Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ask Headley for a full 26/11 List

Ask Headley for a full 26/11 List
By M J Akbar

David Coleman Headley alias Daood Gilani alias Whoknowswhat has been floating through multiple loyalties and their obverse, multiple betrayals, diligently obedient to the basic laws of post-modern treachery. He may not have been top-of-the-class: Daood is only the Arabic form of David. But he survived because he learnt the rules and stuck to them.

The rules establish the relationship between agency-controller and pretend-puppet. The spymaster believes that only evidence of loyalty to the enemy can ensure reasonable accuracy of information from an agent — double, triple or quadruple. This is clearly more complicated than the Cold War ruse of bait-trap-turn-burn that exhausted the intelligence agencies, and sometimes the intelligence, of superpowers.

The double agent is passé in a war that has risen above the demands, limitations and advantages of nationalism. Nationalism offers the hope, however thin, of protection in a crisis. But the stateless enemy is a frontier-less freebooter, working deals, finessing primary cause with subsidiary ventures. He is a contradiction, a high-moralist in his sense of self even as he short sells to all vendors with the glib ease of a snake-oil salesman.

This is not unknown to those who hold the strings and yet they continue the operation in the belief that the value of information, even if compromised, is worth the price of scattered lies. The freebooter has a vested interest in many masters and multi-layered deceit because complicity with all sides is his only guarantee of safety on the day of exposure, a possibility that can drive even the best to paranoia. If he is not killed before capture, then his tongue is a threat to those who cannot afford to be public about what they do in private.

Headley must be relieved that he is still alive and in the custody of those who had something to gain from him when he was a conduit through turbulent crosscurrents. He sold America to terrorists and terrorists to America and both thought they had a bargain. Facts are still at a premium, so we can only guess as to which American agencies he dealt with, although one would have to be particularly stupid to guess wrongly. Headley would not have managed the “plea bargain” that keeps him safe from Indian authorities without a nod from someone powerful in the Washington system.

It is only logical that Pakistan-born Headley should prefer an American jail to an Indian one. We did not catch him on his five trips to India to help plan 26/11, so America obviously gets first rights on his future. But since Headley was involved in 26/11, those rights cannot be exclusive. Would America have been content with a one-time interrogation if India had caught an al-Qaida leader who had done five reconnaissance missions in the States in order to facilitate 9/11? Unlikely.

So we must ask the obvious question: why is it so important for America to keep Headley in America? Headley was picked up for plotting to murder a Danish cartoonist, and confessed his role in 26/11. The main aggrieved, therefore, are Danes and Indians; India has a stronger case for repatriation since the Danish plot never fructified, while 26/11 happened.

There was no crime committed or intended on American soil, but America insists Headley will not leave its soil. (Pakistan does not want him.) No intelligence agency willingly hands over control of an asset unless compelled to; even America and Britain have not extended intelligence-sharing to total transparency. Relations between American and Indian agencies are mature enough to have survived the discovery of two CIA agents in Delhi’s services, including one posted to the PMO. So they should see through this problem too.

India will get a structured, monitored, time-specific opportunity to question Headley, if only to appease public anger. What should Indians sleuths ask? Delhi needs a sharp scalpel, not the thermometer we keep for friends, constantly measuring sentiment.

It would be a waste of time to record what is known. Headley will be an invaluable source for details about the past: the LeT, its allies, its systems, plans and links with the Pakistan establishment. But the vital question is: who knew, during the planning process, about the Mumbai terror attacks and when did they know it? Headley was an informant: whom did he inform?

James Bond is dead, along with clarity; his was an age in which you shot straight or got killed, and the story ended. By the time we reached John le Carre’s icy war of the 1960s and 1970s, the end had been replaced by a sequel. Bond knew who his friends were; le Carre’s Smiley had no idea who his enemies might be. India has no shortage of enemies. Among them is silence.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Politicians don’t get stiff necks

Byline by M J Akbar: Politicians don’t get stiff necks

Which is the bigger crime in politics, hypocrisy or stupidity? On careful consideration it must be the second, since hypocrisy is not merely useful but often necessary. Only a very foolish minister or Member of Parliament would tell his or her constituents that the petition scribbled on an untidy piece of paper is either meaningless or untenable. A good politician never gets a stiff neck, because he is constantly exercising it downwards, nodding yes vigorously when what he really wants to indicate is a calm and decorous no.

Hypocrisy can be, in specific circumstances, productive. Stupidity is always counterproductive. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan opted for stupidity when Congress leaders began to pile upon him, obviously after instructions from the top, after he was civil to Amitabh Bachchan during the second opening of the Bandra sealink in Mumbai. (In the old days, inaugurations used to come in two varieties: either they were fraudulent exercises in laying a foundation stone when there was no prospect of anything being built later. Or they were one-off affairs in which a grandee cut a ribbon, smiled for the cameras, made a speech and went home. Now they are designed for multiplier effect; the same project keeps getting re-opened in parts.)

Under attack, Chavan claimed that he would never have gone to the function had he been aware that Amitabh, an international superstar for two generations, had been invited. This makes two things clear: the Chief Minister of Maharashtra does not read newspapers; and his security detail doesn’t mention who will be beside him at a high profile event. He also expects you and I to believe this. When you set out to tell a lie, you should at least have the decency to tell an intelligent one.

The trouble with public functions is that there are pesky photographers and they take pictures. They wait for the moment when you are animated and smiling; it makes for a better picture. Chavan was doing both as he sat shoulder to shoulder with Amitabh. There was nothing to suggest that he considered Amitabh toxic, somewhere between contagious flu and bubonic plague. Both Amitabh and Chavan were, in fact, being courteous and decent, which is what, I am sure they are as human beings. Amitabh continued to exhibit those qualities after the event; politics dragged Chavan into a bog.

The Congress rationale for bad manners is that Amitabh has agreed to be a brand ambassador for Gujarat by promoting the state’s tourism, and was photographed in the company of Narendra Modi. Fine, but why is such political morality an exclusive exercise? There has been no such diktat about Ratan Tata, who not only took land on handsome terms from Narendra Modi for his Nano project but praised Modi as just the kind of Chief Minister he likes. Many industrialists are as close to Modi and the BJP as they are to Congress, and this is not taken personally.

In any case, it ill behoves a party to take a moral stand when it protects a Sajjan Kumar for nearly three decades, and still manages to ensure, through its control of the executive, soft and biased treatment by the police. Modi must be held accountable for the unforgiveable Gujarat riots, and there must be constant pressure on the judicial process to hasten what has been, so far, only a slow and winding route to his doorstep. But it has at least been faster than the journey after the anti-Sikh riots.

There is a rational reason why Ratan Tata, or any other industrialist, cannot be condemned for sitting in the same frame as Modi. No one in his senses expects a businessman to stop investing in Gujarat just because Modi is Chief Minister. Democracy has processes through which crime and punishment are measured. Businessmen will not pass judgement at the expense of their balance sheets.

The only regrettable element in this overblown and completely unnecessary fracas is that a public event has been vitiated by personal preferences. This destroys the culture of democracy. Politics provides for wide leeway. Is it secular for Sharad Pawar, for instance, to call on Bal Thackeray with a bunch of flowers and should that be the cause of a rupture in the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra? Even Muslim voters, who have no sympathy for any Thackeray, would laugh at such silly dogmatism.

Ashok Chavan would have done himself a lot of good had he simply told the truth in a controversy where truth served him best. All he needed to say was that he had not sent out the invitations; and that he had been taught the virtue of good manners, which require civil behaviour. He was not offering Amitabh Bachchan a place in his Cabinet; he was only conversing with a man whose films he had seen and enjoyed, and who has, through his screen presence, become a worldwide icon. But that would have required self-confidence and self-belief. Neither can be purchased off the shelf.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Give Credit to Mayawati for her Candour

Give Credit to Mayawati for her Candour
By M J Akbar

How much anger can one provoke on a lazy Sunday morning by offering a single cheer to Mayawati, whose latest version of jewellery is cash garlands? Judging by the vehemence of cartoons, quite a lot. Mayawati never fails to irritate the English Indian, being the antithesis of its political, behavioural and psychological preferences. But pause, rewind, and reconsider: surely Mayawati deserves at least a ‘C’ (following the new grading system of examinations) for candour. She is doing in sunlight what her peers do in the privacy of the drawing room. Moreover, this money is from party faithful, not lobbyists handing out black money in return for favours taken or due.

We cannot upgrade Mayawati to two or three cheers, since she is probably not averse to drawing-room deals either, but there is something to be said for this undisguised pot-shot at the hypocrisy that sprinkles weak perfume over the pervasive stink at the heart of Indian democracy. Politics has become expensive, and politicians spoilt. Those shocked by the thought of Rs 5 crore should order some wake-up pills: that kind of money buys you a few packets of peanuts in conventional party politics.

Mayawati never provokes her antagonists by accident. It is conscious and deliberate. She represents the third stage of Dalit empowerment, a process that began before independence under the charismatic leadership of that true intellectual giant, B R Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s rage against untouchability led him to seek separate political space in British India. However, he realized that his best option, at that stage of history, was accommodation: his Pune pact with Mahatma Gandhi in 1932 ensured Dalits the reservations that became a springboard for political evolution.

Kanshi Ram took the next quantum leap forward when he ripped apart the Gandhian dialectic as patronizing, and initiated the rescue of Dalits from the comatose embrace of Congress. It is quite astonishing that we can no longer legally use the term that Gandhi coined for Dalits. Kanshi Ram confronted the establishment and transformed Indian politics. His heir Mayawati has built on that transformation to seize power without allies through the electoral system, a prospect that would have been dismissed as fantasy even in the 1990s. She has done so by diluting confrontation to provocation.

Challenge is the noun and verb of the rhetoric of anger. When Mayawati flaunts her public or personal riches, she is sending a message to her own constituency, that wealth is a source of power, and power is no longer the monopoly of a traditional elite that has brutalized Dalits for thousands of years. She displays contempt for the “legality” that has kept her community socially enslaved and economically impoverished; and scorn for a system in which dominant parties can be flush with hidden cash while she must become answerable for each rupee. She is levelling the playing field with a brazen display, because brazen is as good for her as secrecy is for others. If the CBI were honest enough to probe just how much all political leaders — all, across the spectrum, including Mayawati — spent on private jets, we would get some very revealing facts and figures.

Her dilemma is the familiar balancing act; the demographics of every constituency ensure that she needs the support of others for victory. She has a potential ally in Muslims, but there are many claimants to the Muslim vote. She needs some working relationship with UP’s Brahmins, and there is always the danger that her provocations will be perceived as confrontation. A government is not re-elected on the basis of a rally; it is measured by the quality of governance. A rally merely reassures the faithful. Sensible rule encourages the expansion of faith.

Do not underestimate, however, a notable point: not a rupee from the Mayawati garland lost its way along the journey from collection to knit to neck and then her safe. Cash garlands are a familiar form of tribute in India, whether to bridegroom or politician, but that does not make them foolproof. Last week, Ejaz Ali, former JD (U) MP who became famous beyond his hometown, Patna, after his protests against the women’s bill, was welcomed with a cash garland at Patna airport. They were not, admittedly, 1,000-rupee notes, but a hundred rupees buys more than a meal in Bihar. Alas, by the time the garland reached the recipient it was no longer a cash garland. The cash had been ripped off. Mark this down to the ideological purity of Biharis. This was an instinctive display of Marxist-Leninist principles: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, without interference from any intermediary. The money had come from those willing to pay, and gone to the needy, leaving the politician laden with honour and light of cash. Perfect.

Appeared in Times of India - March 21, 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Little Pakistan’s big India problem

Byline by M J Akbar: Little Pakistan’s big India problem

Pakistan’s India policy is nurtured by a fundamental principle: Pakistan is always right. The obverse assumption is, but naturally, that India is always in the wrong, and gets away because of its size. The conflation between size and strength is meaningless and unhistorical, but remarkably effective. Britain was less than the size of a medium-level principality of the Indian subcontinent, and it ruled half the world.

Grievance is a wide canvas, creating elbow room even for the unacceptable. In this Pakistani logic, even cross-border terrorism becomes India’s fault since its “root cause” is Indian injustice towards the Muslims of the Kashmir valley. History becomes the story of lament, and if facts do not suit the lament then facts must be suitably altered. Little mention is made therefore of the fact that it was Pakistan which began the war on Kashmir within six weeks of freedom; this was the first foreign policy decision taken by independent Pakistan, on the assumption that it could seize what it wanted while India remained comatose. The reality is that if there had been no Pak-sponsored invasion in 1947, the status of Kashmir would have been settled through negotiations by 1948, probably through some form of partition. There would have been no Kashmir problem.

There are two starting points to history as written by Islamabad: Kashmir in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971. The first exonerates cross-border terrorism; the second is used to explain Islamabad’s need for “strategic depth”, which, in effect, means Pak control of Kabul without interference from India. Once again, the military defeat of Pakistan and birth of Bangladesh is “big” India’s fault. The sequence of events from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s spectacular victory in the general elections to the massacre of Bengali civilians in East Pakistan and the consequent arrival of millions of refugees into India is excised from public memory. These are not academic issues; they impinge on current objectives creating tensions, as for instance in Afghanistan.

Any nation’s foreign policy must keep space for flexibility, and therefore cannot be bound to a specific pattern, but its contours are always evident. The world’s powers and superpowers cannot be indifferent to India-Pakistan relations, not only because the two neighbours have nuclear weapons, but also because they are involved in a critical battle zone of the next decade. America and Britain would be happy to see peace between India and Pakistan, not because it is a good thing in itself, but also because it is in their interest to release Pakistan from confrontation with India so that it can concentrate on the confrontation with their foes in Af-Pak region. Their need for Pakistan makes them add to their historical ambivalence about a core problem, the terms on which this peace can be arranged. It would suit them to see a more compliant India, even though, on paper, India is closer to Anglo-America’s definition of terrorism than Pakistan’s. Washington and London, therefore, have to negotiate each decision, whether on policy framework or specifics like Headley, through a complex web of immediate necessity, medium-term options and long-term horizon. Contradictions are inevitable.

Russia, aware of its post-Soviet limitations, but determined to pursue its interests in Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan to the extent possible, would prefer a greater convergence of Russia-India objectives on terrorism as well as national priorities in South, Central and West Asia. The revival of a military equation between these two powers is evidence of shared goals. The reasons are not the same, for the world is radically different, but the impulses and intellectual reasoning that brought India close to the Soviet Union are again in play within the India-Russia relationship. Russia would be happy at a resolution in South Asia, but with its tilt towards Delhi.

China is the one regional power that has no interest in Indo-Pak peace, and as long as China remains Pakistan’s all-weather benefactor, a settlement is unlikely. Pakistan’s self-image, painted with the brush of lament, suits China perfectly, because it can outsource a substantive part of its competition/confrontation with India to Pakistan. China and Pakistan offer a vital service to each other, by improving mutual comfort levels. With China by its side, Pakistan can negate, psychologically, India’s “big” factor. China helped build Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal not only as reassurance, but also to stretch the nuclear confrontation from the north to the west. Pakistan is the nuclear hedge that China factors into its war games at a time when India is displaying the promise of economic resurgence and military potential.

Diplomats and their political guardians are used to tiptoeing through minefields, but surely there is no region more explosive than the stretch between North India, Iran and Central Asia. West Asia has dangerous triggers of course, but only one side, Israel, has nuclear arms. (This could change, of course, if Iran goes nuclear, a prospect that keeps the mood wintry in Washington and Tel Aviv.) The sheer danger of an unmanageable explosion should, in theory, make the imperative for an Indo-Pak settlement that much more urgent. In practice, the absence of minimal trust, and the competition of a widening arc of national interests, keeps India and Pakistan frozen in a winter of despair.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Good Intentions cannot justify bad delivery
By M J Akbar

Enthusiasm is no substitute for clarity. The flaws in the Women’s Reservation Bill are not in the laudable intention but in the clogged delivery. The desire to be politically correct has overtaken the imperative to be politically sensible. Method and order, the favourite weapons of Hercule Poirot, might be usefully employed in analysis.

Why do women need reservation? Taken purely as a demographic identity, they constitute the most powerful force in electoral politics. Every second voter is a woman. If she were motivated purely by gender, the majority of MPs would already be women. Theory, alas, tends to have a cool, or even antagonistic, relationship with real life.

The basis on which a candidate is chosen, by any party, can be described in a single, if ungainly, word: winnability. The two most powerful women politicians in the country are in charge of Congress in Delhi; both, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mrs Sheila Dikshit, are also known for their secularism. They chose only one woman candidate out of seven, and not a single Muslim. Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were offered as nominees, but their names were withdrawn when their “winnability” became doubtful. This is how politics is conducted. This is why the idea of women’s reservation gained momentum, because the “winnability” factor is neutralized when all legitimate candidates are women.

But women do not constitute a homogenous group, and all women are not equal. Just as men have the advantage over women in what should be a gender-neutral election to the Lok Sabha, some women have an in-built advantage over others, owing to caste or faith, or socio-economic factors. The logic that provides reservations for women also sustains the argument for sub-reservations. The principle is the same.

Empowerment must be the right of all women, not just some women. The argument that parties can always select candidates from a particular caste or faith, rather than do so under legal compulsion, does not hold. In the last six decades, no one has prevented the Congress or BJP from filling half their list with women, but they have not done so. Without sub-reservations, distributive justice will be trumped by “winnability” in women’s seats. Since this is a Constitutional amendment, rather than a simple Bill, provisions can be introduced to protect the legislation from being struck down in court.

A second structural flaw could further erode the already ebbing credibility of our parliamentary system.

The life-blood of our democracy is a covenant, a pact between elector and elected that the quid pro quo for the vote is service to the constituency. The quality of that service is an important (but not the only) factor in an MP’s re-election. This is the one big check that keeps a MP on some sort of practical leash.

The 108th Amendment envisages a rotational method of reservation that would make two-thirds of the Lok Sabha, or about 360 members, one-term MPs: 181 that will get reserved in an election, and the 181 male seats that will get reserved for women in the following election. Both categories, therefore, become one-term MPs. A woman MP can, of course, seek re-election by remaining in what will become a non-reserved seat, but that will be a rare exception.

Two-thirds of the Lok Sabha, therefore, will have no political incentive to serve its constituents. This, given prevailing levels of public morality, is a license to satisfy personal interests for the length of the term to MP and minister. The cynical response is that this hardly matters since MPs have become irrelevant to national development or even to their constituency’s welfare. If that is the level of degeneration, then we should abandon first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy and find another definition of democracy. Perhaps we can adopt a dual system in which two-thirds of MPs are elected on the basis of lists prepared by the party leaders, enabling them to send their chosen favourites to the House in direct proportion to the percentage of votes they have received.

The relationship between MP and voter can, thereby, be officially abandoned. This should make party bosses delirious.

The irony is that such flaws can be easily corrected, with some time and thought. Both have been absent from the process. The pro-reservation lobbies have employed hustle topped off by self-congratulation; those opposed think that explosions constitute an argument.

The former worked through cheerleaders in the media; the latter played to galleries beyond the media, and did so effectively. The Congress began to waver when the message from the second horizon began to permeate back to Delhi. The government was indifferent to the threat from political parties, but it could not remain immune to a threat from the voter. Empowerment of women is powerful and necessary objective, but the route map should be navigated with care.

Appeared in The Times of India - March 14, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Danger Ahead: From aam aadmi to khaas aurat?

Byline by M J Akbar: Danger Ahead: From aam aadmi to khaas aurat?

In an odd swing of fortunes, the first legislative round of the Women’s Reservation Bill has left the victors just a little shaken and the defeated mightily stirred. This was not what the script said. With all the heavyweights on the side of gender-bias correction, including the heaviest weight of all, media, the contest was meant to end in an easy victory against a set of ragbag antediluvians.

It is true that after the Rajya Sabha vote the score sheet reads Mrs Sonia Sushma Brinda Goliath 1, Mr Yadav Khan David 0. But it is the Goliath camp that has become apprehensive about its prospects in the compulsory return match in the Lok Sabha, while David is now polishing his sling with some relish. A confident Mrs Goliath was expected to organise a quick return fixture on the assumption that the David team was in disarray, but that is not how it has turned out, and a decision has been put in abeyance.

This is not to suggest that Mrs Goliath has lost nerve, or is in danger of losing the match. But it is indisputable that sudden gaps have opened up in what was thought to be formidable defense, while the giant strikers are wondering if their numerical superiority has become politically counter-productive. The triumphant self-congratulation with which they began the match and which continued till the passage of the 108th Amendment to the Constitution, has slipped into a deepening sense of unease. This is because the smiles in Delhi are not quite matched by sentiments on the ground, particularly in North India. Politicians opposed to the Bill represent the more deprived sections of Indian society: Dalits, Backward Classes and Muslims. The Government that claims to represent the interests of the aam aadmi (common man) is clearly worried that it might end up as the voice of the khaas aurat (special woman).

At the heart of the wrangle lies a pertinent question: is this reservation for some women, or is it for all women? Neither men nor women are a homogenous group, nor does gender represent political identity. If women were to vote for women per se, then the present Lok Sabha would be flooded with women MPs, since every second voter is a woman. The reason why parties do not select more women candidates has nothing to do with bias; it is because women have collateral disadvantages in electoral politics that makes it more difficult for them to defeat male nominees. This is a rational justification for increasing their presence in the House through reservation. But if reservation is necessary to reduce the imbalance between men and women, then, by the same logic, it is also essential to reduce the imbalance between women and women. Wealth, caste and faith are decisive elements of this internal imbalance, and reservations within reservations make sense. Those who argue that faith-based reservations are not permitted by the Constitution forget that this is a Constitutional amendment, and not an ordinary Bill. If you can amend the Constitution for one reason, you can amend it for a second as well.

A disproportionate Lok Sabha will eventually become a dysfunctional Lok Sabha, so corrections are essential. Some corrections are easy, as for instance in the rather self-defeating proposal to create a system of rotation in every general election. This would, in effect, make two-thirds of the Lok Sabha one-term MPs, destroying the compact between MP and voter by eliminating accountability. But rotation can be easily spaced out, as in the case of reserved seats for Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

There are more pernicious realities about the parliamentary system hidden in the woodwork. The most dangerous is that the Indian Parliament has become the preserve of the super-rich.

The National Election Watch has unearthed extremely interesting statistics. There are 59 women in the current Lok Sabha. (This is almost twice the number of Muslims. The graph of the last six decades, incidentally, is also revealing: the number of women MPs is rising, while the number of Muslims has declined sharply. But that is not a comparison relevant to this column.) Forty of 59 women MPs, or 68%, have personal assets over Rs 1 cr. The percentage of super-rich among male MPs (57%) is not very different. Wealth is still primarily a male asset, and the percentage of wealthy women will come down with greater representation.

Throw in another factor, that virtually everyone hides wealth, and the percentage of gender-neutral super-rich becomes much higher. Parliament, in other words, has become an elitist club. It is virtually impossible for a person without substantial means to contest an election seriously, given the costs of a campaign. A candidate has to be either a leader or extremely lucky if his or her party meets even a quarter of real costs.

Why is no one demanding reservations for those around or below the poverty line, who constitute perhaps 40% of India? Why not replace caste-based reservations with poverty-based reservations?

That would be a true revolution.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Be Modern, Be 'Civil' to domestic servants

Be Modern, Be 'Civil' to domestic servants
By M J Akbar

A hundred years ago, according to a recent book, domestic servants constituted Britain’s largest source of employment. That simple statistic reveals, better than anything else, the inequality of a class-driven society, and the partnership between wealth and power in Victorian and post-Victorian Britain. The Industrial Age was well under way, but had not achieved the critical mass that would broaden the working class and spawn the Labour Party. The British upper classes were not cruel to servants, although there were strict distinctions: in a grand house, servants were permitted to eat and drink as much as they wished, but could only live downstairs.

The meltdown of the ancient regime was evolutionary in Britain, rather than revolutionary, as in Russia, even though British democracy was a stained and evolving process, full of rotten boroughs and inbuilt inequity. Democracy needed a lot of latitude if as famous a prime minister as William Pitt – the Elder could be considered elected, when the total electorate in his constituency consisted of five voters. Women got the vote even later than the “lower classes”. It took two world wars, and the death of millions of poor in the service of an empire designed to fatten the rich, before the privileged system withered.

Nineteenth century America did not have servants, it had slaves; and slavery reinvented itself in many forms after its official abolition before it withered. The British attitude towards colour was far more sophisticated, and many nuances of racism could survive under a veneer of wit. Samuel Johnson, famously, had a devoted Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, as well as a pet cat. Barber was not allowed to carry the cat as it would be demeaning to both.

More to the point, today the word “servant” has disappeared from the popular lexicon of both America and Europe. If it survives it is only within the construct of a “civil servant” — who is definitely not a servant, and very often not particularly civil either. Of course, there is still a population that earns from service at homes in the West: the huge demand for “illegal” immigrants confirms this. But the terms of reference have changed in favour of the servants. Only a thin elite can afford full-time house servants, since their cost is high, and beyond the reach of the professional middle class.

There are, at least to my knowledge, no statistics available, but it would be a safe bet to claim that the largest source of employment in contemporary India is domestic servants. In that sense, we are where Britain was a century ago. There is a world of difference between the service economy and a servants’ economy; India claims the first and lives in the second. The domestic servant is the first rung of aspiration for more than half of India.

The tensions are palpable, particularly in urban India, which has neither the sense of neighbourhood nor a culture of sympathy. The servant is both the provider as well as the potential assailant, particularly if male, for he belongs to a world that is distant both geographically and psychologically. The young man cleans utensils only because he is a prisoner of necessity. The rewards are pitiful; the treatment pitiable. The threat of servant violence is the regular diet of the media; but cruelty towards servants is largely ignored, perhaps because journalists are part of the middle class and complicit.

Developed societies in the West created robotic machines, like the dishwasher, to fill the gap, even as they lifted the poor into an expanding middle class, loosely defined as a group with enough for food, clothing, shelter and basic education. The Indian attitude to washing machines is unique: we hire servants to use them. Those who cannot afford washing machines can still afford servants to wash clothes the older way. Some overlap is understandable in the transition phase, but the incremental rise in upward mobility is a flickering fact, not a sustained reality.

The tension of denial is evident on the visage of those servants who haven’t reconciled to their dull fate. It’s true that the majority of servants have no dispute with their economic destiny, since this maximum-effort, minimal-reward employment prevents starvation. But that, surely, is not a pleasant reality.

The good news about India is that plumbers and electricians are becoming more expensive. The rising cost of skills is proof of some transfer of wealth. A tongue-in-cheek view suggests that India will not become a modern economy as long as there are civil servants. Let me assert, tongue firmly in right place, that India will become a modern economy only when domestic service is treated as civil, and a service that deserves the salary available to the starting circle of government jobs.

Appeared in Times of India - March 07, 2010

The gap between promise and delivery

Byline by M J Akbar: The gap between promise and delivery

It was such a relief to learn, from no less an authority than home secretary G.K. Pillai, that Maoists aim to overthrow the Indian state by 2050. That gives us four decades during which the plus-40 bourgeois can die in their beds; those blessed with first jobs in 2010 can retire in comfort, and hope for a ringside view of the revolution; and those below 20 can worry — unless, of course, they have joined the revolution.

Frankly, if by 2050 we have not managed to eliminate poverty, there won’t be much of an Indian state left to overthrow.

The Government has a shorter timeframe: it believes it can eliminate Naxalites from the 34 districts where they are still impregnable, within seven to eight years. Pillai is a fine officer and an excellent home secretary, but the solution to the Maoist threat does not lie in his domain. Whether the Naxalites fortresses increase from 34 to 100, or dwindle to zero, will depend on whether the Government can make impoverished India part of the narrative of rising India. This will not happen if Government functions on the static principle of “business as usual”.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called Maoists an existentialist threat. So far, his Government is treating it as a law and order matter. It is a hunger and oppression problem: life subsists at near-starvation levels in the catchment areas of Maoism; and public protest is suppressed brutally by the police, who treat the tribal poor as a contemptible species. This brutality is hidden behind a thin veneer of lies, which we — the whole establishment, whether politicians, civil servants, businesspersons or media — condone through our silence.

There seems to be a curious, and incomprehensible, edge of helplessness in the Prime Minister’s statements, as if he is unable to escape the trap of ‘business as usual’. He told Parliament, for instance, that the government had been a failure on sugar prices. To begin with, it is his government that he is talking about. Second, he is publicly and directly accusing a senior colleague, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, of mismanagement. So what happens? Nothing. Mea culpa is meaningless if those who are culpable are not held accountable. But of course, to apply this dictum to only Pawar would be subjective. Dr Singh admitted in Parliament that minorities [code word for Muslims] were under-represented in government jobs. Admission is fine, but this government has been in power for six years: what has it done to resolve the problem? The Prime Minister did try, which is why the Ranganath Mishra commission was constituted; but he has not found the will to implement its recommendations. The Marxists in Bengal have done so, incidentally. Our democracy’s parameters have shifted from promise to delivery.

The gap between promise and delivery could also affect the principal thrust of the Prime Minister’s second term, progress in relations with Pakistan. Certainly, Dr Singh means well, but good intentions are, alas, not good enough. BBC News — not an Indian propaganda vehicle — has just sent out a story from Islamabad which says: “Since 2009 militant activity has been on the increase in the Kashmir region…Initially militant groups in Kashmir appeared to be operating on their own — but there is evidence to suggest that they are once again under the protection of Pakistan’s intelligence establishment. Training camps are once again being set up on the Pakistani-controlled side of Kashmir. Recruitment is also up in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which has provided most of the shaheeds or ‘martyrs’ for the militants. In fact, so emboldened have the militants become, that one militant alliance, the United Jihad Council (UJC), held a public meeting for militants in Muzaffarabad in mid-January 2010. The meeting was chaired by, among others, former ISI chief Lt Gen Hamid Gul. It called for a reinvigorated jihad [holy war] until Kashmir was free of ‘Indian occupation’.”

The resurgence of militancy coincides with Dr Singh’s efforts to revive the peace process, which began through second-track channels and led to the joint statement at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Cairo. Islamabad, in other words, read Delhi’s goodwill as weakness. It also believes that India will buckle under pressure from two prongs: escalation of terrorism, and American pressure on India to settle on Kashmir. Pakistan’s foreign secretary Salman Bashir nodded discreetly towards the international community during his press conference in Delhi, even as he thanked Dr Singh personally and profusely for reopening talks.

Delhi has to get real if it hopes to fend off impending crises. India will survive the Maoist insurgency by ending poverty, and in no other way. This is only possible through good governance, which is impossible without accountability. And peace with Pakistan is a welcome hope, which we applaud; but it is risky to shake hands with anyone holding a gun.