armed and trained 10 young men, and sent them on Jihad to India so that Hindu zealots might be protected! I am not a votary of the exclamation mark, but rarely has it been more necessary. You have to be scarily bonkers to believe such utter nonsense. It is one thing when an editor desperate for circulation takes recourse to stupidity.When a man who has been chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and could be home minister of India promotes such rubbish, we have to worry about the health of our politics.

A historic event such as 26/11 creates a national narrative that might blur at the edges but is essentially consistent with the truth. Digvijaya Singh compromised the Indian narrative in order to flirt with rabid sentiment.

The irony is the Congress is losing the Muslim vote because it no longer understands the Muslim vote. Indian Muslims have seen through the deception of decades. They are, at long last, rejecting the politics of fear and demanding development. Check out Bihar.

Who has the last word?

Byline by M J Akbar: Who has the last word?

Do we remember what we have heard or what we wanted to hear? Famous last words are tricky. Even strangers can get infected with nerves at the bedside of a dying man, not least because evidence of mortality induces depressing thoughts of your own inevitable departure. Relatives and friends are too affected by sentiment. Assuming that the deathbed utterance, if there is one, is more likely to be a mumble rather than oratory, the opportunity for tweaking is high, either in the interest of clarity or to improve the quality. Did Groucho Marx really say, “Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!”? Or Conrad Hilton, founder of the eponymous hotel chain, depart on the less-than-grand note of “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub”. The great Italian traveller sounds far more credible: “I have not told half of what I saw.” As does the brilliant Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” Such pitch perfect sentences seem edited by a benefactor for an anthology, which is where I have picked them from.

But of course the words survive because they are in character. The billionaire Hilton must have been obsessing about his hotel guests mucking up the bathroom; Groucho could hardly have resisted one last crack, or Thomas one last idle boast about the addiction that destroyed his talent.

Did Richard Holbrooke, the peripatetic czar of America’s policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, really tell a Pakistani-origin doctor, as he went for the final surgery, “End that Afghanistan war”? Or did the Pakistani doctor, who has watched his country pay such a corrosive political, social and military price for conflicts imposed upon Afghanistan by the strategic interests of superpowers, hear what he wanted to hear?

Holbrooke was the sort of man who took no prisoners in his day job and dominated the room when off duty. His fascinating official career began in Vietnam, paused for a stint as editor of Foreign Affairs and would have ended as the peace-broker of Bosnia if his friend and mentor Hillary Clinton had not given him diplomatic charge of America’s latest war zone. He would have occupied her present office if Hillary had won the White House. While Holbrooke roamed the world, there was one indisputable theme in whatever he said or did: the American interest came first. He was a classical New York, liberal patriot.

Did he believe, therefore, that it was now in the American interest to stop the war? During the two years of his intensive engagement he had — much to the dismay of Delhi — bought into Pakistan’s version of events. He became an advocate of Islamabad’s “strategic depth” theory and put as much pressure as he could on Delhi to withdraw troops from the Line of Control so that Pakistan could shift its own forces towards its western front. He was the principal voice within the Obama administration urging the largesse that Pakistan has received in the last two years. George Bush was far more circumspect while signing cheques. Pakistanis fondly recall his role in the massive relief effort after this year’s floods, when he personally took charge of distribution. [If Holbrooke was present he was automatically in charge.] But he would not want an end to the war if peace was primarily for Pakistan’s well-being.

War is not a continuous activity; there are long fallow periods between battles, even in a guerrilla war. The Afghan is in one of its fallow periods but it cannot end until one side accepts defeat or both sides agree on a ceasefire. America and Vietnam, uniquely, began peace talks without a ceasefire, so there is more than one model for termination of hostilities. Holbrooke was aware that, in a completely unstructured manner, a similar attempt was underway. This unacknowledged process has thrown up absurdities like the “Taliban” leader who was flown into Kabul by British intelligence for talks, before they discovered that he was a fake, nothing more than a provincial shopkeeper. Someone in ISI is probably still dining out on the true story. It is the sort of episode that makes Groucho Marx’s last words relevant.

Somewhere in his ebbing consciousness, and perhaps rising conscience, Holbrooke knew that the Afghan war had begun as the right thing to do, but been driven into an abyss by mistakes. It was time for America to cut its losses, financial and political, and deal with the aftermath as best it could. I wonder if Holbrooke had time to tell his Pakistani friends that it would be a dangerous mistake if they rushed into space created by American withdrawal. Afghan nationalism is as hard as the Himalayan rock of its mountains.

It does make one wonder what George Bush’s last words might be. Perhaps: Continue that war!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Chikileaks

The Chikileaks
By M J Akbar
The Third Eye: In India Today, December 9, 2010

Memo from G.K. Pillai, home secretary by special appointment to His Excellency P. Chidambaram:

To all hacks and their secondary lifestyle providers, with particular attention to peacocks and peahens: You ain't seen nothing yet, baby. You thought the icing was cool? Wait for the cake. If you believe the 150-odd conversations we floated your way was a bombshell, then the 6,000 in the storehouse will be an artillery barrage of World War I proportions. That was a tremor. This will be an earthquake. Trust me. I have read them.

I am not a journalist with half a head and three masters, or a greasy glad-hander with a coy accent strengthened by a bankroll. My decisions are permission-protected. When I gave the interview to Wall Street Journal promising that there was heavy, serious stuff in the still-secret transcripts, I knew what I was doing. And my boss knew what he was doing when he chose to publicly laugh - all right, make that sneer - at journalists who thought they were running the country. That wasn't an accident, or a slip. Grow up. He has read the file, examined those tapes and charted out his route map.

Can't blame him, or his fellow politicians. They have to take so much nonsense from this sanctimonious tribe of media balloons that the temptation to prick the swellheads must be irresistible. We will, of course, maximise the time taken in the process; must keep the lot trembling in the dread of anticipation for as long as possible. Moreover, nothing undermines a story so much as oversaturation of supply. The media could barely handle those 150 conversations. All these chaps who want to break news at the decibel levels of Babel never manage to find the silence for a bit of reading, even of essentials. Some of them have forgotten how to read, so we will forgive them. So many are simply too lazy. They would rather chatter than study detail.

My boss is a brilliant lawyer. We are going to be judicious. We will hand out stuff selectively, and spread it around. That's fair.

Dumping is not the home minister's style at all. He wants a few media ulcers to turn septic along the way, and that needs time. Remember, there is one lot of superstars which knows, or has a good idea of, what lies in the undisclosed transcripts: those who were phonemates of Niira Radia. You know some of the names from the teaser; they must be dreading the release of the full movie, wondering how much more indiscretion is hidden in the tapes. They escaped in the first round on the oily paths between silence, bluster, fudge and smarminess, but how far? They must be sleeping-pill addicts by now, wondering how much more of hug-and-help is frozen in our machines. Did even a casual line about satisfaction for services escape their lips? That's going to be the big one. Raja is passé. The future of the news wheel belongs to courtiers and paymasters.

India was an apple republic as long as the tapes were unknown. See how quickly it became a banana republic when ants began to crawl up corporate pants.

May I, an anonymous, faceless, gossip-abused bureaucrat, make a confession? What bliss!

Look, this is history in the making. History is forgotten unless it is branded. Watergate will survive in memory long after Richard Nixon has become oblivion. Who will recall Julian Assange, and who can forget Wikileaks?

Why should posterity remember our fling with phones as the Radiatapes? She is desperate to destroy the tapes, not preserve them. It is my boss who wants to prosecute, and maybe even persecute, on the basis of those tapes. The tapes should be named after Chidambaram.


Nice ring to it. Roll that over. Good on the tongue. Almost savoury. Works pretty well in a headline too. We must be kind to sub-editors who have to think of headlines; after all, Radia never phones any of them!

GK, Etc.

PS: I just can't understand why Americans are persecuting Wikileaks' Assange; they should give him a hero's medal. Wikileaks prove what some of us suspected but no one could confirm - that American diplomats are clear, concise, cogent and informed. Only the stupid and the prejudiced accuse them of being dumb. They know precisely what is going on in the world even if their government's policy is built within a maze of spiderwebs hung across Chinese walls. Their analysis of Pakistan is perfect; it has an unintelligent government run by the intelligence service. Why on earth don't they do anything about a nation which is going to obliterate itself and us as well? One of these days I must leak our tapes of American diplomats in Delhi to the Wall Street Journal.

The profit and loss of noise

Byline by M J Akbar: The profit and loss of noise

It is entirely appropriate that the man in charge of India's volume control, Pranab Mukherjee, should have uttered what is unarguably the comment of the year: our democracy has become too noisy. Through a long career stretching from the 1960s, Pranabda [as he is fondly known] has always preferred the brain to the lung. Noise has been neither in his temperament nor his bhadralok-Brahmin culture. His metier is ministerial; he is a fish out of water when his party is in Opposition. He knows that government has a tremendous advantage in the parliamentary form of government, even more so than in the presidential form, but only if it knows the mechanism of power. He would be the first to appreciate that Opposition very often has no option except to play its first and last card, noise.

Noise has become a pejorative term, which is unfair. Noise does not have to be necessarily loud. Oratory is beautiful noise. Music is noise touched by magic. Politics rarely rises to oratory, and never to music, but every Opposition knows that while it cannot survive if it is not heard, it must trade with the voter in intelligible noise. Rising decibel levels can be justified only if there is the logic of public interest at the core. The delicate twist that lifts Mukherjee's statement from the passe to the extraordinary is a descriptive qualification, 'a bit too'. Noise is essential to the system. Excess, however, grates. There is a clash of civilisations when the throat threatens to destroy the eardrum. Democracy works when all five sense are in harmony. Mukherjee's diagnosis was perfect, but his prescription was, shall we say, a bit ambiguous. He advised a bit of silence.

The virtues of silence can never be overstated. Silence breeds reflection and reflection encourages maturity. If that was Mukherjee's advice to Opposition, then it had some merit. But it is equally within the Opposition's rights to point out that government very often treats silence in precisely the same manner as an accused - as its first line of defence. In any criminal case, police have to give an accused the legal right of silence, so that he does not incriminate himself. Both Prakash Karat of the CPI(M) and Arun Jaitley of the BJP are asking Dr Manmohan Singh whether he reject the idea of a JPC because he fears that if he speaks he will incriminate his government in a scandal that continues to have the most astonishing reverberations as layer after surprising layer peels off. We now learn is that government tapped the middlewoman Niira Radia's phones because it believed that she was "indulging in anti-national activities". This takes the allegations against her beyond the edges of conventional corruption, and provides further justification to the Opposition demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the most sensational scandal in two decades.

It is ironic that government was forced to state this in the Supreme Court because of a petition filed by Radia's chief financial mentor and public guardian, Ratan Tata, the industrialist who has helped Radia's company grow from nothing to Rs 300 crores in just nine years. Acting on poor legal advice, Tata went to court to blanket out information, condemning India as a banana republic along the way. No weapon has ricocheted back faster than the Ratan boomerang.

It may be relevant, therefore, to consider where Pranab Mukherjee asked for a bit of silence. He was speaking to industrialists. While it is axiomatic that there cannot be bribery without money, and where there is money there will be businessmen, the 2G show is slowly turning into theatre where the lead role in the first act has faded before the aggressive emergence of businessmen on the stage. Ratan Tata has been dominating headlines with a persistence uncharacteristic of his class. He has been interventionist rather than reticent, often storming into the debate despite overwhelming evidence of sleaze on the part of his protege. It was only a matter of time before another businessman decided to label this as hypocrisy, which Rajeev Chandrashekhar did, albeit more politely. Tata's response was to claim personal virtue in the name of the Prime Minister, a double-edged tribute which Dr Singh might want to ignore; and accuse an Opposition party, BJP, of association in the exercise.

This might be the moment to point out that Niira Radia's telephones were tapped by the Manmohan Singh government, not the BJP. They were leaked by those today in power, not a BJP mole. If Ratan Tata finds his name in media stories on Indian scams, it is because the present government made the Radia tapes available to media. It is possible that the leaks had home minister P. Chidambaram's approval; after all, home secretary G.K. Pillai has, on record, promised much more.

Time to understand what Pranab Mukherjee implied: silence begins at home.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Scripture of deceit

Scripture of deceit
By M J Akbar

Third Eye : In India Today

The stench from the media cesspool has turned toxic, and there are still drama queens who believe that they can preen their way across the stage, noses delicately ensconced in a heroic lace handkerchief, till the troublesome citizens eventually tire of even the Radia drama. Since journalists always demand more fairness and balance in the reportage of their woes than they offer their victims, it will perhaps take some more time, and probably more tapes, before we can confirm whether prima donnas were also corrupt. But there is already sufficient evidence to indicate that they were stupid.

I am continuously amazed by how little journalists understand politicians. Perhaps it hurts their sensitive and inflated egos to get the simple fact that politicians treat most media with disdain, precisely because they understand how it works. And they have nothing but contempt for cozy collaborators who think they have arrived because they were invited to the parlour for cocktails, although they were never permitted into the dining room for dinner. A few of them indulged the hallucination that they were enjoying the intimacies of the residential bedroom. You could hear the sound of hearts being broken when the tapes revealed that it was only a transactional exchange rather than true love.

That purr in the ear isn't the music of your back being scratched, darling; it's the crackle of your slim wallet being emptied of ethics.

The politician's menu for media starts with the watery soup of flattery. Temptation is as old as the Garden of Eden, and the self important editor's worst weakness is actually a vigorous massage of the ego. Money may or may not come a close second, but ego is a genetic disease. Moreover, flattery costs nothing but a string of lies, and lies were never an accounting problem in Delhi. The journalist can even console himself, or herself, that it is an honest equation since the sin of money never stained hands.

The main course is harder stuff: pressure, sweet or sour. Obviously pressure is best coated in saccharine, and surrounded by the subtle fragrance of quality gifts which can range from mobile phone access and VIP friendly travel to the rather more serious business of corporate funding. If this does not work, and in many cases it does not (a cynic described half the editors as corrupt, which still leaves the other half all right), then the slow process of twisting your arm begins. Only medieval fools and Guantanamo honchos thought torture should be on public display; in Delhi they can twist your limbs without being in the same room. In the "worst case scenario", when you refuse to recognise "good sense", you lose your job for reasons that can never be attributed to the establishment. Don't make the mistake of protesting. The easiest way to make a grim room in government burst into cackles is the sight of a journalist being kicked downstairs.

By the time dessert is served the dinner party has become completely exclusive, for it is offered only to a chosen few. That is why Prime Ministers, of all parties, and super Prime Ministers like Mrs Sonia Gandhi, take a personal interest in selecting which journalists are given Padma awards and what is the pecking order of the deemed honour. These are personal grace-and-favour anointments.

The other great mystery is the naïveté of successful businessmen. They simply do not understand the labyrinths through which political power travels towards a decision, and hence their endless quest for either a presence or a guide through the maze. They are bewildered by the systems of Delhi's crime and punishment, reward and banishment, and frustrated by the numerous Chinese walls that block their approach. They deploy cash, but are uncertain about what they have purchased. A few think that the Rajya Sabha opens the door to Delhi, and discover that it was constituted for something quite outside their requirements. This is why the allure of a corporate lobbyist becomes irresistible.

Niira Radia was the perfect wheeler-dealer; she sold a mix of 20 per cent reality and 80 per cent illusion to her clients. Her hi-buy relationship with the ruling class included those journalists she believed were close to the powerful. There was nothing personal, just in case you got fooled by the ooziness of the recorded conversations. Ratan Tata would have been far better served if he had invested in media with a reputation for a value that his family used to cherish, independence. Jamsetji Tata held shares in The Statesman and no one ever questioned his integrity. Ratan Tata banked instead on Radia. The consequences of a poor investment have been heavy.

The script of the Niira Radia tapes is the scripture of today's political immorality.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Under the weather in Milan

Musings by M J Akbar : Under the weather in Milan

Snow is a sheet on the ground, talcum on the trees, a patched overcoat on the Alps and an electric blue at Zurich airport. I have to catch a connection to Milan within 50 minutes but there is no hint of hurry when I check with ground staff. Swiss calm about process and punctuality is eerie. Clockwork is in the DNA. I go through unruffled immigration police, board a transit train, grab a vital necessity from duty free and still reach my next flight with time to dawdle. The train welcomes visitors with the music of the moo, while a yodel drifts in the background. Forget the infamous cuckoo; the cow is symbol, pride and sustenance of Switzerland. Milk is the national diet, chocolate the people’s pastime.


The snow had turned Italian in Milan, intense and disorderly. The driver who welcomed me however was sunny in a puzzled sort of way. “Plane on time, eh?” he said in half-awe, half-regret. Swiss airline, I pointed out, not Italian. He beamed with great pride, switched the subject and wondered what snow was doing in Italy in November. Some of it had descended on me when the passenger bus stopped a little short of the terminal. Snow on a bald head can be a nuanced experience.


The limbs of Milan are commerce; the heart of Milan is worship. The city was born for trade but grew up around a cathedral, the Duomo, a magnificent tribute to the soaring power of the Italian imagination when touched by the miracle of faith. Inside the cathedral the eye is sated by an excess of inspiration as it wanders from painting to sculpture to stained glass. The skeletal saint-scholar standing against a curve in the walls, lit by the rays of a sun deflected by brilliant glass panes, is an utter marvel. The house of God carries the weight of human genius lightly, but cannot quite eliminate the pride of the artist, determined to reinvent the divine in his own image. And so, in a scene from the crucifixion on the stained glass, Jesus Christ is white but the thieves on either side are brown.


The Duomo is the perfect opening conversational gambit with a polite Milanese fellow-guest at our India-Italy conference in an 18th century palace. He surprised me with his readily-expressed irritation at the fact that Moroccan immigrants refused to visit the cathedral, calling it “haraam”. This gentleman was a Communist for 364 days and became right-wing at the ballot box thanks to illegal immigration, the great blight that dare not speak its name except in hushed whispers. I thought all he needed to do was wait out a generation. The children would integrate. The latest moll, after all, on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s endless list of “bunga bunga” partners in his swimming pool is a 19-year-old Libyan immigrant whose father probably thought she had gone to the big city to study physics. There is too much hypocrisy about illegal immigration. Immigrants brave the ardour of dispersal only because there are local jobs available. As Italy ages, there is great demand for young women who can nurse the old in their dotage. Demand will always fetch supply.


The most fashionably dressed tourists are Chinese, instantly recognisable by their complete indifference to their host environment. They travel to enjoy their own company, which is good enough reason. You can never tell whether their designer bags are fake, but who cares if they don’t care? Lunch at a café with bad food and high prices can be an education in international relations. The Chinese man keeps patting his lips with a chapstick; his stoic partner has enough lispstick already. The British couple at the adjoining table is armed with multiple chips on both shoulders, and seem irritated by the fact that no one is interested in the peculiarities of their accent. A French family is lost in inter-generational disputes as parents look at the price and son concentrates on the food. Travel convinces me that waitresses smile mainly because they know they will never see you again.


I am constantly told during my brief visit that I should never walk without headwear. But the only hat I have packed is a high, Kashmiri wool cap. The choice therefore is between looking like a Turkish immigrant who has not quite squared up the authorities, and dying of cold. No-brainer. Obviously I choose death over the police.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mao of Gujarat

Byline by M J Akbar : The Mao of Gujarat

The unnamed young students of Ahmedabad who had a question or two for Rahul Gandhi this week were pertinent, not pert. They also provided more evidence that students are doing the job that journalists either cannot, or will not, do; which is, ask relevant questions. In this case, media was prevented from reporting the event, so journalists can't be faulted, and we know what happened thanks only to an enterprising reporter from the Times of India who had a source inside the hall.

The essence was simple and the same: students wanted to know why they should vote for the Congress when Narendra Modi had developed Gujarat so much. One answer given by Rahul Gandhi was odd, to say the very least. Mao Zedong, said Rahul Gandhi, also developed China but "he caused destruction to the country, too". I am not too sure whether Narendra Modi would mind being compared to one of the great figures of the twentieth century, warts and all. Rahul Gandhi probably gets his views on history from some briefing by a young and fresh associate, but he could have checked with the Chinese. They have moved on from Mao, just as India and the Congress have moved on from Mahatma Gandhi, but China still reveres the leader of the Long March as the leader who laid the foundations of China's economic miracle. Mao's portrait dominates Tienmien Square as well as the nation's banknotes. If Modi can become the second Gujarati to have his picture on the Indian rupee, he will consider his life well spent. Chairman Modi has quite a nice ring to it as well, although Modi would be going too far if he published a little red book packed with his quotable quotes and asked millions of young people to wave it in unison during a cultural revolution.

A young girl was sharper in her question. She asked which Congress leaders could measure up to Modi on the development matrix. Rahul Gandhi had four names on the tip of his tongue: Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and A.K. Antony. It is interesting that three of the four did not contest the Lok Sabha elections, and the voters in Chidambaram's own constituency had such a poor view of his development capabilities that he was declared defeated before he was declared elected in the 2009 general elections. It would be interesting if Jairam Ramesh could find a constituency from where he could get elected on a development platform, but his ministry does take its priority cues from Rahul Gandhi's travel plans. What is definitely interesting is that the finance minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee, does not figure in Rahul Gandhi's list of heroes, either in development or honesty. The two lists are, in fact, similar, because Rahul thought that the three most incorruptible ministers were also the PM, Antony and Chidambaram. He did not however consider Jairam Ramesh worthy of a position in the honest brigade. Poor Jairam. Or, one wonders, is it more appropriate to say, rich Jairam?

One doubts if the people will give too much credence to such certificates from the Prime Minister-in-waiting, but the large tribe of Rahul-watchers in Delhi must have already done an instant calculus, shifted positions on the pecking order and altered levels of homage. The big winners are obviously Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh; the first jumps to the top of seniors, and the second takes pole position on the second tier. The certificate slates them as stars of Rahul's first Cabinet, whenever or if ever that comes about, so now you know who to call if you want anything done.

The Ahmedabad students did not get into a critique of the heir's remarks, but they did press on about Modi. Why was Rahul denying Modi credit for Gujarat's development? He had caused "some issues" replied Rahul Gandhi. Did he mean riots? At this point the story takes a curious turn. This was where Rahul Gandhi could have departed from fudge and become forthright. Instead, says the report, "the Congress leader refused to engage further and walked out saying he was getting late". Perhaps he was only getting restive. Rahul Gandhi had found out what Barack Obama discovered when he met Mumbai students at St Xavier's College. It is easier to field questions from journalists than students. But that does not explain why he was evasive at the end. The students were more specific and forthright than him. It must be a recurrence of the old Congress disease, trying to play both sides against the middle.

Those who take the young for granted do not understand the young. They like cosmetics, but they never confuse make-up with the face.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Revenge of Hema's cheeks

Revenge of Hema's cheeks
by M J Akbar

Third Eye - India Today column

For 15 years BJP leader Hema Malini's filmstar cheeks have felt the laceration of Lalu Prasad Yadav's electoral sarcasm. On November 24, those patient cheeks took their revenge. Lalu has lost to Nitish Kumar before. This time he was demolished by the BJP as well. Within minutes of the start of the counting process Lalu looked so 19th century, a relic adrift of a Bihar weary of puerile jokes and self-loathing, eager to edge its way into the mainstream of the Indian dream.

Every election offers a surprise, or it would be a carbon copy of the previous poll. Flux is the essence of democracy just as static is the sting of autocracy. The re-election of NDA in Bihar hid a shock for those commentators who determine the contours of conventional wisdom from the safety of a potato couch. The BJP won 91 out of the 102 seats it contested, a strike rate that is so unique that it could unnerve friend as it easily as it might enrage a foe.

Neither rage nor bragging make for good politics, because the first is not a rational answer to a problem, and the second is puerile. The Congress is not going to collapse and disappear just because it has won only four seats this time. Lalu may be depressed but he is not dead. His vote has declined by 9 per cent from 2005, but it is still more than 25 per cent, sufficient as a foundation for restructuring. Politicians do not come to an end, until the end comes to them.

What should worry the Congress is a political displacement that just might overflow into adjacent territory. Rising prices and a repeated whirl of corruption charges have dented Congress support when the party expected that victory in 2009 would lead to rejuvenation in the Gangetic belt. In Bihar it expected an alliance of upper castes and Muslims to provide the boost. Upper castes went to the BJP and Muslims shifted to Lalu, Nitish and, to a small extent, the BJP. The third is clearly remarkable and could be called the Ayodhya dividend. The BJP's decision to accept the Allahabad High Court verdict, irrespective of its outcome, and its stricture to spokesmen against provocative comment or behaviour, sent a positive signal. BJP leaders are pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm of the younger voter. They should not be. The young, of any faith, want peace and a route map to jobs.

Nitish Kumar's vote added up because he did his arithmetic soon after coming to power five years ago. When development is a word and an objective, its political benefits are not always apparent. In Bihar development had a face, and the face was that of a woman. There was a 10 per cent rise in the turnout of women, and all of it went as reward to a ruling alliance that had delivered by giving women security and empowerment. Bihar is the only state that has given women 50 per cent reservation in panchayats, which have a budget of Rs 8,000 crore. Do the math. Gender bias in public-or indeed private-life is a primary symptom of stupidity, and Lalu might have paid a price for his overly aggressive objections to women's reservations in parliamentary elections.

Will the Bihar results have any impact on Delhi? For starters, the NDA is back in business after an extended spell of bankruptcy. There is a sudden spell of nationwide instability that makes you wonder if all political columns should be left in the expert hands of astrologers. Chief ministers have been placed on rocking chairs; on the day Nitish Kumar returned to power, a Congress chief minister lost it in Andhra Pradesh and a BJP chief minister teetered at the edge in Karnataka. You might consider this pedantic, but on November 22 the Government of Dr Manmohan Singh lost the support of Mamata Banerjee and the DMK on the key issue of a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G scam. Even the DMK, which is the target, thought a confrontation was not worth the effort. These parties have smelt the street and sniffed the odour of putrefaction around the carcass of old politics.

The old politics of caste and corruption has been buried in Patna as well by the Nitish avalanche. Its ghost might hover for a while, but if it is dead in Bihar it can't really survive anywhere else.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

His Voice's Master

Byline by M J Akbar: His Voice's Master

Thought for the week: if accent-fraud were a criminal offence, how many serving members of the ruling establishment would be guilty? To speak English well in a country which has inherited it as a service-language is commendable. To speak it badly is perfectly understandable, since it is a foreign tongue. But to speak it in a pseudo-imitation of a style that even an abashed BBC has quietly abandoned is unforgiveable. You could not have got solicitor-general Gopal Subramaniam's haw-haw syllables from central casting, but that may be only a minor sin in his latest curriculum vitae.

Perhaps a pseudo-argument comes more easily to those who acquire a pseudo-accent; it is possible that he believes that unctuous loyalty to his client - in this case Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - combined with sonorous homage to the goddess of truth, are sufficient substitutes for fact. He chose to tell the Supreme Court, and then the people of India through television, that he had gone through every relevant file and could say with authority that the Prime Minister had replied to every query by the persistent Dr Subramaniam Swamy on the 2G spectrum scam. Before the end of the day the Prime Minster had accepted that the second highest lawyer in government had lied to the Court and the people, and changed his lawyer to the highest in the land, Goolam Vahanvati. The response of lawyers, including political ones, employed on behalf of the Prime Minister shifted to evasion.

Whenever crisis induces a government knee to jerk, the first tendency is to jab in the direction of media. The messenger is so often the first victim. And so an upwardly mobile minister like Kapil Sibal advises media not to "pillory" the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister is not under strain because of television or newspapers. His credentials are in doubt because of the remarkable diligence displayed by integrity-activists like Prashant Bhushan and judges of the Supreme Court who felt compelled to ask him why he had not bothered to respond adequately to a scam spreading in public view. This was not a sudden, one-off, grab-and-run operation. It was a carefully and intelligently laid out scheme by the DMK, which insisted on the telecom portfolio because it knew the rewards that lay in the allotment of licenses. The Prime Minister is in trouble because the DMK took care to keep him informed through letter about how precisely it was going to subvert systems and determine pricing without consultation or due process, and received his acquiescence through acknowledgement of its letters. The crucial letter was sent not by A. Raja but by Dayanidhi Maran, in February 2006. Maran could not have been more explicit: he wanted pricing, the key that opened the treasure house, out of government purview. This was the price of power, and Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi paid it.

If you want to understand the political twist in this tale, look for the answer to only one question: who leaked the Maran letter to a television channel? Maran himself could not have done so, since he is not suicidal. Equally, those on the PM's side can be ruled out, for the same reason. The BJP or other Opposition parties did not have a copy, and if they had one, they would have held a press conference, not handed it over to just one trusted correspondent. The leak came from someone in government who wanted to weaken Dr Singh. Why? Obviously because he believes that a weakened Prime Minister has become vulnerable, there might be a vacancy at the top soon, Rahul Gandhi is not ready to take the job, and therefore he could become the next PM.

Prime Ministers and their press advisors should actually stop worrying about journalists and start worrying about that anonymous tribe which turns out jokey sms-es. The PM may have maintained his studied silence but the mobile companies who had benefited from DMK largesse did not. The joke about the 2G spectrum that turned viral was marvellous: 'PM breaks his silence. The only 2G I know is SoniaG and RahulG.' Ridicule is far more devastating than criticism.

As it so happens, SoniaG and RahulG did, in different ways, offer their support to Dr Singh. Mrs Sonia Gandhi chose to deliver a small sermon with no names mentioned, as if the crime had been committed by the US Congress rather than the Indian National Congress. But the great damage was done not by what the Opposition said, but by what the PM did not say: his silence. The law acknowledges that silence is the best defence when words might become self-incrimination. But the law of public life is not equally generous to silence.

What is the tensile strength of silence? Lawyers can afford to manipulate their narrative as easily as they stretch their accent. Dr Singh used to have an authentic voice, which is why Indians trusted him. He lost that voice during the worst crisis of his long life.

Friday, November 19, 2010


By M J Akbar

In India Today
Third Eye

A less complacent lot might have seen the approaching firestorm from some distance. Someone somewhere was bound to turn up with a matchstick. The Supreme Court, which has emerged as the supreme voice of the nation, asked the explosive question that is echoing across the land: what precisely was the relationship between Ali Baba and the 40 thieves?

For those who have just discovered that familiarity is not synonymous with certainty, Ali Baba was an unassuming professional with humble appetite and mumble diction who was transformed when he overheard the secret password to the treasurehouse of thieves in a jungle that was certainly less ferocious than Delhi. In one magic moment Ali Baba became the keeper of fabulous fortune. So what did this God-fearing man do? Report the stolen goods to the law? Or did he mutter, under his beard, something about stable government and the compulsions of coalition politics, and let sleeping crooks lie? Ali Baba did not steal anything, mind you. He merely took passive advantage of someone else’s malfeasance.

Perhaps the cracker lit by the Supreme Court would have been a damp squib were it not for the sheer extent of the loot stolen. Bofors became a national byword not because of the money involved, but because a government was suspected of having compromised the nation’s strength.

A. Raja’s spectrum scam is about sheer size. I have no idea at which point India’s mind begins to boggle, but once you have written Rs 1.76 lakh crore in digits, you are very clearly in boggleland.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has tiptoed through six boggle-free years with ballet steps. His feet seemed to know their way through the minefield which is government almost instinctively, even occasionally landing safe after an acrobatic leap or two. But mines are silent, dark and deep, and they have promises to keep. They await their moment with deadpan patience. Then they explode. And you lose face.

With one stiletto sweep, the Supreme Court has torn multiple holes into the face-veil that has protected the Government’s pockmarks from the public eye. It asked the Prime Minister of India why he had presided over the loot of India in order to preserve himself in power.

It is nonsense to suggest that the prime minister is first among equals. He sits at the head of a Cabinet controlled by an utterly imbalanced caste system, in which only he is the Brahmin and the next level a few rungs below. Dr Singh knew precisely what was happening in the telecom ministry among the lower orders, which is why he wrote to his telecom minister suggesting transparency in the bidding process before it began. Raja had less respect for the Brahmin than the Brahmin expected. Raja laughed in private and did precisely as he pleased in public, adding insult to injury by putting his shrug on record in a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office. What did the prime minister do? Acknowledged the letter, and added his warm regards in the process. Raja, and his party, DMK, never once had any doubts that power was so important to the Congress that corruption would be the least of their concerns. Who can blame Raja for being so accurate in his assessment?

The prime minister does not sit in a helpless office. He has the right to demand any file from any ministry. A note from him can stop any process till fuller examination. A phone call by a bureaucrat from his office will pour sand into any government wheel. Any decision that involves more than Rs 500 crore has to go through the Cabinet. Dr Singh knew every detail about the one thief who could have put 40 from Ali Baba to shame. What did he do about it? A whole lot of nothing.

It is fashionable to label every Opposition protest in Parliament unruly. When was the last time that a ruly Opposition has achieved anything? In fact, the Opposition has been terribly ruly about the spectrum scam for too long. This story began in UPA-I and is destined to continue into many more serials in UPA-II. The CAG exposé of Raja was known to government before the Opposition disrupted Parliament. Why did the prime minister ignore publicly evident condemnation until ruly turned unruly?

Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is scheduled to last for three-and-a-half years more, and possibly it will. It has however lost something vital. Mathematicians have not created enough digits to measure the loss of credibility.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rising on Barmecide's yeast

Rising on Barmecide's yeast
By M J Akbar
Third Eye - In India Today
November 12, 2010

Never underestimate the nutritional value of Barmecide's feast, even if it feeds the senses rather than the stomach. For those unfamiliar with the psychological weapons used in the medieval Abbasid court at Baghdad, Barmecide would invite the impoverished to a fictitious repast filled with platitudes from an ardent host and gratitude from the fervent guest.

Obama cannot afford to upset the only functioning mercenary force at the service of the Pentagon, the Pakistan army.Illusion has its place in statecraft; at least it nudges a promise towards the end of a rainbow. Is cynicism appropriate, even if Barack Obama's promise to support India's demand for a permanent place for India in the Security Council was heavily qualified by his spokesman within hours of his departure from Delhi? The spokesman merely stressed the obvious: there was neither a calendar for, nor a route map to, the promised land. But, as grandmother has told us, something is better than nothing.

On the eve of the crucial New Hampshire primary for the 2008 American presidential election, an exasperated Bill Clinton exploded in public, telling an astonished audience that Obama had spun "the biggest fairy tale". Like all good fairy tales, it had a happy ending. Obama is in the White House. But fairies can be addictive. Obama rationed his fairies as he responded to Indian public opinion. Before the visit, his position was UN reform was "complicated", to quote the precise word. When he realised the need for a "return gift" after picking up 76,000 jobs from the Indian private and public sectors, he calmly handed over something that just might get on to his successor's agenda if Obama is lucky enough to survive in the White House till 2018.

Obama mentioned Pakistan for the first time at 12.32 p.m. on Sunday in response to a student's question in Mumbai. [The students were far better than the selected journalists authorised to lob soft questions at Obama at the official press conference.] Obama called Pakistan a vast country; perhaps he was thinking of a vast battlefield. His initial formula for eternal peace on the subcontinent was the sort of thing that looks eminently reasonable on paper until you begin to parse the sentences. India, he parried, should have a vested interest in poor, troubled Pakistan's stability.

This is the sort of sentiment that can win you a premature Nobel Prize but disintegrates before evidence. Pakistan is tremor-neutral when it comes to inflicting damage upon India. If Pakistan was not stable in October 1947 then it will never be stable as long as it exists. Instead of negotiating over Jammu and Kashmir across the table, leaders as eminent as Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan sent thousands of terrorists to seize Srinagar. Pakistan began Indo-Pak relations with a declaration of a war that has never ceased. Self-appointed Field Marshal Ayub Khan crowned his highly stable career with the two-pronged 1965 war, in which both irregulars and regulars were sent to battle. Pakistan may have been unstable when it lost half the country in 1971, but that was its own doing. It was certainly perfectly stable when General Zia ul Haq armed, funded and sheltered partisans of the secessionist Khalistan movement. Terrorism in Kashmir is endless. For six decades, the destabilisation of India through terror has been the motif of Pakistan policy. So how does it matter to India whether Pakistan is stable or unstable?

Obama's visit was perfect from his point of view. He wobbled a bit on a slippery tightrope, but did not fall. With one eye on Islamabad and the other on Delhi, it was hardly surprising that he looked cross-eyed occasionally. The moot point is obvious: Pakistan is Obama's wartime ally, India merely a peacetime friend. Obama cannot afford to upset the only functioning mercenary force at the service of the Pentagon, the Pakistan army. The Pak army's annual pay grade of about $3.5 billion is a blip on the $700 billion the Pentagon spends yearly. Israel and Egypt get as much in aid for far less work. Come to think of it, the outsourcing of IT jobs to India probably costs America more than outsourcing the Afghan war to Pakistan.

Did Delhi get anything more substantial than the illusory comfort of a piece of paper reiterating known positions? Obama has done nothing substantive about India-centric terrorism from Pak havens in two years. What are the odds that he will do anything in the next two, despite a patronising pat on India's back with talk of equality? Since floating on illusion is our preferred hobby,we lapped up this rubbish. India is not an equal of America, and will not be for some time. Illusion served Barmecide well enough.
Note: Barmecide's feast never works without cooperation from the victim.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Traders, not Partners

Byline by M J Akbar: Traders, not partners

How many words will India get in Barack Obama’s autobiography, Faith, Hope and Miscarriage, due in 2013?

Going by the law of proportions, it should be between 100 to 104 if the complete book is around 200,000 words, roughly the length expected in a multi-million dollar advance. According to a fine story by my friend K.P. Nayar in the Telegraph, George W. Bush, Dr Manmohan Singh’s “best friend”, devoted exactly 208 words out of 195,456 to India in his memoir Decision Points. “Even those 208 words figure in just three paragraphs only in the context of justifying a visit by Bush to Islamabad after his trip to India in March 2006,” notes Nayar.

Time to clear your throat. The civil nuclear cooperation deal — you remember that one surely? It was the highlight of the summer of 2008. Every television channel was singing “Singh is King” while money changed hands by the sackful in the Lok Sabha to persuade purchasable MPs to save the nation — is dismissed by its principal architect in one and a half sentences.

Those 208 words are not a measure of how important the nuclear deal is in the American perspective; they are an estimate of where India stands among the nodal points of American decision-making. That half-page was authored by a friendly President, not a hostile occupant of the White House. A book is written in a cold logic that sits well on the shelves of a library, not hot air that steams across political rhetoric during a state visit.

The geopolitics of Pakistan have made it relevant real estate in the two major confrontations after the Second World War: the Cold War between the West and East Eurasia; and the current hot war between America and its real or imagined enemies in the Muslim world. Pakistan’s policymakers cottoned on to this very quickly in the Fifties, when they adopted the Pentagon as their Godfather. They felt jilted when their contribution to the jihad that ended the Cold War was treated with indifference by a victorious America, but such is the way it always has been; sentiment is no substitute for need. Pakistan wooed and won China as Godfather 2 during the fallow phase of its relationship to America. Here too strategic interests coalesced since China wanted to outsource at least some of its Himalayan confrontation to a nation which seems to have an Eveready battery in its gut where conflict with India is concerned.

Pakistan got a second wind after 9/11, and Pervez Musharraf picked up its ballast to his own and his country’s advantage. International relations are always untidy, and nations make space for overlapping or even contradictory interests. But despite serious underlying tensions there was a certain neatness in the US-Pakistan-China diagram. China had a lock on the American economy, and Pakistan on the American war effort. The situation would have been different if the Shah or his descendants had been in power in Tehran, but with Iran hostile, America could only conduct its Afghan operations from the east. Washington has had to play a carefully measured strategic game within this triangle.

American policy, whether in the time of Bush or Obama, is perfectly logical, since it is driven by American interests. What is astonishing is that Delhi’s strategic community should have, with the help of largesse from the UPA government, abandoned a history of autonomy in order to smuggle itself into the contours of American strategic requirements when Washington has always made its priorities clear.

Even Bush worried about the consequences of the nuclear deal on the American equation with Pakistan, and Obama has authorised a policy that not only multiplies Pakistan’s offensive capabilities both on its western and eastern fronts, but also endorses China’s gift of at least two additional nuclear plants. As a further sweetener, Washington has promised to beef up Pakistan’s economy, although this might be beyond its capabilities.

For both Bush and Obama, India is primarily a market; they are traders more than partners. China is a manufacturing base for the American economy, and India an opportunity for Walmart. They are, as they have repeatedly made clear, interested in India’s middle class rather than in India. When did Bush or Obama mention either Pakistan’s or even China’s middle class? Bush has been quite specific. He has said in his book that the “educated [Indian] middle class has the potential to be one of America’s closest partners”.

Friendship does not flourish in an either-or matrix. Disagreement is not evidence of enmity, and it would be far better for Washington and Delhi to accept departure points rather than pretend that they do not exist. Obama and Manmohan Singh can live with each other without being in love with each other.

I hope Obama gets to write his memoirs only in 2017 rather than 2013 but that is a decision which will be taken by the American voter.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The one commandment

The one commandment
By M.J. Akbar

In India Today: Third Eye
14, November 2010

For reasons best known to the Almighty, greed is at the very bottom of the Lord's pecking order in the Ten Commandments, as faithfully reported in the Exodus chapter of the Old Testament. Murder, adultery, theft and prevarication take precedence. Maybe life was different when God was taking a personal interest in human affairs; as the poet reminded us, He doesn't fancy more than a passing glance now. The old days were tough - bondage to the Pharoahs could not have been a vacation - but perhaps they were simpler because prophets knew how to administer a sharp rap across the knuckles.

A contemporary index of vice, done by a mortal, would surely be more realistic about the corrosive dangers of avarice, and push it up the rankings. Any other vice exhausts itself, but greed is insatiable because it has no limits. You can count a murderer's victims. Casanova would have been hard put to attempt serial adultery, even if he lived in a nudist colony or a British pub. Liars are perfectly aware that if their tongue grows too long their words lose the ability to deceive. It is not entirely accidental that while the holy Bible was confident that sharp, short orders were sufficient for murder or theft, greed required a proper paragraph, just in case some future Chief Minister of Maharashtra confused it with natural entitlement. Hence: "You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, nor his male servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour's." I presume mobility was not a big issue in the promised land, and crime was confined to the neighbourhood watch.

In any case, the Lord's statute is comprehensive enough to deal with Chavan and the creative partnership of generals, bureaucrats, builders, fixers and politicians who stole the inheritance of Kargil widows to provide themselves a room with a view over the Arabian sea in downtown Mumbai. Regrettably, while the Lord laid down the law, He left accountability to men. When convict and judge share the same interests, justice takes a holiday. This should clear the brow of those who are perplexed by the Congress Party's laissez faire approach towards its latest poster boys for fecund corruption.

A chief minister who shovels loot into his basement buys protection by sharing some with high-fliers living upstairs.

The Congress is not, and has not been for some time, perturbed by corruption; needless to add, most political parties seek to emulate its cash-stack culture, albeit never as successfully. The Congress is, however, always perturbed by the prospect of losing the voter. It will act, therefore, not when it discovers corruption, but when public pressure threatens the party's base. Media pressure is not good enough.

Political parties also have to worry about implicit internal blackmail. A chief minister who shovels loot into his basement buys protection by sharing some with high-fliers living upstairs. Moreover, what action can you take when the chaps in queue are equally guilty? Chavan did a brilliant job of distributing sleaze about those who wanted his job.

Every leader of Maharashtra has parlayed land into personal wealth. Why is land at the root of corruption? It is the most easily disposable, and exploitable, asset under government control. Land was the principal source of power during Mughal rule; the emperor personally owned every inch of the empire, and distributed its revenue in return for loyalty. Loyalty was preserved across generations since transfer to an heir had to be confirmed by the royal court. The British converted land into state revenue through the permanent settlement; the transfer was made in perpetuity, but revenue had to be guaranteed, or the sepoys would arrive. These systems of imperialism may have been exploitative, but they survived on logic. Democratic India has turned land into a cash cow for anyone in authority, with enormous fortunes being made between the difference in price and redemption in value.

Any corrupt circle seeks to expand its circumference. There is protection in numbers. There is insurance in sharing. The morality of greed demands that every thief gets his due. If land is stolen from the army, then generals must be appeased. Those condemned to be ordinary Indian citizens might be appalled at the thought of generals stealing from Kargil war widows, but fixers know that the honesty of individuals and institutions is often only the absence of opportunity. This is India. Everything is on sale. Palms itch. They need grease.

If Moses had been a modern Indian, God would have given him only one commandment instead of ten: Don't get caught. And if you do, brazen it out.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The strength of cool

Byline by M J Akbar: The strength of cool

A seller of sweetmeats can either celebrate Diwali or sell his mithai. He cannot do both. The goddess of wealth will enter his door only if he keeps his shop open, not if he goes around bursting crackers. That is the nature of his compulsion; or, if you want to get theological about it, his dharma. Barack Obama comes to India on the night of Diwali not to enjoy a much-needed holiday after the woes of defeat, but to turn the Great American Hardware Store into a mall.

He was buoyed on his long journey by some good news; the American economy had created about 150,000 extra jobs for the third month in succession. He used the opportunity to tell voters who had just humiliated him that his main purpose in visiting India was to bring back orders that would increase employment opportunity in America. He made this speech on television, just in case anyone in India wanted to know.

Obama is not landing in Mumbai because of an insatiable urge to visit sites of a terrorist attack launched from Pakistan, aided and abetted by some of the highest and mightiest in the land. If terrorism on Indian soil perturbed Obama deeply, he would have twisted an elbow or two in Islamabad, even if he did not go so far as to twist an arm, so that the perpetrators of terrorism could be brought to justice instead of roaming around promising further variations of holy war. Staying at the Taj in Mumbai is a reassuring gesture, but in the same spirit as a visit to Rajghat; obligatory rather than compulsory, a tip to local sentiment rather than an expression of solidarity. The real reason for a day in Mumbai is not a chat with students, but photo opportunities of deals being signed with private sector companies. These pictures will be played back in America as witnesses of a President doing his job at the Taj in Mumbai, not posing with Michelle at the Taj Mahal in Agra.

This is good news. Sentiment forms such a large part of the Indian psyche even in international relations that we either get hot or cold; we never understand the strength of cool. India and America need each other but, thanks to the Indian economy, an American President needs India just a little bit more today than India needs him. Indian diplomacy will be measured during the Obama visit by the answer to just one question: will Obama be allowed to roam free on a one-way street or will he give before he takes? If the traffic does not flow in both directions, then Delhi is gullible, which is far worse than being weak.

The Chinese are excellent traffic policemen; they know when to keep the lights red, even for an American President, even to the limits of exasperation. When Obama visited Beijing, he was surprised at the lack of warmth; when he encountered the Chinese at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, he discovered that they could be rude. That has not brought China-American relations to a halt. The Chinese were signalling what American media is now beginning to recognise: that, in their estimation, their leader Hu Jin Tao is the most powerful man in the world, not Obama. Or, more accurately, since the Chinese Communist Party no longer indulges in idolatry, Beijing is more powerful than Washington. The People's Liberation Army has not become stronger than the Pentagon, but the Chinese treasury is certainly a safer bet than American treasury bonds.

India is not in that league, and illusions will not take us there either. As a friend pointed out, there is an implicit imbalance even in the dates of the itinerary. Which American President would host a state visit from India during Christmas? We welcome a guest during Diwali. However, India pays cash for goods it needs, and that is sufficient to command respect.

What can Obama bring to India? He can start counting; any wishlist will be long. But the item at the top is the key, the rest can be sorted out by lesser mortals. Business issues like outsourcing look good in headlines, but businessmen have one advantage they do not readily advertise: they know how to look after themselves.

Obama needs clarity in his own mind, and then agreement with Dr Manmohan Singh, on a definition of security in the region. It has been Pakistan's consistent policy to provoke conflagration over a virtually settled border along Kashmir. Provocation is a game that can slip so easily out of control, particularly when terrorism is part of the game, but Pakistan has developed a vested interest in instability for a number of reasons, not least being the extraordinary share of power that the army commands in its polity. Security involves peace all along the Himalayas, from the Hindu Kush to the dipping range in Arunachal, and if America believes that a relationship with India is of any value then it must coordinate its policies with Indian concerns. If this does not happen, the rest of the agenda will not travel.

A shop is useless without customers.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghost in Obama Shadow

Ghost in Obama Shadow
By M J Akbar

In The Third Eye: India Today)
8-15th November 2010

The prevailing metaphor of Barack Obama’s relations with India is surely the sauciest gatecrash in the timeless span of diplomatic dinners. Michaele and Tareq Salahi probably deserve an Oscar for chutzpah in turning up, uninvited, for Obama’s grand evening in honour of Dr Manmohan Singh last year, and maybe the White House secret service now needs a tutorial from Delhi Police. But the hovering presence of an unwanted spirit has become the most unsettling factor in Indo-American relations.

Pakistan is now the omnipresent ghost in the room when India talks to America.

Obama did not send an invitation to Islamabad but he left the door open the moment he adopted, during his campaign, Afghanistan as his preferred war. George Bush, being strategically dysfunctional, decided that the only way to defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was to destroy Iraq, but this enabled him to engage India without bothering too much about Pakistan. Uncomplicated Bush liked India and complicated India returned the embrace.

Obama began with a contortion and slipped into contradiction because he made a false choice. Bush may have been right or wrong when he went to war, but he believed in what he was doing. Obama promised war only because America was never going to elect a peacenik in an age of terrorism. The moment he won the election, he began looking for ways and means to outsource the conflict. Pakistan’s role in Pentagon plans changed; it moved from an important but passive-positive third lead to centre stage.

Pakistan needed Bush more than Bush needed Pakistan, which is why Pervez Musharraf buckled under Colin Powell’s ultimatum within hours after 9/11. It may not be by much, since both sides seem desperate, but Obama needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs Obama. Obama prepared for his India visit in early November by being sweet to Pakistan. The third round of the US-Pak strategic dialogue was held in Washington in the third week of October, and ended in the usual ‘back-present’, another couple of billion dollars for the Pak armed forces. The Pakistan army, which is surely the most powerful mercenary force in history, simply sends a bill and Washington brings out the cheque book. Obama explained why: it’s known as “helping Pakistan in helping us in Afghanistan”. There must be something in the White House which destroys the syntax of even a former professor at Yale, but the substance is clear enough. Obama has not only promised a “comprehensive partnership” to Pakistan but also promised economic prosperity. When you are in love, you do tend to promise the moon. As if romance with a delegation led by a mere foreign minister was not enough, Obama telephoned Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari asking him not to fret just because he was going to call on the competition.

In any case, Obama is not coming to India bearing gifts. He will provide plenty of rhetoric of course, particularly since speech is free in a democracy. He may even be tempted to give Indian Muslims a patronizing pat on the back for being “good” Muslims rather chaps who commit suicide over the weekend. But a principal objective, hidden under the phrases, will revolve around what Obama can take away from India. His chance for a second term depends on whether he can bring unemployment down. His own job depends on how many jobs he can give Americans. He wants contracts. The 126 fighters for the Indian Air Force, for instance, will create 29,000 jobs in America. Have you ever wondered why American presidents avoid Bangalore like a bubonic plague? Whenever a domestic job is lost to some cheaper foreigner, they describe it as being “Bangalored”. Bush, therefore, preferred Hyderabad to Bangalore. No president wants to be “Bangalored” by the voter.

Obama will also, of course, reserve his widest smile for India, although he may not be in a very sunny mood after the congressional elections. But he cannot do very much to help the Indian economy at a time when the American economy needs repair. The best he can do, in political terms, is ignore Kashmir, but there is nothing on offer for India in Afghanistan. If anything, Obama will urge India to tone down, rather than ramp up, its presence on the American-Pak battlefield.

Barack Obama achieved what was considered impossible when in 2008 he became the first black person to become President of America. In 2010 he just might add a second historic achievement to his credit. He could make both India and the United States feel nostalgic for George Bush.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Between scam India and slum India

Byline by M J Akbar: Between scam India and slum India

It is entirely appropriate that a nation whose motto is Satyameye Vijayate should discover a metaphor for ravenous loot in a Mumbai building society called Adarsh. Greed is the new religion and all are welcome to feed at her trough. Nothing else is sacrosanct; not the highest offices in public service: Chief Minister, Army chief, Navy admiral, or top bureaucrat through whom the file must pass. If there is a flat to be stolen in a housing society sanctioned for the welfare of war widows, then every single one of these crooks is ready to cheat the blood of Kargil martyrs. Thomas Friedman did not know how many puns danced on the head of a simile when he called the world as flat and began his journey in India.

There is no shame left. It is tempting to ask whether there is an India left when most of its ruling class has abandoned every principle in its composite, vulgar commitment to theft, but hopefully India is larger than its ruling class.

Which came first, hypocrisy or greed? Tough question. I would give primacy of place to hypocrisy, since that is the cloak behind which greed flourishes. Hypocrisy is always a great temptation in a democracy, since compromise always begins in the name of either realism or service. The gap between true expenditure in an election and officially sanctioned levels is the principal propeller of corruption since it becomes the justification for taking illegitimate "donations", which of course is the polite word for bribes.

The stink of hypocrisy now permeates through all levels of authority, and institutions - like our defence forces - which cannot co-exist with corruption. They will be corrupt or a force; they cannot be both. The list of officials who stole from the Kargil dead is almost embarrassing: politicians, senior IAS officers, top defence officers. It was a rigged lottery handout.

It was robbery from the graveyard of Kargil martyrs. Those back-scratching cronies who distributed Adarsh flats between themselves should not be tried for corruption. They should be punished for treason.

But of course that is asking for too much from rulers who have become venal beyond belief. The system believes it can satiate any level of public anger with the meat of a scapegoat. Suresh Kalmadi was the officially nominated sacrifice for the putrid rape of public money during the Commonwealth Games. Ashok Chavan, chief minister of Maharashtra, will possibly have to resign because of Adarsh, unless he can, quietly, blackmail his superiors in Delhi by threatening to reveal how much cash he has been passing on to them.

We are being fooled by a clever set of manipulators in Delhi. Ashok Chavan did not become corrupt on the day media discovered that he had not only changed the terms of reference to cheat the "heroes of Kargil operation who bravely fought to protect our motherland" and then calmly stolen at least four of their flats for his family. He was corrupt the day he was made a minister in the Maharashtra government. He was promoted to Chief Minister not because he was competent but because he knew that the formula for upward mobility in the Congress, the happy combination of loyalty and corruption. When Delhi now puts on a mask of high outrage, it is only because it thinks this is the only way in which it can postpone retribution from the voter.

The voter does not live in Adarsh. 62% of Mumbai lives in slums. The distance between scam India and slum India is measured each day in the newspapers but discomfort prevents us from noticing. Even media seems reluctant to shorten this distance. While the front page of Saturday's newspapers in Delhi were full, justifiably, of the Ashok Chavan-led pillage, a small story on page 3 told of an unknown mother who left her two children, a boy, Pukar, and his sister Dakshina, outside a 'mazaar' [a saint's shrine] just outside the office of the Election Commission in Delhi, the home of the guardians of democracy. She gave her children all that was left with her, a bag with milk and some clothes, and told them she would return in an hour. She never returned. Her last trust was faith in the shrine. The children, said the temporary caretaker of the 'mazaar', Wazir Shah, cried the whole night. The children are now in a shelter.

They will learn to deal with the hungry, homeless, loveless reality that is the destiny of half of India while a thin skim ravages national wealth, and those in-between are trapped between dreams and insecurity. But will Pukar and Dakshina accept their "fate" and ignore Ashok Chavan and his fellow gangsters in the way that their helpless, nameless mother did? I hope not.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Three Bengalis

Three Bengalis
by M J Akbar

In Third Eye: India Today Column
November 1-7, 2010

Three Bengalis could have become Prime Minister of India. Each was staring at the summit, ready for the final ascent, when he discovered that his oxygen supply had been cut off – not by the enemy, but by the team leader.

Subhas Chandra Bose was undermined by Mahatma Gandhi with a rare pious savagery. We are familiar with savagery in politics, and piety is not unknown, but this deadly combination was unique. Bose had the temerity to challenge Gandhi from a Left platform at the Tripuri session in 1939. The reasons have become archaic, but the quiet ruthlessness of Gandhi’s response is still relevant to any student of Congress intrigues. Bose’s big mistake was to win, by 1580 votes to 1377, against Gandhi’s nominee, Sitaramayya. Gandhi declared that it was his defeat, not his candidate’s, and forced 13 out of 15 members of the working committee to resign in the gap between the election on 29 January and the Tripuri session on 8 March.

Bose resigned from the Congress on 29 April 1939 and formed the Forward Bloc on 3 May. The rest is known: escape from Calcutta in January 1941, a wartime alliance with Germany and Japan, the great Azad Hind movement, and death in a mysterious air crash. It was the British effort to put Bose’s soldiers on trial for mutiny that sparked off massive demonstrations, including in the armed forces; historians believe it was the final blow which delinked Empire from Britain.

If today’s Congress was a party with any form of inner democracy, which clearly it is not, it is obvious that Pranab Mukherjee would win in any secret ballot for the leadership, even if his opponent was Sonia Gandhi’s nominee. The party’s ideal combination would be a partnership between Mukherjee and Dr Manmohan Singh, but with roles reversed; that is, with Dr Singh as finance minister. Mahatma Gandhi could not afford Bose for the same reason that Sonia Gandhi will not tolerate Mukherjee. Bose would have publicly deferred to Gandhi, but implemented his own agenda; Mukherjee, likewise. Neither Bengali would have permitted either Gandhi to dictate terms.

The Congress lost Bengal in 1939, not 1967, when the United Front came to power. It is not an accident that Jyoti Basu and Pranab Mukherjee were both in the United Front, along with the Forward Bloc. The Marxists inherited the Bose mantle, because Bose’s party withered in the absence of his charismatic leadership. Congress has been unable to return to centre stage in Bengal even when the Marxists are falling through the cracks. Bengalis prefer a gutsy if cantankerous woman, Mamta Banerjee, as their alternative.

But the real paradox is quite extraordinary: Bengalis will not elect Mukherjee as Chief Minister because the Congress will not make him Prime Minister. The Mahatma chose Jawaharlal over Subhas, and Sonia preferred Singh over Mukherjee, because Bengali sentiment was secondary to their individual requirements.

The baffling anomaly is that the CPI(M), a party that has ruled Bengal for more than three decades through a thesis that reconciled the antithesis between Marx and religion, stopped its pre-eminent Bengali leader, Jyoti Basu, from becoming India’s first Bengali Prime Minister. The Durga-Communist CPI(M) exists in Kerala and Tripura but lives in Bengal. When their miracle-moment arrived, and Basu was named the unanimous choice for Prime Minister by a non-Congress, non-BJP coalition, the CPM politburo sabotaged the proposal. Being Communists, they found all sorts of convoluted theoretical reasons for a colossal political blunder.

Sentiment is the cement of India. Marxists, however, think, therefore they are. Their head gave them all manner of instructions on the evils of collaboration with bourgeois parties, not to mention pseudo-socialists and neo-opportunists. They forgot to check with the Bengali heart. Jargon so often becomes a substitute for ideology, expanding into a mist that obscures reality.

Bengal is the only province to offer three credible potential Prime Ministers: the Nehru-Gandhis never were ethnically from Uttar Pradesh, and are even less so now. Bengal’s loss has not been India’s gain.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The point missed between hyperbole and ridicule

Byline by M J Akbar: The point missed between hyperbole and ridicule

The question begs to be asked. Has the Congress changed its view of Jaya Prakash Narayan after 35 years, or has the Congress changed its view of Rahul Gandhi after 35 months? An official spokesman of the party has, after all, compared Rahul Gandhi to a national hero, a veteran of the Congress Socialist Party, the leftist group that became a power within the party in the 1930s, and a freedom fighter whose last fight for freedom was to liberate India from the censorship, suspension of democracy and Emergency which Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed in 1975 upon the country in order to save her Prime Minister’s chair.

The Congress line on JP, as he was popularly known, was unambiguous: the khadi-clad Gandhian was alternatively a “fascist”, “anarchist”, “anti-national”, and whatever else came into the mind of the Congress leaders after they had read yet another polemical tract written by forgotten Bolsheviks. The Seventies were a decade when it was still fashionable to be of the leftist persuasion. Mani Shankar Aiyar, one of the brightest minds in Congress, would not have been consigned to the doldrums: he would have been an intellectually vigorous colleague of Mohan Kumaramangalam and D.P. Dhar, rather than a mere nominated Rajya Sabha MP. That was a time when “CIA” was a dread acronym, an organisation accused of assassinating unfriendly world leaders, not a building block of an allied security system whose chief could get an appointment with the Indian Prime Minister whenever he sought it. It was an age when Palestine was an ally of India, rather than Israel. Anyone who opposed this “politically correct” left was therefore ipso facto a “fascist” et al. The “anti-national” bit was added not only because JP had the temerity to challenge the rule of a woman who had been equated with India [the Congress president in 1975 famously said “Indira is India”] but because JP in a public speech had come close to asking Indian soldiers to reconsider their oath of loyalty to a government that had become venal. As you can see, that was a tempestuous era.

One presumes that Rahul Gandhi has none of these JP-type political characteristics, at least in Congress eyes. No Congress spokesman would even dare to think of Rahul as a fascist, and even if his political views are a trifle fuzzy they are hardly authoritarian. There will of course come a time when a Congressman will claim that “Rahul is India and India is Rahul” without getting sacked, since sycophancy is eternal, but that is still into the future. So the spokesman must have been, at some internal level, comparing Rahul’s popularity to JP’s. But that too is a radical departure, since JP’s appeal was always dismissed as false.

The spokesman’s enthusiasm for historic parallels has, apparently, been snubbed into silence since it was clear to the high command, a single-person unit consisting solely of Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi, that the hyperbole had opened Rahul up to ridicule. But while this is sensible [it always makes sense to cut your losses while the balance sheet is still manageable], the corrective is missing the point. JP’s place in the history of Indian democracy is not going to be determined by political social-climbers. The problem is not what the spokesman said but the impulse that made him say what he did. He was indulging in public sycophancy because he believed that this was the shortest route to promotion.

This disease is not limited to the Congress; most parties have created supra-human icons out of their leaders. This is because the life of the party is about as long as the life of the leader; one-man, or one-woman parties do not cross the lifetime of their creator. But the Congress is 135 years old. It was the torchbearer not only of the freedom movement but also of the values that have become enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Those values eroded, inevitably, and it is no longer the “central fact” of Indian politics, to use a phrase coined by Jawaharlal Nehru. But it remains a dominant force, and its implosion will leave vacant space that will not be easy to fill.

The paradox is that its opponents might do less damage to the Congress than its sycophants. The culture of obedience aborts proper discussion, for everyone around the table is eager to do just one thing: discover what the leader thinks, or wants, and then find a rationale that takes the participant to the same conclusion. This is not a meeting of minds. This is decision-making in a hall of echoes.

Rahul Gandhi has some way to go before he finds a working strategy: philosophy is passé these days, so it is unfair to ask him to get one. A good way to initiate the process is to use the door. A door is not only an entrance but also an exit. He should keep it open for independent thought, and show the door to sycophants.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Fire this time

The Fire this time
By M.J. Akbar
India Today column: Third Eye
(October 18-25, 2010)

Small boys often dream of becoming either a fireman or a prime minister. But no child should be so precocious as to fantasise about becoming both at the same time.

The problem about becoming a heroic firefighter is that there must be a fire to fight. There is, moreover, an invisible line between the temptation to become a hero, and the immediate necessity of dousing the fire. The hero saves the child on the burning deck with a last-minute intervention. The art of public management is better judged, however, by the quality of prevention rather than the strength of a cure.

In his signature-stealth style, Dr Manmohan Singh seems to have acquired a child's fascination for fire. He watched the flames lick the tent before intervening in the Commonwealth Games. That did not matter too much, as everyone has been playing games with the Games. Arson in Kashmir is not child's play.

Fire has many origins in politics: historical, accidental, contemporary, deliberate, purposeless. Its motivation is covert, its behaviour surreptitious. It can emblazon the foreground and burn in perennial heat underground. It is never calm, never still; it dances in manic fury. The forest fire is lit by a spark.

Kashmir being Kashmir, every kind of incineration is at work, alternately, simultaneously: each line of fire awaits its moment and then converges into conflagration. Dr Singh, prompted surely by the thought of preserving the Rahul Gandhi generation through its mistakes, has opted for inscrutability in response to a fuse lit by Omar Abdullah's Assembly speech, in which he proposed the provocative thesis that Kashmir had acceded to India but not merged with it.

Is there a difference?

It is always a bit dangerous to prod history; you never know when it will bite back. While exact parallels are impossible, the difference, broadly, is between what was suggested by the 1946 British formula known as the Cabinet Mission Plan and the Indian integration effort led by Sardar Patel through which princely states became part of the Union of India. The Congress accepted the British plan until Jawaharlal Nehru, who was wary of any formula that could lead to the balkanisation of India, and suspicious of British intentions, challenged its provisions. The Cabinet Mission Plan had some strange curlicues but, most significantly, it permitted members of the Indian Union to secede in certain given conditions. This was, as Jinnah explained to his party, why the Muslim League, which sought Pakistan, accepted the Plan. When Patel integrated the princely states he did not offer them the option of secession.

This is the difference between accession and merger. Abdullah has mined a dangerous seam line. His speech was not merely the fluff of political rhetoric, but part of the official government record: text reinforced by context. He formally claimed that Delhi had "demolished" the agreement through which Maharaja Hari Singh joined India. He accepted that a solution was possible within the Indian Constitution but then kicked the door of secession just a little open. He wanted a resolution acceptable not only to the three regions of Jammu and Kashmir but also "to the neighbouring country". No prizes for guessing which neighbouring country he was referring to. I don't think Pakistan has much respect for the framework of the Indian Constitution.

One man who certainly does not have any respect is Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami. He has, within days of the speech, exacted the price of Dr Singh's silence. Abdullah's speech was instigated by Delhi, he said, and was an attempt to hoodwink Kashmiris.

This riposte achieves two purposes. It debunks the "concessions" made by Abdullah, but there is a clever side-swipe as well. It implies that Delhi has diluted its position on Kashmir's relationship with the Union of India because it has lost its nerve. This may not be true, but a week ago the scope for such an accusation did not exist. This may not constitute a material change for Delhi, but it is not immaterial either. Pakistan will certainly prefer to read it through the Geelani binocular.

The fire this time could have been prevented by good governance when the first young man fell to police bullets so many weeks ago. A wall of flame has risen. When will Dr Singh be ready to fight this fire?