Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bapu would have laughed at the Gandhi pen

Bapu would have laughed at the Gandhi pen
By M J Akbar

Why did the world’s most famous, and priciest, makers of writing instruments launch a lakhpati pen in the name of a man famous for wearing nothing more than a handspun loincloth? They did not honour Mahatma Gandhi because research turned up fascinating data suggesting that the world’s millionaires had overnight converted into apostles of non-violence and abandoned their T-bone steaks for goat’s milk. The reason was that its marketing department identified India as their best growing market.

Modest ink pens used to be a staple of Indian stores, with stained-finger schoolchildren as customers. The triumph of the ball pen has reduced that to a quaint memory. Having lost its base, the pen showed astonishing powers of reinvention; it became upwardly mobile without doing much more than it did in its populist avatar. Within the last decade, high-end pen shops have moved from an occasional presence in Delhi’s five-star boutiques to high-rent markets where the elite come to spend a thousand rupees for a hundred grams of cheese. If the price of these pens makes you stagger, just remember that cheesy millionaires do not stagger easily.

Why have branded pens become such a hit with the Indian rich? Is it because the rich have shifted their primary loyalty from the goddess Lakshmi to the goddess Saraswati? Have they become so literary that, after a day rewriting balance sheets, they spend their evenings stringing pearls of wisdom in variable verse? Alas, not true. The wheeler has not turned into a dealer in poetic phrases.

The demand for pricey pens has multiplied because it has risen from the tarmac of legitimate need, lifted towards pocket-showoffs, and now rocketed into the stratosphere of ruling class affectation. It has become a most desirable gift for those in power because it comes attached with respectability. This is not considered a bribe, mind you. The most expensive pen in history would be inadequate as substitute for cash for a minister on closure of a deal. The pen, particularly one with contorted shapes on its head, is just right as a gesture towards the new royalty in return for an audience, even if the new royals use it only to scribble their initials. It is the kind of male jewellery that helps to keep a file moving. The movement may or may not be in the right direction, but why risk immobility in mid-journey?

Delhi’s corruption has a caste system, in addition to being creative. The most widespread form is lifestyle protection, or enhancement. A successful collection of Diwali hampers, for instance, could be sufficient to stock your bar through winter; and if you are influential enough, then Christmas will ensure a heady time till Holi; and Holi will keep you in high spirits till June. Monsoon may be the only time when you actually have to pay for anything spiritual. Pens and handmade watches are reserved for the heaven-born.

As happens so often, the pen-marketing chaps got the facts right and conclusions wrong. Identifying India as the market was totally correct; making Gandhi the icon was silly. The Indian who buys boutique pens dismisses Gandhi as a sermonizing bore with crackpot theories, the sort of hero safer dead than around, useful for street names but not for the boardroom or indeed the Cabinet. A pencil might be more appropriately named after Gandhi, preferably one sold in stub sizes.

A Nehru pen could have been a better idea, for Nehru was an extremely good author. Gandhi, on the other hand, was a great crusader-journalist. The Mahatma communicated through the journals he edited, and their names were as didactic as their content. Gandhi was also an inveterate scribbler; no politician has written more letters, quite often on scraps of paper, for he was the ultimate conservationist. On his days of silence, Gandhi conducted full conversations, and even crucial talks with Viceroys, by scribbling his part of the dialogue carefully on small bits of paper.

If the pen chaps had wanted to do themselves a favour, and lift the image of their brand with a dedication to the generation that gave us freedom, then they should have opted for Jawaharlal’s father Motilal Nehru. Motilal, a man with epicurean panache, a personification of honour in its widest sense, a patrician who entertained (before he became a Gandhian on the eve of the Khilafat movement) with a generosity that princes might match if they had both taste and money in addition to heritage. He may have never written a book, but he certainly pored over a brief; he was one of the great lawyers of his time. One can visualize the finest contemporary pens, not to mention quality ink, strewn across his handsome teak writing desk.

What would Gandhi have done if someone had gifted him a lakhpati pen? Laughed with toothless abandon, and immediately lost the gift.

(The Times of India Column : May 30, 2010)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

My brother’s peacekeeper

Byline by M J Akbar: My brother’s peacekeeper

Mukesh and Anil Ambani were born fortunate. We will now find out whether they are also lucky. If they are, they will at long last discover the creative joy of independence.

Fortune is the root and fruit of fortunate; but their true wealth lies not in money but in the DNA they inherited from Dhirubhai Ambani. Controversy is the sister of success, and Dhirubhai was successful enough to have many such sisters. But you would have to be an idiot to deny that he was an authentic genius of the 20th century, a visionary who did more than any individual to lift the Indian economy from the shackles of moribund convention and place it on a platform for a 21st century take-off. Dhirubhai was the first to grasp that Dalal Street, home of the Mumbai stock exchange, consists of two words. While traditional capitalists concentrated on the first word, he took a revolutionary step towards the second. Others raised capital in the velvet atmosphere of bank boardrooms, where the murmur of deals was only interrupted by the soft sound of backs being scratched to mutual advantage. Dhirubhai created capital from the street, and left the street full of capitalists, even as he expanded the horizons of his industrial vision to a width that only the spread of his own arms could encompass.

It was axiomatic that as long as such a charismatic patriarch was alive, his sons would be willingly dependent on his genius. Dhirubhai’s death should have been the point of amicable departure, with two brothers finding their separate ways, protecting their personal relations with the glue of a close-knit family. But, like so many elder brothers before (and surely after) him, Mukesh fell victim to a misjudgement. He thought he was the new patriarch, rather than a sibling.

He should have known that Dhirubhai’s DNA would have prevented Anil from accepting a glorified, but essentially marginal, place in the family enterprise. Mukesh did not offer his brother a true partnership, just a role that would be determined by the elder brother. Anil has perhaps more of his father’s spirit than Mukesh, since he was forced to begin with very little. The pace with which he has leapt into the worldwide wealth lists is impressive, but statistics are not the compelling part of this epic.

Dependence is a curious phenomenon, since it creates uneven categories out of affection. The swivel of life can turn a parent into the child, as age shifts the nature of dependence. Every family knows the complex mix of need and resentment that accompanies this flux. The oldest story in the Bible revolves around the dilemmas and decisions of the first family, Adam and Eve; but the second is of Cain and Abel.

When Anil Ambani sought equality or independence, as a right rather than a gift, Mukesh treated it as a personal affront. It was also a challenge to the power he would command as the sole dynast of the Dhirubhai empire. The relationship quickly degenerated into a vindictive struggle more reminiscent of the Byzantine or Mughal eras rather than contemporary battles.

But time has proved that this metaphor is exaggerated, for the old definition of success was one-man-left-standing. As dramatic as the struggle has been, even more remarkable is its resolution. I am not privy to its details, but this much seems certain: the brothers realised that war consumes far more energy than peace. They must have recognised the sheer waste of their individual abilities on fratricide. The only people who benefited were lawyers, a comparatively minor expense given the scales on which the brothers operate; and their business competitors, who rushed into space that the brothers left unoccupied because they were preoccupied with each other. You do not have to be a genius to recognise that a self-inflicted wound can turn gangrenous if it is not healed in time, and effectively. Anil Ambani benefits substantially from the settlement since his companies are in competitive space rather than monopolies, for he has had to nurture them either from birth or early childhood. The elimination of the non-compete clause from the agreement is by and large meaningless for Anil Ambani, since he already faces heavyweight competition in power, mobile telephony and entertainment, the three pillars of his interests.

But these are variations to the larger theme, of peace. The vital fact is not that the brothers have found peace with the world, or even between themselves, but that they are now at peace with themselves.

If they can sustain the last, count them lucky.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Is television more powerful than SC?

Is television more powerful than SC?
By M J Akbar

The Supreme Court is rather less supreme than its nomenclature might suggest. It can pass a death sentence, but cannot execute it. The pun is unintended but apposite. Government dare not disobey the court, but subversion is always an option, which is why Afzal Guru has still not encountered his moment with justice.

Pace, or the lack of it, is the preferred form of subversion. It took one formal letter and 15 reminders over four years from the Union home ministry to the Delhi government to shuffle the Guru file towards its next legal step, the office of the lieutenant governor of Delhi. This is not snail mail. This is blackmail.

What fear, or perception of fear, persuaded the Congress government in Delhi to delay the death sentence of Afzal Guru? As ever, there is someone who drops a clue; as usual, it has been dropped by mistake. When the Delhi government did activate due process, about four years too late, on May 18, its official spokesman told media, "The government…does not have any objection (to the death sentence). But the Centre must examine the law and order implications if the death sentence is executed."

What could the phrase "law and order implications" mean? Did the official imply that Delhi's citizens would erupt in anger, destroy public property and bring the capital to a halt because they were livid at the execution of a convicted terrorist? Or did he believe it would lead to a massive invasion by Guru's fellow terrorists? Terrorists are not waiting for a file to crawl from point A to B; Guru's life, or death, is immaterial to their programme. Their summer infiltration from bases in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is in full flow. There are near-daily reports of firefights and battles with the Army in Kashmir. Stockpiles of arms have been discovered this week during combing operations around Kupwara.

What, then, was the anonymous but widely quoted Delhi official so anxious about? Shall we mention what he left unmentioned? Was he warning the Centre that Indian Muslims would react by instigating violence, and the very prospect was sufficient to terrify the mighty government of the Union of India into frozen chicanery?

This is communal and racial profiling at its worst. In effect, the Congress government is saying that Indian Muslims treat a convicted terrorist as their icon. If this is the secret reason why Afzal Guru is still alive, then Delhi has lost its sanity.

Chidambaram could have activated the Guru file at any time during the last 18 months he has been home minister; all he had to do was pick up the phone. It isn't as if the government of Delhi is based in Pakistan, and needs periodic dossiers on Afzal Guru. Chidambaram did not do so because he did not want to do so. Nothing happened for four years, and lots more of nothing would have happened were it not for the public reaction to the Kasab verdict. Even as Indians cheered (including, since the two blindsided governments of Delhi appear not to have noticed, in Mumbai's Muslim areas) they were also reminded of the fact that an earlier Kasab was sitting comfortably in jail because the government had lost its nerve. Their anger was evident.

It was only a question of time, and intent, before someone asked RTI for the documents, and since they were not secret, they entered public space. A TV news channel got them, and pointed out the obvious: Guru was the beneficiary of political indecision. When public opinion prodded the government in the pants, the dormant file began to spurt.

Governments protect who they will, and punish those they want to. The system has collaborated to keep Sajjan Kumar beyond the reach of judgment a quarter century after the Sikh riots of 1984. This week's reason for another pause in the judicial process is a typo. The CBI pointed out, virtuously, that Section 339 has been mentioned instead of Section 449 in the order on filing of charges. This is where we are after 25 years, discussing the order on filing of charges. Where are all the award-winning human rights activists who pursue perpetrators of riots? Maybe they will turn up on the 30th anniversary of 1984.

We have a law now that prevents underage children from being sent to prison. By 2014 they should have a law in place by which anyone above retirement age could serve out a sentence in his personal air-conditioned drawing room. That would keep Sajjan Kumar safe till God was ready to pass His judgment.

Unless, of course, the Ultra Supreme Court of Television intervened, and even that might be too little, too late in the case of Sajjan Kumar.

Times of India Column: May 23, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The crash of expectations

Byline by M J Akbar: The crash of expectations

The coincidence should be humbling: the stark tragedy of an Air India crash occurred on the day when UPA2 was due to announce a grand list of achievements in its first year of office. For at least half of this time the only vibe emerging from this administration suggests that it is an accident waiting to crash. More sleaze has been smeared over its reputation in the last five months than in the first five years of Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership. If A. Raja is today synonymous with corruption, then civil aviation has become the epitome of waste, glad-handing, smarmy middlemen and self-destruction.

The news is not particularly good from any department, with the sole exception of finance, where Pranab Mukherjee has restored balance to a ministry that seemed to budget only for the wealthy. Defence is moribund; external affairs has not been able to find its feet as it trips towards an unknown deal with Pakistan; railways has been jettisoned; and whoever is in charge of food prices should be exiled to a hostile country. A sense of disarray hovers like a cloud that will not be dispersed by claims and statistics. Predictably, home has become the highest profile ministry, and not just because of Naxalites: P. Chidambaram tends to raise the media profile of any office he occupies. The report card from home is confused.

Our muscular Chidambaram has not yet summoned the Navy in his war against Naxalites, but with hurricanes on the move and monsoons on the way, nothing can be ruled out. You never know when Dantewada could get submerged, and the CRPF was never taught to swim.

Tough guys are generally the last to know when their rippling biceps have become a parody. If a-statement-a-day Chidambaram does not watch out, he could soon turn into a caricature. Cartoonists are already putting cowboy boots below his mundu. His familiar tactic, deflection of failure to someone else, is losing steam. How long can you be head of the queue when credit is being distributed, and make way for Chief Ministers when the blame game starts? While every politician dreams of having his cake and eating it too, problems pile up on the table when you breakfast like a hawk but dine like a dove. When a high-flier indulges in split-personality aviation, the people soon give him the bird.

When a minister becomes larger than his allotted role in Cabinet, then his performance has political consequences. One question is not yet being asked in the concentric circles of the Congress, either at the head, midriff or base: how will voters in his state, Tamil Nadu, rate him? The first genuine test of Chidambaram’s value to his party will come within less than a year, in the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections. Tamil Nadu has no Naxalites — as yet — but it would be foolish to believe that the poor are not listening to the national discourse. They dissect events with a single scalpel-question: is the Government on our side or with the rich?

Objectively, the situation in Tamil Nadu is tailor-made for a Congress revival. The Congress lost power there in 1967, ten years before it vanished from Bengal. In both states, the Congress was in the hands of what were called the Syndicate leaders, Kamaraj Nadar and Atulya Ghosh, rather than the young men and women who led a party coup under the leadership of Mrs Indira Gandhi, but this did not prove a problem in Bengal, where Siddhartha Shankar Ray brought the Congress back to power in 1972. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress was hindered by a powerful and cohesive Dravida movement and party, as well as by its own abysmal, faction-driven provincial leadership. When the DMK became victim of the Indian disease and split, it deprived the Congress of yet another opportunity for revival. The anti-incumbency sentiment was mopped up by the alternative DMK instead of transferring to Congress.

But after four decades the credibility of both DMKs is heavily strained. Very few political parties can claim a record of corruption as brazen as the DMK led by the Karunanidhi clan. The bitter family feuds over succession — the patriarch is very obviously and visibly ill — would be dismissed as incredible even in the screen scenarios that the leader loves. This opens up possibilities that Chidambaram is perfectly positioned to exploit. But the opportunity will pass him, and his party, by if his language continues to be belligerent and hostile towards the underprivileged. The Naxalites may be wrong in their methods, but they are a product of hunger and exploitation of inhuman proportions. Yes, they must be suppressed; but repression is a different story.

As Finance Minister Chidambaram identified himself with the rich: does anyone remember a single effort he might have made to tackle the enormous misappropriation of wealth by greed-fuelled Indians? His heart is with “rising” India even when his mind says it should concentrate harder on “flattened” Indians.

People are patient. They do not expect high drama, but they are not going to tolerate low life either.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

After scripting acts, Amar now acts on a script

After scripting acts, Amar now acts on a script
By M J Akbar

Which required better acting from the irrepressible Amar Singh: a 14-year association with Mulayam Singh Yadav or his role as husband of Dimple Kapadia in a Malayalam movie?

Politics is carbon-dated by events, not time. Partnerships need tensile strength to survive misunderstandings when suspicion warps a relationship into a tangential curve. Mercury rather than blood flows through the vein of public life; politics is very human and turbulent, and ego floats beyond the reach of rational discourse.

The best politicians are very talented, but often that blessing is flecked with problems characteristic of a maverick. The big chiefs like talent in their subordinates, but squirm at its attendant frailties. Bright sparks tend to possess an implacable desire to place a mirror before stupidity. The reverse mirror, however, displays a more provocative facet. Jealousy and intrigue are companions of ambition; if the talented were not ambitious, they would not be in politics.

Any institution, whether party or government, demands the stability of an uncontroversial script, or the comfort of silence from geniuses who can never find an equitable balance between their self-estimation and the role they have been given in what is essentially a Brechtian beggar's opera. Jairam Ramesh is a sharp and well-read politician, except when his tongue goes to his head. He has been a good environment minister, willing to stand his ground and even take a risk or two. But collective responsibility demands caution: you have to keep space between your blow-drier and your brain. Jairam Ramesh may even have been right on China, but he was wrong to say what was right.

Despite his penchant for the unusual, Amar Singh has been a far more careful politician, sticking to his responsibilities at some cost to his individuality. Happy memories are the first casualty of an unpleasant divorce, but it would be unfair to forget Amar Singh's mastery of the craft of first-past-the-post democracy. Mulayam Singh Yadav got the votes, but the real point in our system is to get winning votes. Backroom strategy can turn the first into the second in a difficult election. The conversion of Jayaprada into a Begum of Rampur who became more real than the real Begum deserves a chapter in any analysis of Indian democracy. Amar Singh has now taken on a more formidable challenge, the reinvention of Amar Singh.

Actors slip easily into politics because they have MBAs in the management of adulation. They have studied the arts of froth and the science of glamour, most notably the cruel fact that it has an early sell-by date. Madhubala remains an ageless icon because she died in her Thirties; death interrupted decline. A Dimple Kapadia is a rare phenomenon: she will be forever 16 thanks to 'Bobby' and a personality that is incompatible with domesticity. Women actors generally choose marriage as their retirement home. For a very few, 40 is too old for cinema and too young for oblivion, and they shift careers. Men get a few more years if they live in a gym. Politicians, however, do not possess the courage to become actors. Amar Singh has the élan to act a script after so many years of scripting an act.

The problem in both professions, of course, is finding an audience, without which you are not in business. An alliance with Mulayam Singh was ideal because he could guarantee a minimum box office in the worst of seasons. Nor were they involved in a multi-starrer like Congress, where great battles seethe beneath surface discipline. It was a two-star act, with Amar Singh the perfect alter ego to his leader. Perhaps a midlife crisis was inevitable, leading to a parting of ways. Mulayam Singh still has an audience, but can he turn it into a winning proposition? Amar Singh knows how to win, but does he have an audience?

When such questions set out in search of answers, they can lose their way in the by lanes of paradox. The definitive replies will be available only in the next assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh. If Amar Singh picks up, to give an example, the votes of his fellow Thakurs, it will hurt Congress rather more than Mulayam Singh's socialists because Congress is counting on a mobilization of upper castes and Muslims. And the greater the fragmentation the better it will suit Mayawati, whose core support remains consistent even if her supplementary vote is drifting.

If dancing has been described as the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, then there is a similar divergence between position and intention in politics. Subtle histrionics mix basic instinct with populist promise; rhetoric carries the message. The voter plays along, suspending disbelief en route to a polling booth.

Amar Singh is good before any camera, either in a studio or on the street.

Times of India Column

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Comforts and Dangers of Sin and Stupidity

Byline by M J Akbar: The Comforts and Dangers of Sin and Stupidity

The choice is admittedly difficult, but which of these three is the biggest threat to the social stability of India: greed, hatred or stupidity? Our polity is less vulnerable than our social compact, although the first can, logically, only be a manifestation of the second. But the former is structured in legislation and held together by institutions that have won support across diversity. Social harmony is always under threat from human excess and bile, both of which escape the confines of reason with a reprehensible consistency.

There are some specialists who go the extra mile and combine two of the three elemental dangers. Pramod Muthalik, chief of the Sri Ram Sene, is a standard-bearer of this breed; hatred is insufficient as a spur, he needs the greasy lubrication of hard cash as well. Such men must hate God even more than they hate men: why else would they name their parties, designed for evil objectives, after a God? Hindu belief places Lord Rama at the pinnacle of idealism; Iqbal, who was later adopted as the poet-laureate of the idea of Pakistan (although Pakistan was born much after he died), called Lord Rama Imam-e-Hind. It is only when you cannot differentiate between good and evil that violence becomes your ethic and hatred your ideology; when you have obliterated humanity from your consciousness you have also eliminated any understanding of divinity. This warp of the essence is not confined to any faith.

Terrorists who butcher innocents, but name their outfits after the Prophet of Islam are exactly the same. Any Muslim will add salle ala alaihe wa sallam after mentioning the name of Prophet Muhammad. It means: “peace be upon him”. We wish the Prophet peace precisely because peace is the highest ideal in our world. Peace, salaam, is the ineradicable element of public discourse, whether to garrulous friend or monosyllabic, minimalist stranger. Only irreparably twisted minds besmirch the name of the Prophet by associating it with terrorism.

The world, as has been said with too long a sigh, is what it is, but that does not mean that we have to accept it as it is. We can take some consolation in the fact that there is broad consensus against hate-fuelled violence, because it is clearly the greatest destabiliser. This consensus weakens considerably when we confront greed or stupidity. Both seem to have rather more supporters than common sense might bargain for. There is even a theory that greed is good because it is the Rolls Royce engine of growth. It is hardly surprising that such notions are perpetuated by grabbers, who claim respectability on the basis of a partnership between greed and agreed. Evidence to the contrary is building up at every level, individual, social, corporate, national. When greed infects the soul of corporate power then it can cause havoc, whether in a hyped-up cricket tournament or the New York Stock Exchange. Greed is eating away the capital of capitalism, eroding the basis on which a successful contemporary economy has been created. Greed is regressive, self-destructive, and yet has been turned into the holy grail of progress.

Face it: it is the greed of a limited slab of India that condemns 80% of our country to unacceptable levels of poverty, stark hunger and hopelessness. Each time the well-off look into a mirror, they will find one reason for the rise of Naxalism. The indifference of haves is the principal inspiration for the violence of the have-nots. Greed has a loyal friend, hypocrisy.

The most acceptable sin is clearly stupidity. It is possible that jokes have lent a slightly droll nuance to stupidity. Its dangers should not be underestimated, particularly when stupidity is harnessed to any interpretation of faith. This week’s evidence lies in some of the fatwas that are consuming the news cycle in this dull, post-Parliament season. A fatwa, it should be clarified, is only the opinion of a cleric whose academic credentials are considered acceptable; it is not a law passed through a legislature and backed by the authority of the state. Still, even if an absurd fatwa damages one home, it must be repudiated. Extremist clerics have misled Muslims by promoting bias against Muslim women with a consistency that is the prerogative of a closed mind. They have done their best to separate Muslims from modernity; now they want to divorce Muslims from the modern economy. This is a heinous travesty, since Islam rescued its first communities from the grip of jahalat, or obscurantism. Dramatic displays of silliness will, but naturally, provoke headlines, but they will not travel. No Muslim is going to resign from an insurance company, or surrender his or her LIC policy because of a marginal fatwa from Deoband. The faithful have more resilience than some of their self-appointed preachers believe.

The fringe, violent, greedy or stupid, will continue to damage, but will never destroy India.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Get Pakistan to set a timetable

Get Pakistan to set a timetable
By M J Akbar

The drip-dry India-Pakistan peace process has recovered a table, ironically, in the month of mass murderer Ajmal Kasab's conviction. But does it have a timetable?

There is more than one table set out. The menu at Thimphu was similar to the repast at Sharm el-Sheikh; in essence, for four years India has cooked what Pakistan wanted to eat. In the September 2006 talks with Musharraf, Manmohan Singh downgraded terrorism from core issue to common concern. On July 16 last year at Sharm el-Sheikh, he released Pakistan from the consequences of terrorism; the joint statement said: "Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed." After Thimphu, Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi took terrorism off the bilateral map, noting pithily that it was a global concern that was best addressed collectively.

The next time a Kasab turns up, then, Delhi can telephone the United Nations.

Compare this to the alacrity with which Islamabad acted when Washington cracked the whip. Faisal Shahzad was arrested in New York on May 8 for terrorism. Within hours, police picked up suspects in Lahore and the FBI must be interrogating them by now. When Washington talks, Islamabad listens. When Delhi talks, Islamabad talks back. Pakistan has fudged even on Kasab, noting that its experts will "study" the Mumbai special court judgment since they forgot to watch television in November 2008.

Terrorism, in fact, has been reduced to a pro forma presence at the high table, an unwelcome distant cousin shunted to the corner, neither banished nor discussed. One does not know whether Dr Singh forgives, but he certainly has the negotiator's critical need for amnesia. Pak foreign secretary Salman Bashir's sneer that P Chidambaram's dossiers on the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Kasab's handlers in Pakistan were mere literature has already been deleted from the hard disc as Delhi revs up the pace of talks.

If hearts were melting in Islamabad like the Chenab in spring flood, there might have been some justification. But each gesture has been answered by belligerence. Accusations that India helps Baloch secessionists have become a staple of Pakistani commentary after Sharm el-Sheikh. Success at Thimphu persuaded Pakistan to reverse its position on Kashmir. Last Tuesday, Qureshi sneered at Musharraf's "wavering" in a speech to the Pakistani National Assembly and insisted there was no change in the country's "historical" stance. Square one has not looked so square in a long while.

Delhi, in the meanwhile, has been funding long discussions on the virtues of wavering. Sombre experts rub lamps furiously in the hope of arousing a genie who can grant three wishes, or even one. All they manage is a glimpse of the occasional ghost of American ambassadors past. Galbraith, Kennedy's envoy to Nehru, has been resurrected, not for his inimitable wit and wisdom, but for the condominium he constructed for Kashmir, offering India and Pakistan a flat each, with America presumably in charge of watch and ward. The concept is so naively Sixties, it is almost heartwarming.

Every option is on the table except the only one that will work: conversion of the status quo into the basis for a solution. Musharraf called for soft borders and perhaps Dr Singh now regrets he let that moment pass. But before a border can be soft or hard, there has to be a border, and India and Pakistan need therefore to agree on one. The Line of Control, created after the first war, has stood the test of three more. Why mend something that has not been broken?

America has rarely been as ambidextrous as it is at the India-Pak table, officially absent and unofficially omnipresent. The Pakistani media, ever delighted to turn implicit into explicit, made it a point to mention that Robert Blake, former deputy head of mission in Delhi, was at Thimphu; and on May 4, the present ambassador to Delhi Timothy Roemer met Asif Zardari in Islamabad. American foreign policy is uncomplicated: what is good for America is good for the world; therefore the world, out of self-interest, must adjust its calculus to fit in with American requirements. Obama's highest priority is victory in Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been the obedient ally, with one condition — get the Indian army off our back in Kashmir and give us "soft strategic space" in Kabul.

India is loath to be left out of Washington's affections. Convinced of the urgency of American need, Islamabad has nudged up the ante. A clever Delhi response would be to offer the shell of dialogue on Kashmir and let inherent contradictions destroy the substance.

India has set the table. It must now deal with Pakistan's timetable.

( Times of India Column : 9th May 2010)

Saturday, May 08, 2010

How much sleaze can you spare, brother?

Byline by M J Akbar: How much sleaze can you spare, brother?

“My case is cleared, na?” said the politician who wanted to be telecom minister to the lobbyist for a telecom major four days before the present Union Cabinet was sworn in last summer. The middle-woman, Nira Radia, was coy and comforting in her first-name-basis response: “Your case was cleared last night only.”

The truly touching aspect of the politician’s piteous plea is a syllable, na. It has every shade of pathos, not to mention every variation of bathos, kneaded into it. The lobbyist is in command, and why shouldn’t she be? She knows something that is privy to perhaps three or four people at the very highest level of the present Government. She has a vested interest in telecom, and therefore a direct stake in the person who will run this department. The minister-to-be, A. Raja of the DMK, is in her debt, and he better not forget it. She does not convey how she knows the decision was taken the previous night, but she implies that she has intervened on Raja’s behalf. Raja does not care whether a corporation got him this job or not. He is merely desperate to get it.

We know this today, a year later, because of some sterling journalism done by the television channel Headlines Today, which obtained transcripts and audio recordings of the taped conversation and honoured the profession of journalism by doing the story.

Text demands context for greater clarity. Raja is an intimate associate of the Karunanidhi family and Radia must now be the most famous middle-woman in the world. She is on the payroll of some of the most important corporates in contemporary India, both those with a tradition of grease and those with historic claims to probity.

Corporate warriors did not record this conversation, as a hapless Congress spokesman vainly tried to suggest in defence of an indefensible ally. It was taped by income tax authorities, who suspected Radia of tax fraud, with formal permission of the home secretary. Raja’s phone was on tap; Radia’s was. It was fortuitous that the six-month window of taping coincided with a general election and formation of a new Government. This information has been available with the Manmohan Singh Government for many months now. Its only response was to harass and transfer the officials, as it sought to protect politicians.

It is the right of partners, in a coalition, to demand their quota of Cabinet members, but the allotment of portfolios is the privilege of the Prime Minister. Dr Farooq Abdullah, a veteran who became Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 1982, is not particularly happy with renewable energy, but he has respected the Prime Minister’s privilege. DMK accepted a change in the other portfolios allotted to its ministers, but made telecom conditional to its participation in Government despite the fact that Dr Singh was reluctant to give it.

Why was DMK insistent and PM reluctant?

Because both knew that Raja, as telecom minister in the first UPA Cabinet, was involved in a rip-off of incredible proportions. The Bofors allegations, which damaged the Congress in the 1980s, amounted to Rs 64 cr. This 2G scam is said to be of the order of over Rs 60,000 cr, or a thousand times that of Bofors. If you want to understand the scale of this rip-off, think of this. Mrs Sonia Gandhi has been pressing Government to provide food security for those below the poverty line. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has said Government does not have the resources to do so. The cost of a year’s food security is far less than Rs 60,000 cr.

The unambiguous fact is that Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi were aware of this, but chose silence because the price of disclosure would have been the collapse of Government. DMK has levelled a cash pistol at the head of Government, and the head has nodded in acquiescence because the alternative was to watch its brains being blown up. DMK blackmail has worked, and would have continued to do so but for the integrity of some journalists.

The most important question awaiting an answer, unless a large, interconnected, corporate-politician-media establishment protects the brazenly guilty, is: how did a lobbyist know of portfolio distribution? It is ironic that one of the reasons that brought the UPA back to power was a reputation for financial integrity, bolstered by the Prime Minister’s personal image (which remains clean).

Radia was privy to specific details of the politics of Government formation, much more than can be discerned by common or even uncommon sense. The tapes are proof of her contacts, at one level; at another, they also reveal the squalid civil wars within the DMK. The war of succession between the Brothers Alagiri and Stalin is only one detail of a diamond-studded opera that is surely beyond the fantasy of any television soap.

This much we know thanks to a leak in Government, possibly initiated by an officer who saw this option as a last resort. But think of the perhaps hundreds of conversations between minister and middle-woman that could not be taped. How much sleaze is stored in them?

Nothing, it is said, clears the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Judging by Raja’s face after the story broke, nothing confuses the mind like the prospect of demotion, to paraphrase from Hindi, from raja (royalty) to runk (commoner).

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Spy who spooked India

The spy who spooked India
By M J Akbar

You don’t have to be beautiful to be Mata Hari; you merely have to be available. Margaretha Zelle, the Dutch-born, Paris-based, World War 1 German agent who made spying synonymous with sexual frisson, was actually a bit of a podge who couldn’t get a job in a vaudeville chorus line because she wasn’t “cute” and became a circus horse-rider.

One pithy observer thought she was as attractive with clothes as without them, which may or may not have been a compliment. She was driven to striptease by despair: she fled her husband, an officer in the Dutch colonial army, posted to Indonesia, and an alcoholic who beat her regularly and mercilessly.

But she had an extraordinary talent, the ability to trump the real with the surreal. She reinvented herself as an expert in the secret and mysterious arts of “Indian” erotica (hence the name ‘Mata Hari’), learnt during her interlude in Java, and became a sensation. She was not much of a spy actually; she did more spending than spying. The Germans, cold to a fault, betrayed her, and she ended up before a French firing squad in 1917.

It is not, presumably, compulsory, but it is clearly useful for a potential spy to have a split personality. The pain of the tragedy, or failure, is subsumed by the surreal. But a fevered imagination also weakens or even erases the constraints of duty and morality that bind real life.

There is an obvious problem in the analogy with Mata Hari. The honey in the Madhuri Gupta trap came from Mudassar Rana, and we have no confirmation yet about his expertise in the seductive arts. But gender is not the issue. Men are far more vulnerable to the inflammable concoction of ego and libido. In the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, an armed forces attache in our mission in Karachi was lured by a woman operative of Pakistani intelligence. But the principle of a spy’s mentality holds. Since there is never sufficient justification for the betrayal of a country, and the greed (whether for money or sex) involved must be rationalized by layers of self-deceit, the spy converts a complex, tortured fiction into his or her version of that malleable commodity called truth.

Moreover the Fifties are a dangerous decade in the age of professionals. They mark the intersection between ebb of career and flow of frustrations. Gupta, an IFS B-cadre officer, was second secretary at an age when a regular IFS officer would already have been ambassador. The caste-and-cocoon world of an embassy like Islamabad could only have heated her fantasies to an unbearable conflagration. You can see that she had lost any mooring with reality in the taunt after her arrest — “What took you guys so long to get it?” It would not even occur to her that institutions are reluctant to condemn their own, particularly when the final responsibility with those who decided to send her to a mission like Islamabad.

It is foolish to blame Pakistan for this squalid episode. Posting a 54-year-old with a chip factory, rather than a mere chip, on her shoulder is akin to an open-ended invitation to ISI and its carefully groomed stable of studs. The ISI response was well crafted. Rana was of a similar age, and wooed Madhuri at the “Iffy” cafe (you couldn’t have invented such a name for an “iffy” operation, could you?) even as he distilled her grievances into information for Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Gupta’s interrogation by the Delhi police is essential, of course; but a second interrogation, within the grand portals of the offices of the external affairs ministry, is equally necessary. Who decided to send Gupta to Pakistan? A simple psychographic analysis would have thrown up the obvious; Gupta was entirely unsuitable for a hostile environment, prone to blandishment and subversion, like Islamabad. Paradoxically, and this can only be a surmise, she might have got the Islamabad job precisely because someone thought she would be less vulnerable than say an equally Urdu-qualified Indian Muslim option. This is not an allegation of bias against Delhi, although prejudice still lurks, albeit less flagrantly. But the dark services of the Pakistani establishment, imbued with hostility as they are to India, find the Indian Muslim an even more difficult entity to come to terms with, for Indian Muslims challenge the very foundations of their nation by rejecting the two-nation theory.

Madhuri Gupta may be a marginal Pakistani success, for she knew less than her bravado believes, and might even have been turned into a conduit of misinformation, without her knowledge, after she was uncovered. But she does constitute a gigantic Indian failure. Only saps get sucked into such soft snares, and an Indian diplomat, and an Indian mission, leapt at the bait hook, line and sinker.

As appeared in The Times of India

A cut in Delhi, a Run in Ranchi

Byline by M J Akbar: A cut in Delhi, a run in Ranchi

A cut motion is moved in the Lok Sabha to wound the Congress alliance in Delhi and a BJP alliance a thousand miles away, in Ranchi, begins to bleed to death. Is there a rational connection between cause and consequence apart from the compulsions of an ageing politician suspected of more crimes than we can count without being a professional mathematician? If the story were only about the addictive duplicity of a drama-centric Shibu Soren, it might be worth a fleeting sneer, but not much comment. If the BJP has made its bed with Soren, then it can hardly afford to get hysterical at infidelity. Some politicians do not offer their souls at wholesale rates; they bargain for small pieces, a bit at a time, at rates negotiated by market value. If the price is occasionally set by police officers of the CBI, that is par for the course in an age of turbulent corruption. The great merit of the Congress is that its expertise in the use of power for the benefit of the party, whether through public policy or private pressure, is unmatched. When the BJP tried similar tactics, it fell on its face. Its nose is still in disrepair.

Cause and consequence may both be obscured by facts. The turmoil in Delhi, with the ruling alliance being hammered for corruption on a scale unprecedented in the history of the UPA, is not accidental. Very little happens by accident; and information is certainly never leaked inadvertently. There are political reasons why a spat between the look-alikes Shashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi blew up like an Iceland volcano, and spread a cloud of ash over the ruling alliance that has left the biggest of big boys wheezing and a number of small boys in self-pitying tears. The telephone tapping brouhaha that followed did not fall into the lap of journalists like nature’s gentle rain from heaven. The transcripts which exposed DMK’s A. Raja did not multiply by themselves, like excessively enthusiastic amoeba. Someone leaked that evidence, and it was not the hand of God. The fingerprints belonged to someone in Government.

The massive Raja scam, with heavily-lubricated PR agencies, semi-lubricated journalists, and triple-dealing corporations, could have been news more than a year ago. It was not. The general elections had not taken place, and the allies would have been foolish to injure each other before an election. On the face of it, the UPA victory of 2009 reinforced the status quo. In reality, it energised the momentum for equations of the second decade of the 21st century.

The first decade began with the NDA victory under Atal Behari Vajpayee. Those ten years were stable precisely because of multi-party partnerships. Every member of the group was allotted a relevant share of the cake, inducing comfort. The NDA was so comfortable that it became complacent, and was punished. Both the Congress and the BJP are aware, even if they do not find it expedient to say so, that the next stage in the evolution of Indian democracy will be the gradual elimination of the smaller parties, many of whom are making themselves irrelevant, either because of their inflexible attitude to leadership or because the issues that brought them into power have outlived their utility.

The paradox can be cruel: the DMK movement, for instance, has lost its dynamic hold on Tamil affections precisely because it has succeeded in its caste-empowerment agenda. It has ruled, in one form or the other, since 1967. A new generation awaits a new agenda, and there is no sign of it. DMK leaders have no idea what to do next, except repeat squalid and vicious wars of succession that went out of fashion in the 18th century. If that is the story of the apex, then the leaders on the rung just below are busy looting with a voracious and inexhaustible appetite. Who can blame the Congress for hoping that it can replace the DMK? The squeeze has begun through an exposure of sleaze. Such exposure played a crucial part in the decimation of Lalu Yadav in Bihar. Lalu did not believe he was being sliced in a pincer; neither does the DMK. It will find out when it is too late.

It is equally obvious that the Congress is not entirely unhappy over the tribulations of Sharad Pawar; Maharashtra is another large state where it can bid for sole supremacy. Once again, the spillage of sleaze on a partner’s reputation does not hurt the Congress, but creates space that it can capture when time creates the opportunity. This is not a drama of continual thunder and lightning; it is a play dominated by long periods of silence, interspersed by occasional bouts of decisive intervention. So stories will rattle through media only to disappear, and then reappear when the optimal moment arrives.

The BJP has begun to realise the futility of allies that take more than they offer. If it wants to return to the spotlight, it must reconstruct; and the architecture of reconstruction cannot be left to the fringe. We will see a gradual but inevitable effort to expand by the Congress and BJP, and in doing so they will disturb the patterns of the last ten years. There will be patches in the new quilts as well, but far less patchwork.