Saturday, July 31, 2010

From Rage to Outrage

Byline by M J Akbar: From rage to outrage

Is there a tipping point to corruption, that last straw, or rupee note, on the corrupt camel’s back that ignites the dormant fuse of public response, and transforms apathy into rage? Will there come a subsequent moment when rage escalates to outrage?

Corruption has found a figleaf cover: everyone is corrupt, so why bother? This is the convenient argument that persuades some watchdogs, including within the media, to join the gang, even if their reward is marginal. Cynicism is a lucrative camouflage. If everyone is a thief, then theft becomes the law. There are no outlaws in a country teeming with in-laws.

The robber barons are too sophisticated to steal from one another. They don’t need to. That would also introduce unnecessary conflict into a cozy system. They all steal from the public, and there is so much public money available in the exchequer that even if all of them grabbed enough to satiate their hunger, there would still be something left over.

Robbery has graduated to daylight robbery. The thief of the night is apprehensive about guards, and hence seeks the protection of darkness. The daylight robber has no qualms, because the purchased sheriff is snoring at noon, and the bystanders are impotent.

Here are some facts printed on the front page of the Times of India on Saturday. This, remember, is just one day’s news; this is not the whole story. The Central Vigilance Commission has scrutinised only 16 Commonwealth Games projects so far, ranging from upgrades of stadiums, road construction, pavements, street lighting, etc., worth Rs 2,477.22 cr. Every quality certificate it examined was either forged or suspect. Each one. There is little point wasting space over details; they will be repetitive. Suffice to say that there has not been undiluted stink of this order for some time.

The odour is multinational, but naturally: this is the Commonwealth Games, after all. There is something called the Queen’s baton relay, which means that the baton honoured with Queen Elizabeth’s blessing has to reach Delhi by relay. If there is an event there must be a function, and if there is a function there must be corruption. The British authorities have provided a small glimpse into what is going on. The CWG Organising Committee sent about Rs 1.68 cr, in British pounds, to a company called AM Films UK Ltd [and is still sending 25,000 pounds every month] for video equipment in a deal where there was no tendering, no procedure and no paperwork. The office address of this company shows only the presence of an AM Vehicles Hire Ltd, and on its books it says that it hired cars, makeshift toilets and barriers, not video equipment. Its director resigned, very conveniently, on 14 July. The Organising Committee issued a brazen denial that takes about a minute to tear to shreds.

Sports Minister M.S. Gill has admitted in Parliament that the cost of the Games increased 17.5 times since the tamasha began in 2003. Repeat that sentence 17 times for better effect.

Doesn’t Prime Minister Manmohan Singh know what goes on in Parliament? Does he not read newspapers? Is he going to preside over the opening ceremony of the Games in the midst of those who should be on trial for loot? How long can he distance himself from the muck at his feet by silence? There will come a time, if it has not come already, when this silence will be heard at a volume that speech could never match.

Are we heading towards a 1973 situation? In early 1971 Mrs Indira Gandhi was re-elected by margins that surprised her Congress. She reached the pinnacle of her tenure with the military triumph in Bangladesh in December 1971. Within a year, inflation had soured the public mood. By the end of 1973 corruption had deepened the mire in which government was stuck. In 1974 Jayaprakash Narayan, whose own integrity was beyond question, challenged the moral right of Mrs Indira Gandhi to continue in office.

The one great difference is too obvious: there is no Jayaprakash Narayanan in 2010. The corrupt are comforted by the fact that the credibility of all politicians is so low that the public does not have an effective vehicle through which it can mobilise its anger. This vacuum should be of little comfort to the Government. The wrath, real or simulated, of Opposition parties is not the spectre ahead, but the rising discontent of the people. The whiplash of food inflation is harshest on the poor, those who earn around a hundred rupees a day. The poor do not protest too often, for the daily task of earning enough to eat is a demanding physical and psychological responsibility that consumes their time. But their patience is not infinite. They voted in large numbers for the Congress in 2009 because they believed in the sincerity of the party. They are beginning to feel betrayed

Sunday, July 25, 2010

PM's Paradox : In power because he's weak

PM's Paradox: In power because he's weak
By M J Akbar

Call it the Manmohan Singh paradox: the strength of his coalition depends largely upon on how weak he is as Prime Minister. The glue holds because he has no power over his partners. One minister is caught with his hands in the telecom till and shrugs off accusation with impunity; a second has no time for Cabinet meetings; a third dismisses a portfolio as people-centric as railways with the throwaway line that it does not represent her true identity. All the Prime Minister can do is smile and carry on. The smile is wearing thin.

A fundamental equation has been quietly reversed. During UPA1, the smaller allies were in power because Congress held them up. Now, the Congress is in power because the Trinamool, DMK and NCP hold it up. Since power is central to Congress schemes for the present and future, all parties have, by mutual consent, eliminated accountability from the algebra of governance to create a semblance of stability. Temperament and tantrum can coexist with venality and incompetence.

The casualty is credibility: it began to creep away but the pace has gradually built up to a crawl. If Dr Singh, whose own reputation remains more positive than that of his government, does not act soon, the pace will quicken to a trot and develop into an irreversible gallop.

Weakness is contagious. It tends to debilitate even those limbs of the body politic that are functioning normally. Congress ministers have always known that they owe their jobs to party president Sonia Gandhi, but they showed the requisite deference to the PM during UPA1 because they knew that Dr Singh's image would be an asset on judgment day when the voter headed for the ballot box. This enormous strength has withered because no one expects Dr Singh to lead the party in the next general elections. Dr Singh admitted as much at his only press conference held, ironically, to project an image of control. Instead, he passed the baton when he said, in his typically honest manner, that he would make way for Rahul Gandhi the moment he was asked to do so. Power is never stagnant. It either consolidates around the leader, or ebbs. Those with longer plans for the future than the Prime Minister are establishing individual markers at the cost of collective cohesion.

The two profound challenges before the government are a turbulent relationship with Pakistan, turned septic by terrorism; and the Naxalite insurrection, spurred by poverty and decades of neglect. There is disarray and dissension within government on both fronts. External affairs minister S M Krishna was clearly, and visibly, disoriented when his colleague Chidambaram, armed with explosive information, lit the fuse under his conciliatory mission to Islamabad. Home secretary G K Pillai had Chidambaram's permission to reveal David Headley's testimony about ISI and Pakistan navy aid to Mumbai terrorists, or he would have lost his job. The Prime Minister chose to rise above the drama.

This is useful if you want to buy time, but not effective if you want to run a government.

Dr Singh is burdened by a further paradox. He is presiding over not one but two coalitions. Congress itself is the second coalition, a storehouse of multiple interests that requires dexterous management even during times of serenity. Personal feuds are only a part of the alternative story; there are genuine and strongly held differences over policy. This is healthy, up to a point; when that point comes, the leader must demand obedience to a government decision. An astute veteran like Digvijay Singh would not have berated Chidambaram as a misguided intellectual snob whose single idea was to shoot his way through the Naxalite problem, without tacit support from his party leader. The Prime Minister has imprisoned himself in the rather dubious proverb, that silence is golden. Silence is too aloof an option for democracy.

A helpless Prime Minister induces a hapless government. Drift, as the term indicates, is never in a hurry. A government can float a long way before someone realizes that it has lost direction. Drift does not threaten a government's survival, but it saps the people's patience.

The third paradox may seem puzzling but is easily comprehensible. It is always much more difficult to run a weak government than a strong one. The latter has a command structure, purpose and enough discipline to induce confidence in the ever-watchful voter. A weak government is great news for a newspaper, and even better fodder for television; but that is where its limited entertainment utility ceases. During his first five years, Dr Singh was an anchor that was powerful enough to keep the ship steady through heavy turbulence in the final 12 months of its journey. Victory in 2009 could have made him master of a cruise liner. If, however, he continues to do nothing, he could become captain of a paper boat.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sudden Death and Gradual Justice

Byline by M J Akbar : Sudden Death and Gradual Justice

It would be odd, and wholly unacceptable, if secularism were to be defined by the fate of a gangster in Gujarat. At stake in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case is not the religion of the individual, or his preferred means of sustenance [in this case, crime], but the rule of law. It was in pursuit of this principle that the Supreme Court handed over investigation of his death in a fake encounter, and the subsequent murder of Sohrabuddin’s wife Kauserbi, to the CBI on 13 January 2010. The Gujarat government effectively lost its credibility when it admitted in December 2006 that Sohrabuddin had been killed in a fake encounter on 26 November 2005 and that his wife had been murdered two days later.

The Supreme Court has taken a stand that should terrify not just the Gujarat government, but any administration. It has asserted that it is the court’s business to determine guilt and innocence, and not that of the police. The truth is that for at least two decades, and in some places for longer than that, security forces have used fake encounters as the easy option in their war against crime and anti-national terrorism. This is not unique to Gujarat.

We do not know how many innocents have been killed in Mumbai in the process of tackling the renowned underworld of the city. Police officers who shot first and refused to answer questions later have been glamorized as heroes, not only by the Maharashtra government but also by Bollywood.

Bollywood intervened only because this practice has the support of many citizens, for reasons that might not be palatable to either the police or the people. We no longer believe that crime, let alone anti-national terrorism, can be controlled through legitimate means, because corruption has made large parts of the police-judiciary system impotent. Now comes the difficult part: we citizens are partners in crime as well, since we buy products that the underworld sells. Every user of drugs and narcotics in Mumbai is complicit in corruption, because the underworld would not survive without this trade. Rich Mumbaikars who need a hashish puff to keep cool during their fancy parties might want to think before they smoke. Our selfish self wants a level of crime which sustains our weakness, and the elimination of criminals who threaten our comfort.

Amit Shah cannot escape, no matter how smart a politician he might be. The wheels of Indian justice may take their time, but when they move they grind with persistence. Shah will attempt to exploit contradictions in the public mind, for there will be those who support “killer-solutions”, but his case is badly tarred by the accusation that he took money from businessmen in the larger transactions surrounding this case. Shah, and Narendra Modi, will learn that the circumference of power is wider than the political world. This episode will also interfere with Modi’s hopes of becoming his party’s candidate for Prime Minister, which may not displease everyone in his party.

But surely accountability cannot be limited to just one case in one state. Who is responsible for the death of Rajkumar Cherukuri Azad, the 55-year-old Naxalite leader who was shot dead by the Andhra police in Adilabad district? Was this an ‘encounter’ or a ‘fake encounter’? Do the police have evidence of a Naxal attack, to which they were responding? Or did they track Azad on orders from Delhi or Hyderabad, and then murder him?

There is a political dimension to Azad’s death, for he was the prospective bridge between government and the Naxalite movement for any negotiations. Did Delhi want him eliminated because the home ministry had decided that it would kill its way through the Naxal upsurge, and its offer of talks was not serious? Intermediaries like Swami Agnivesh have suggested as much. Is this the moment when Swami Agnivesh should move a writ petition in the Supreme Court, arguing that the Andhra police, being complicit in the death, will make no effort to try and answer these questions?

It is perhaps easier to pose questions than to find answers since we are dealing with a prickly proposition: who is an enemy of state? There is no confusion about a Kasab and the many thousands who have been sent across an international border to damage our country. The problem gets more opaque for the Supreme Court when categories change. The court has taken a courageous decision in ruling that a man like Sohrabuddin, who has killed gangsters to spread an extortion racket and has employees armed with automatic firearms, cannot face an arbitrary death squad. Does Azad, in the opinion of the court, deserve to be killed without a trial because certain persons in Andhra Pradesh and Delhi have decided that this is how it should be?

The Supreme Court is not a political party. It cannot vary its principles to suit pragmatic needs.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Paul shows Indian Politicians the way to go

Paul shows Indian politicians the way to go
By M J Akbar

Indian politicians are never tired enough to retire. They do not leave the chair even when it has become a wheelchair. Old age has been famously described as being fifteen older than your age.

It is reassuring that Paul the Octopus, arguably now the most famous contemporary resident of Germany, has entered the Indian political discourse. When the revolutionary leader Jayalalitha promised at a spirited rally in Coimbatore this week that the end of DMK rule in Tamil Nadu was nigh, a government spokesman asked whether she thought she had become Paul the Octopus. Paul, as our learned readers will fondly recall, predicted the results of eight World Cup matches on the trot. Had Paul been a betting man instead of a playful ink-squirter, he would have been a millionaire.

The DMK, however, might have missed the moral embedded in the crowning glory of Paul's fabulous achievements: he retired at the peak of his career. Paul knew when to stop. A statement has been issued from Paul's home, the Sea Life Aquarium at Oberhausen: "He won't give any more oracle predictions either in football, in politics, in lifestyle or economy. Paul will get back to his former job, namely making children laugh." It was news to me that Paul was giving lifestyle tips, but who can argue with the multiple collateral benefits of success? If the judicious display of cleavage can make you a sports commentator, why can't Paul provide some thoughtful advice on the hemline?

However, we are wandering from the point. Paul has said goodbye from the pinnacle. His memory will never be tarnished by the possibility that while sketching out a scenario on the economy he messed up on the prospective value of the euro in 2011, thereby tanking Europe's economy, sabotaging the re-election of Nicolas Sarkozy and driving Greece out of the European Union.

A perfectly timed exit is the key to history's judgment. How much greater would India's greatest Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, have seemed today if he had announced, just after he won his third consecutive general election in early 1962, that the time had come to write a few more books (which he did superbly; he and Churchill were in the same class as writer-politicians). Instead, wooed by suggestions of indispensability, he hung around till October and got clobbered by China in a war. Jawaharlal was already in the last phase of a long life; he would die in another 20 months. Two years of defeat, dismay and decline marred an epic career spread that had begun before the Khilafat movement.

Consider how much more glorious would have been the image of his daughter Indira Gandhi had she resigned as Prime Minister in the second week of June 1975 after the Allahabad high court judgment, and gone to the people instead of imposing an Emergency. She would have been re-elected by an unprecedented margin. Or if Vajpayee had trusted his instincts and told his coalition that poetry was preferable to politics after the Gujarat riots. All these were rational options. One does not include Narasimha Rao, who should have quit after abdicating his Constitutional responsibility on December 6, 1992, because India's most ruthless Prime Minister did not have regret in his DNA.

Witness Nelson Mandela: he topped a life of supreme courage and commitment by leaving office after one term of five years. The most charismatic visionary of our age had no delusions of grandeur, unlike far lesser leaders in Africa who destroyed the very freedom they won from colonial rule. Mandela placed his party and country above himself. He understood that institutions secure the future; individuals can only serve as the spur.

Indian politicians are never tired enough to retire. They do not leave the chair even when it has become a wheelchair. Old age has been famously described as being fifteen older than your age. This happy law keeps Karunanidhi in office. He has done great service to his state; time has eroded his physical strength. This is his moment to laugh with children, not wait until children begin to laugh at you. His own children are untroubled by sentiment. They want him to campaign in a wheelchair because his charisma is their only insurance against defeat; and they want to win so that they can indulge in the unchecked appropriation of wealth that has become a privilege of power — for all parties.

This is a central dilemma: power is too lucrative for anyone to walk away without a shove from the electorate. Some parties have also begun to believe that they can purchase enough voters to ensure victory, but such are the illusions that money tends to induce.

Perhaps our politicians should learn to laugh. It is a good antidote to self-importance. Clemenceau, prime minister of France during World War 1 and a hero to his nation, said, wistfully, upon seeing a pretty girl when he was 80, "Oh to be 70 again!"

Like a good Frenchman, Clemenceau had interests that were larger than politics.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Only 960 years left for Bhutto's War

Byline by M J Akbar: Only 960 years left for Bhutto’s war
It is unarguable, though, that the Bhuttos, having proved pathetically impotent whenever they waged war against India, have tried to reassure themselves with the flatulent hype of a war of words.
The Bhuttos, and Bhutto-led governments, seem lost in a rut that has become brittle and boring through over-use. Their only measure of Pakistani patriotism is the level of hysteria that they can simulate against India. A psychiatrist would be tempted to trace this habit to the fate of Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, Prime Minister of Junagadh before partition, whose plan to merge his state into Pakistan went badly awry. Bhutto went, of course, minus his state, closely followed by the Nawab of Junagadh who left his family behind but escaped with his dogs. Such speculation, however, is not quite within the realm of a newspaper column.

It is unarguable, though, that the Bhuttos, having proved pathetically impotent whenever they waged war against India, have tried to reassure themselves with the flatulent hype of a war of words. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the theorist as well as leader of the 1965 war for Kashmir, a claim that he would doubtless have stressed with far greater glee if Pakistan had succeeded. Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam failed miserably, an assertion proved by the simple fact that not an inch of territory changed hands along the Cease Fire Line in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 1971, Bhutto tried to camouflage humiliation in Dhaka by promising a thousand years of war against India. Well, we still have 960 years left. No hurry, then, for a peace treaty. Implicit in the 1000-year threat is the recognition that Pakistan cannot win on the battlefield, since if you win war ceases. Futility is, apparently, not sufficient reason for Pakistan to stop fighting.

Zulfiqar’s daughter Benazir Bhutto came to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 1989, abused Narasimha Rao and promised Kashmir “azadi”, her decibel levels rising to a shriek by the time she had finished the last “azadi” in her speech. Two decades have passed since then, Benazir has been assassinated in her own country, and not an inch of territory has changed hands in Kashmir. Her husband Asif Zardari’s government will sooner or later leave office, either after a peaceful election, or a more violent ejection by the cantonment, and not an inch of territory will have changed despite his plastic smile or his Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s immature incandescence. War, formal or clandestine, will achieve nothing.

It is possible that the Bhuttos and their servitors do not mean what they say, that this is their default position in the confrontation with their permanent foes in the armed forces. It is time, however, they learnt that terrorism has made the world too dangerous for bluster. The international consensus against this plague will not tolerate the tepid “root cause” argument, either, as justification.

Qureshi forgot that the world was listening when he said that terrorist-infiltrators in the Kashmir were India’s problem. He would not last a minute in his job if he told America that Al Qaeda was Washington’s problem and the Pentagon should deal with them once they had infiltrated into America. When the FBI wants a suspect, Pakistan picks up six in six hours. When India asks for Hafiz Saeed, Qureshi talks about India’s home secretary G.K. Pillai — not in the quiet of a conference hall, but at a press conference.

It is no one’s case that S.M. Krishna, a suave and seasoned politician, should stoop to Qureshi’s levels of street rhetoric. Perhaps Krishna’s courtesy prevented him from describing this as nonsense, but silence is not always the best answer to stupidity.

India is America’s friend. Pakistan is America’s ally. Islamabad has the transcript of David Headley’s interrogation in which he exposed the fact that ISI gave at least Rs 25 lakh to fund the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. Any criminal enquiry will take the trail to the most powerful force in Pakistan. Qureshi had to try and deflect the terrorist issue. He did not have the intellectual sophistication and diplomatic skills for such a responsibility.

Pakistan does not have a foreign policy. It has relationships. Three, with America, China and Saudi Arabia, are as steady as an alliance between a benefactor and client. One, with India, is inimical; which is why Army controls India policy. America, Saudi Arabia and China factor in Pakistan, but do not hold India hostage to Islamabad’s interests. However, Pakistan uses India as the bogey through which it can try to massage benefits from friends and sympathy from neutral countries or blocs. Confrontation suits it better than conciliation, domestically and internationally. Many Pakistanis are convinced about the wisdom of peace with India, but they are not strong enough to challenge the cantonment.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s mandate to Krishna was to reduce the “trust deficit”. One wonders how much trust is left after Qureshi has equated Pillai with a terrorist and dismissed Krishna as unprepared and incompetent. Delhi should not respond with hostility. But a little indifference could go a long way.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The rise and fall of Emperor Pawarus

The rise and fall of Emperor Pawarus
By M J Akbar

Elections are four years away, and when the sun rises on that a May morning in 2014, the price of fuel and food might be the last thing on the electorate's mind. Why worry about judgment until face to face with Providence?

Sensible Roman emperors feared but two eventualities: barbarians at the gate, and a shortage of corn in Rome, citadel of free citizens and heart of empire. While generals were dispatched to deal with the former, the emperor treated the availability of food as a personal responsibility. A hungry populace could be dangerous to the emperor's health.

In 23 BC, the divine Augustus enhanced his godly reputation during a food crisis by purchasing grain with his private wealth and distributing it to a quarter million Romans. In 19 AD, his successor Tiberius, clearly a more mature economist than his populist predecessor, calmed food riots with a price freeze, and compensated merchants with a subsidy.

There is no known instance of an Emperor Sharadus Pawarus throwing his arms up in his toga in the middle of a corn calamity and letting it be known that he was a bit tired of distribution hassles and his time would be far better spent as Caesar of ICC (Imperial Coliseum Circus). This, particularly now that the punters had displayed a pronounced eagerness to pay inflated prices for a seat at a shortened form of gladiatorial gore, in which one side had to die within 20 bouts while vestal non-virgins cheered each slash with an acrobatic 'rahrahrah' and sponsors offered to arrange a vestal meeting at a suitable price.

Abdication of responsibility while clinging to power does not suggest the happiest of analogies. Such indifference during this simmer of discontent is a symptom of complacency that descends easily on those blessed with re-election, particularly when anaesthetized by the image of high growth. Pawar and Murli Deora can shrug and carry on. Elections are four years away, and when the sun rises on that a May morning in 2014, the price of fuel and food might be the last thing on the electorate's mind. Why worry about judgment until face to face with Providence?

Roman emperors were less smug. Theoretically, they held their jobs till death; in practical terms, death was only a short stab away. The emperor knew that you cannot rule unless you are able to govern. Curiously, democracy seems to have legitimized the opposite. If you want a contemporary instance of being in office without being in power, check out Srinagar. Is there anything in common between the fuel-protest bandh in Delhi and the curfew in Kashmir? The circumstances are different, but the complaint is the same: the government has gone deaf.

Governments seem unaware of a dangerous phenomenon called buyers' remorse. Voters may not have the luxury of returning what they have purchased to the store, but their remorse can suck credibility out of authority. German chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected last October in an election that broke the back of the Opposition. In nine months, the back is healed, and Merkel's united front is in a clinic: 77% of Germans believe that she has lost control. That is the key to authority: are you in control of events, or do events control you?

In 1971, Indira Gandhi won the most astonishing endorsement in our electoral history; by December that year, she led the nation to military victory over Pakistan and was declared a veritable goddess. By the summer of 1973, the charismatic George Fernandes had halted the nation in a railway strike, and Jayaprakash Narayan was stirring from retirement. Inflation – the supply of corn, if you wish – was the principal reason for buyers' remorse. The government limped towards Emergency, gulled by the belief that it had destroyed the opposition. The most dangerous opposition is not that of political parties, but of people.

Nearly four decades later, we have terrorists at the gate, a crisis in the kitchen, Naxalites in the courtyard and the hedge dividing us from Pakistan is on fire. Nero may not be the emperor, but he does have the agriculture and food supplies portfolio.

Sharad Pawar is the first Union minister publicly to admit he has passed his sell-by date. But at least he spent a lot of time in the store. If the younger lot doesn't watch out, they will putrefy in the warehouse.

Contemporary India is beginning to resemble a multiplex in a contentious marketplace, with different simultaneous movies: a violent drama in Kashmir; a stodgy farce in Delhi; an oily family soap opera in Tamil Nadu and a buttered one in Punjab; a B-film in Maharashtra; a tragic and tiring re-run in Gujarat; a faux David-Goliath mythological in Bengal; tales without a script in the northeast, while in some parts of the country the caretakers have simply turned off the lights and gone to sleep. Who cares?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is the middle smoother than a muddle?

Byline by M J Akbar: Is the middle smoother than a muddle?

Is there middle space in Indian politics? This was the great dilemma before the Socialists in the 1950s and 1960s. The nationalist movement, which kneaded the contours of ideology, did not offer much clarity. Mahatma Gandhi broadened the Congress umbrella to such an extent that every ideology could claim to be a rib. His creed was simple and effective as long as it worked: the nation belonged to everyone, and therefore everyone belonged to the struggle against the British. And so members of the Hindu Mahasabha co-existed with the Muslim League, till the early Thirties, and G.D. Birla shared space with Communists in the Congress tent till 1942.

The flaw in this elixir was evident each time an important decision had to be taken. Without the presence of the Mahasabha the Congress might have come to terms with the Constitutional formula proposed by Jinnah at the 1928 all-parties conference in Calcutta, for instance. By the late 1920s, Netaji Subhas Bose had begun to sound out Jawaharlal Nehru on his concerns about Congress’ commitment to socialism, and after the Tripuri session, Bose was convinced that the only option left to him was to split and form his own party, the All India Forward Bloc.

Other Socialists, led principally by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Nath Pai, left the Congress after India became free. Unity proved as elusive as socialism, and they split into the Praja Socialist Party and the Samyukta Socialist Party. Neither found any traction in electoral politics; the people remained loyal to Gandhi’s heir, Jawaharlal, and the Congress. Denied middle ground, most of the PSP merged into Congress; Jawaharlal was delighted to welcome them back. Ashok Mehta was rewarded with a place in the Cabinet, while the “Young Turk”, Chandra Shekhar, went on to create history at the party level by winning an election to the working committee without the support of Mrs Indira Gandhi. Dr Lohia’s SSP retained its anti-Congress radicalism, and sought a solution in “United Front” formations, which included the Jana Sangh and had a working, if arm’s length, relationship with the majority faction of the Left, the CPI(M). The crisis of the Seventies provoked authoritarian tendencies within the Congress, and drove most of the non-Congress parties into a unique merger. This was too good to last, not least because electoral success in 1977 brought power, and power inflated petty egos into grand bubbles that had to burst. Non-Congress politicians went back to their old shells, sometimes redecorated with fresh names. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, for instance, became the Bharatiya Janata Party; and the Lohia-ite Mulayam Singh Yadav created the Socialist Party, while Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar became embedded eventually in the Janata Dal(U). A national formation had disintegrated into parts of its sum, but, interestingly, the parts became larger than the whole as they adopted regional identities.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh made a serious effort to create middle space at the nationwide level when he sought to build on his election triumph in 1989 by spinning out the Mandal report. It did not work because he was an individual without an institution. The tension between a leader’s personal proclivities, often no more than a desire to sustain a family hierarchy, and the collaborative demands of a larger structure, has been the biggest impediment to a successful “Third Front”.

Can Sharad Pawar succeed where so many predecessors have failed? He has sent, or re-sent, an early signal indicating that he is more comfortable in a Third Front than in his current alliance with the Congress. It is perfectly legitimate in politics to run with the hare and hunt with the hound, but you need the latter’s fangs and the former’s feet. Pawar is shrewd enough to hone the combination, but the more interesting point is the timing. Why make this pitch with four years left for an election, unless there is the possibility of an earlier election?

There are four models open to non-Congress parties: disparate regional ambitions; the 1967 pattern of a United Front, which was partially successful; the unity of 1977, which was exhilarating while it lasted; and the V.P. Singh balancing act, in which there is an implicit understanding between middle and right, without this being made too obvious to the voter.

There is some evidence that the need for prevarication might be unnecessary. In Bihar Nitish Kumar has managed an extraordinary feat in reshaping the image of the local BJP. He has prevented social conflict and concentrated on good governance, the two fundamental requirements for electoral victory. He is likely to get enough of the Muslim vote to return to power; this, in turn, will propel him towards the focal point of a larger understanding. He was a junior minister in V.P. Singh’s government, which survived with support from both the Communists and the BJP; he clearly learnt far more than his seniors from Singh.

There is middle space in Indian politics, but it is full of potholes. The ride will be bumpy; there might be accidents. But it could still be the pathway to a destination

Monday, July 05, 2010

Both Father and Son are in the wrong Jobs

Both father and son are in the wrong jobs
By M J Akbar

We can set a precise date for Omar Abdullah’s “ideological war”, which is how he chose to describe his present troubles. On June 11, 1939, a special session of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, born in 1932 and led by Omar’s grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, changed its name to National Conference.

How long does it take to win an ideological war? A confrontation between the armies of ruling elites is conventional and therefore comprehensible: it lasts as long as the powder is dry and the will of the subaltern to fight for the interests of his general can be sustained.

A war of ideas is circumscribed by different ponderables and imponderables: conflicting definitions of justice; a vision often compromised by power pitched against a dream stretched into fantasy by a surreal sense of self. The ideological Armageddon starts in the mind, so it is difficult to know when it began. But since it descends to the street we generally know when it ends.

We can set a precise date for Omar Abdullah’s “ideological war”, which is how he chose to describe his present troubles. On June 11, 1939, a special session of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, born in 1932 and led by Omar’s grandfather, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, changed its name to National Conference. The 179 delegates debated through the night. In the morning, there were only three votes against the resolution. This was a remarkable event. Not only due to its intrinsic values, but because it went against the trend of Muslim politics in the rest of the subcontinent, since the mood of the principal party, the Muslim League, was hardening against the secular, inclusive vision of Gandhi, Azad and Nehru. On March 26, 1938, the Sheikh told the sixth session of the Muslim Conference, “We must end communalism by ceasing to think in terms of Muslims and non-Muslims when discussing our political problems…” And at Anantnag in 1939, the National Conference endorsed Gandhi’s policy towards the world war, setting course towards a partnership with plural India. Enter, caveat. History is so often the safest alibi for misrule. After 71 years has curfew become an ideology?

Who would have carried the June 11 debate if it were being held today, the 176 members with Omar’s grandfather, or the three against him? Since the past is the favourite pastime of alibi-seekers, a compendium of dates can always be trotted out in explanation. But history can as easily be an 18-month-old baby as a hoary 71-year-old. In the winter of 2008 and the summer of 2009 the 1939 partnership of National Conference and Congress won the support of Srinagar and large sections of the valley. You cannot hold an election in a curfew.

Every incident does not become a conflagration. Omar Abdullah’s mishandling of police-people confrontation has fanned a spark into a rage and this rage is waiting to become arson. The flaw might be in the fundamentals. The people of the state did not elect Omar Abdullah as chief minister. They voted for his father Farooq Abdullah, who repeatedly clarified during the campaign that he was the chief minister-designate. Omar Abdullah was enthroned chief minister by one man’s vote, that of Rahul Gandhi in an effort to remodel the Kashmiri young in his own and Rahul Gandhi’s image. But Kashmir’s youngest chief minister has lost the youth of Kashmir.

What is the difference between Farooq and Omar Abdullah? Socio-political DNA. Farooq is a Kashmiri in his nerve cells; Omar is a new-elitist offspring of English-accent India, which has confused its good fortune with a divine right to rule. Omar resides in Kashmir and lives in Delhi; the opposite is true of his father. Farooq persuades in Kashmiri and sings in Urdu, Omar speaks in English and spends the more comfortable part of his week in Delhi. Perhaps it is a four-generational syndrome typical of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic India, where fresh stalks reduce a family tree’s roots to a distant memory. Omar is sincere, and represents his state sincerely, but cannot communicate with it. More important, the valley cannot communicate with Omar Abdullah. Father and son are in the wrong jobs.

The opportunity for a switch will not last forever. In fact, Omar might make the Srinagar secretariat inhabitable for the Abdullahs if there is no course correction very soon. He still has time, but not as much as his friend Rahul Gandhi might want to give him. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah were close friends, but the former’s perception of Indian national interest superseded sentiment in 1953.

The irony is that Pakistan cannot be a role model for Kashmiri youth. Our subcontinent has seen violence in the name of faith or power, by state and civilian, party and maverick over the last thousand years. The worst tyrant would never dare disturb the immaculate peace beyond the doorstep of the shrine in Lahore of the beloved Data Ganj Baksh Hajveri, who came from Persia in the 10th century. Lahore is synonymous with Datasahib, whose shrine has survived Rajput, Turco-Afghan, Mughal, Sikh and British rule. On Friday, Muslim terrorists nourished by a culture of violent sectarianism crossed the ultimate threshold. Such sacrilege would be beyond a Kashmiri’s imagination.

Why is Omar Abdullah losing what such a Pakistan cannot gain?

Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Long Ride on a Wagon of Words

Byline by M J Akbar: A long ride on a wagon of words

News is the subtlest form of advertising. Perhaps we should be generous to journalism and qualify that: news can become the most subtle form of advertising, particularly when it comes dressed in quotation marks. The subtlety becomes more oblique when the quotation is used for collateral advantage, through a coy positioning adjacent to the Big Story.

There was a classic instance on the day the Union Government decided to decontrol fuel prices. The news appeared in print on Saturday 26 June. [It coincided, incidentally, with the 35th anniversary of a long-forgotten event called the Emergency. In those foolish old days governments needed mass censorship; in these more sophisticated times a careful, selective feed is more productive.] On the same morning appeared a story sourced to the meteorological office that the monsoons were in splendid health, that Delhi would be drenched by 1 July, and by September we would in fact have rains in excess of normal, climbing to 102%, four points higher than the earlier forecast of 98%.

On 1 July, with the Delhi sun still baked in Sahara, we read another story from the same Met saying that, er, the monsoons had stalled, on 18 June, along a flat line that began in south Gujarat and did not show any upward mobility till east Bihar. The agricultural heartland of north India, from west Bihar through UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, north Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab, was still as dry as a throat in a desert, and if rains did not appear by 4 July crop damage would begin. For all I know, you might be sitting in Noah’s ark within a week’s time, but that is not the point. The point is that on 25 June, when the Met planted the lie, it knew for a week that the monsoons had weakened. But it fabricated a projection only so that ministers, spokesmen and government economists, and those in queue to join the group, could go on television to reassure Indians that the inflationary effect of the fuel float would be offset by a good monsoon.

Does this work? After all, claims cannot change facts. Amul will not stop a rise in the price of milk to help out a Government at the cost of its balance sheet. And yet there is some purchase in cushioning the blow at the point of impact, since it deflects memory at least partially towards a positive hope.

A second blow might still ache, but it does not startle. Examine the media and public reaction to the massacre of 72 CRPF men at Dantewada and the recent killing of 27 jawans from the same force by the same Maoists in the same area. The first time, Home Minister P. Chidambaram was forced to offer a mock-resignation. The second, there was not even a half-resignation on offer, nor was one demanded, although, in terms of strict accountability, the second was a far greater lapse. Surprise was no longer an excuse. Instead, the Home Minister escaped on a rope of words.

He told state Governments that the CRPF should, in future, be sent only on specific objectives rather than “routine” jobs like road-clearing, which could be done by the state police. Is there anything more specific than clearing a road in a conflict where IEDs and mines are potent Maoist weapons? What Chidambaram was suggesting was that the state police should be sent where the potential of casualties was higher. Why? Is the life of a Chhattisgarh policeman less valuable than that of a CRPF jawan?

The real answer is politics. If state policemen die, the responsibility ends up with the local Chief Minister. If Central forces die, Chidambaram has to take the blame. On his visit to Bengal Chidambaram was happy to taunt Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya with the thought that the buck stopped at the latter’s desk. That is the sort of equation he prefers. Let the buck stop in the states, and the applause, whenever it rises, ring through his office in Delhi. This is perfectly normal in democracy, by the way.

We customers of democracy buy words without enquiry about their value. This encourages those in power to embroider words with whatever we will be fooled by: sometimes pepper to enhance the taste, sometimes frippery to brighten the look, sometimes nothing more substantial than packaging. When you reach home, tear up the glittering paper, and open the box you find lots of straw under which is hidden a shrivelled raw mango instead of the array of Alfonsos you were promised in the marketplace of politics. Since there is no one else to blame for the transaction, you make pickle out of that mango and console yourself with the illusion that it is sustenance.

Lay out the sequence, measure the consequence, and then check whether you have been taken for a short ride or a long journey on this wagon of words. A station will eventually turn up. It is called a polling booth.