Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghost in Obama Shadow

Ghost in Obama Shadow
By M J Akbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Between scam India and slum India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

Three Bengalis

Three Bengalis
by M J Akbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The point missed between hyperbole and ridicule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Fire this time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a difference?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 16, 2010

China makes Chinese; Indians make India

Byline by M J Akbar: China makes Chinese; Indians make India

When does a small town grow up and become a big boy? Does size matter? Geography is a peculiar addiction. Fat makes you large, possibly very large, but it does not make you strong. Some nations have a quarter of their population herded in slums extending in myriad directions because they have not created the capacity to build more cities. America's strength does not lie in New York and Washington but in the fact that Microsoft can be born in Seattle and the world's software industry is controlled from a desert in California. India was weak as long as its strength lay in the traditional four great cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. These urban sprawls became sores instead of cities as the poor flocked toward them, driven by unrealistic hopes. It is only logical that all four were British cities. Chennai was seeded by an English adventurer who wanted to live within riding distance of his local girl friend; Mumbai harbour came as part of the dowry of Charles II and was then rented by the British monarch to the East India Company. Job Charnock founded Kolkata on a marsh because better points to the north along the Hooghly river were taken by European merchants who had arrived earlier. You might think of Delhi as a Mughal city, and so it was; but every bit of Delhi was razed to the ground by a vengeful Company after the uprising of 1857, and modern Delhi is a British invention with only a whiff of its glorious history. The great capitals of Indian India, Lucknow or Mysore or Patna or Jaipur, stagnated or decayed during the British Raj.

Modern India is rebuilding itself along its old centres of economic and political power, even as it lifts unknown one-street inhabitations into industrial hubs that are, to use a well-known phrase, the marvel of our age. Jamshedji Tata provided the template with Jamshedpur; Jawaharlal Nehru used state resources to create more steel cities. It was Dhirubhai Ambani who took the imaginative leap forward into the private sector ecopolis; the economic conglomerate around which Indians could create a new future. Imperceptibly, but indelibly, the map of India is now crowded with dozens of germinal points that make great labour migrations unnecessary. The future is in cities like Kochi or Aurangabad or Barmer: in less than a decade Barmer will rival Jaipur, and within the foreseeable future become the second or third heart of Rajasthan.

It is this India which is crashing through the glass ceilings of our social and economic history. It has turned Marxism on its head; instead of seizing from the rich in order to give to the poor, it is churning out its own cream. It is driven by a passion to improve the individual self, but knows that this is impossible without changing the collective well-being. It is not socialist, and indeed might be suffering from generosity-deficit when it comes to those at the lowest levels of our tragically tiered social order. But it is social-democratic, in an European rather than American fashion, willing to tolerate positive discrimination even if it grumbles relentlessly while doing so. The grumble is human; but tolerance comes from the fact that it has itself benefited from reservation policies.

It is this Indian who has swarmed across the medal podiums of the Commonwealth Games. Sport is a significant route to recognition as well as economic upsurge. The story of the farmer who could not enter the stadium to watch his wrestler son win a medal because of his unfamiliarity with the big city and its projects, and the contempt which police have for the poor, is both saddening and luminous. That unfortunate father will get over his hurt; pride in the son's glory has changed his life already. These athletes, including the many who did not win medals but learnt to compete, were not manufactured in some state factory machine, as in China; they are champions of free will, as well as champions through free will. China's achievements will be vulnerable to the contradictions inevitable within a state-dominated matrix; the idealism of Marx and Lenin could not prevent such contradictions from eroding its successes. Individualism makes Indian achievement more chaotic, but it is also the bedrock strength that will carry it further. China irons its dangerous creases once every fifty years; we do so as we go along, perhaps leaving the collar rumpled as we get the rest of the shirt right. The possibility of turmoil is far less in the second model. This is not to make a value judgement; one merely records an ongoing reality. Chroniclers do not always know how the chronicle will end, but we still have to do our reporting.

China makes the Chinese. Indians make India. Give me the second option any day.

Monday, October 11, 2010

When Age is Virility

When Age is Virility
By M J Akbar
India Today Column: Third Eye
October 11-18, 2010

In which year of Lord, or before the Lord, did India become civilised? According to the authoritative assessment made at the opening ceremony of year of the Commonwealth Games, Indian civilization is 5,000 years old. This means, obviously, that Government of India intellectuals have concluded, after careful scrutiny, that every Indian before that time was barbaric.

What is civilization? Is untouchability civilized? Was it civilized to make a fellow human being carry a pot around his neck so that his spit would not pollute the ground, and whip him if his shadow dared to cross the path of Brahmin? If not, then we may have started our trek towards civilization in 1932 when Gandhi and Ambedkar signed the Pune pact to forestall a social upheaval that would have left a still-dependent India in tatters.

Does the matrix of civilization include a full stomach? There are over 400 million Indians who still survive on a subsistence diet. How soon before we can declare our nation fully civilized? Is civilsation architecture? Is there a monument moment which marks a swivel point forward? Egyptians claim, with some evidence, that the Great Pyramid is 4,000 years old, so they have some right to the 5,000-years span: it requires a millennium of Knowledge in physics and mathematics, and much trial and failure, to attain pyramid-perfection.

The architecture of Indian antiquity is far more recent. As Tamil patriarch K. Karunanidhi has pointed out, in an oblique political manoeuvre that is by-product of a sophisticated mind, we have notbeeb able to trace the memorial of Chola king Raja Raja, who ruled between 985 and 1014, but there is at least one judicial pronouncement from the Allahabad high Court that places the birth of Lord Rama in the Krita yuga, which covers 17,28,000 years. The skeptical Karunanidhi believes that Dravidian civilization is about 3,000 years old, which leaves the Aryan north with 2,000 years of headway by Delhi’s calculation. He adds that Dravidians are descendants of a race that lived in Lemuria hundreds of thousands of years ago. Civilisation, then, forms only a small part of our heritage.

Is literature the alpha of modern civilization? The word is certainly more powerful than stone. Language bears the burden of time more easily, since it is consistently reinvigorated by popular invention. The finest expression of language is surely mystical. In the beginning, says the Bible, was the word. Irqa: read!, said the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad when the final message in the Abrahmaic tradition came down. Om is sound incarnate. Is organized religion, with its thesis of codes and plentitude of values, the starting point of civlisation?

A brave thought, for it moves the definition of evolution from the Darwinian template of incremental change through minute physical variations, caricatured in the progress of hunched, hairy ape to the semi-hairy biped called man, to the nuances of philosophy and belief. Alas: the theory of faith has rarely been in harmony with the behavior of the faithful. Every religion advertises the virtues of peace; each is consumed by a religiosity that engineers war. The ape kills as well, but for more rational reasons, and on a far smaller scale. Which forest has been denuded of life by animal war? It is only the human being who places a premium on existence over co-existence, and then compounds the arrogance by insisting that his version of behavior is superior to anyone else’s. Europe colonized the world in the name of civilising it. To be fair, this western march of greed was often provoked by Eastern folly.

However depressing and contrary the evidence, civilization remains the ultimate temptation, an umbrella identity that often rises above nationalism without disturbing its comforting limitations, a siren call to glory and its first cousin, war. Samuel Huntington was not particularly original. Selling the hunter as victim has been a familiar assignment for a certain kind of academic. He actually set out to justify a civilisational clash with China, but won a lottery with his back-up number, Islam.

For traditional champions of civilization, age is virility. 5,000 is not just a number; it is a cry of triumph. The Chinese seem to ignore the rivalry of claims as an inferior pursuit. There is only one reason why Indian and Chinese civilization have managed to stay alongside without too much conflict, the Himalayas.

Civilisation is a good idea, but with the Himalayas.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sheikh of Options

Byline by M J Akbar: Sheikh of Options

You know a marriage has gone sour when one of the couple begins winking at the neighbour. The political wedlock between Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah was the celebrity event of our times, a signature moment that harmonised the hopes of a new century with the promise of a generation free not only from the fuddy-duddy mindset of a Nehru-Sheikh ancestry, but also the overenthusiastic mistakes of the daddy partnership between Farooq Abdullah and Rajiv Gandhi.

It also aimed at being a sparky New India coalition that came into its own when Omar Abdullah used the 2008 debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal to offer a soliloquy on why he was an Indian first, with everything else in the queue of identities coming only after this primary assertion. This speech was the ideological bedrock of Delhi’s trust, and when Omar was sent to Srinagar in 2009, it was as if Rahul Gandhi was sending not just another Chief Minister but a virtual national anthem.

When the history of ironies is written it will be a thick book. Neither Omar nor Rahul knew in the glorious summer of 2009 what anyone with even marginal memory could have told them: the path of good intentions is not only strewn with stones but has innumerable by-lanes that wind their way to Islamabad. The world has changed since the 1989-1993 intifada, which is why the gun has given way to the slingshot, but the purpose is the same, provocation, and a message to the world that while there might be a government in Srinagar it is not in power in Kashmir.

The syndrome suffered from additional confusion, born out of the simulated halo dangling behind the Rahul-Omar partnership. These young men were in politics, obviously, but they were not quite the kind of grubby politician who had one hand in the till and the other dabbling in compromise. The phenomenon is not particularly original. The favourite weapon of every generation is a broom with which to sweep the past away. But the past is much more than a collection of mistakes. It is also a repository of lessons. However, Delhi was gulled by the “non-political” image it had generated out of a PR machine. It could not believe that Omar would descend from high ground towards the sub-text of Kashmiri nationalism.

Omar Abdullah was “above” politics as long as it suited him to waft on that lofty level. A politician does what is necessary to stay in power. Omar needed Congress to become CM; he had neither a majority on his own, nor even the boost of single-largest party in the Assembly. He succeeded purely because Congress was fashioning a new-gen success-story template that could be transported onto the national scene when needed. When that image exploded, a silent but obvious countdown began in Delhi. Threat perception invoked the political instinct in Omar. When a politician sees power slipping away he begins to prepare the conditions for a return. Power is the aphrodisiac. If Delhi cannot provide it, someone else will mix the potent powder. Loyalty to India got Omar an internship in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s ministry and barely 18 months of comfort under Rahul Gandhi’s protection. Time to move on.

The Great Indian Hope remembered, therefore, that Kashmir only acceded to India but did not merge with it; he did not add that this was thanks to Dr Karan Singh’s father Maharaja Hari Singh, who, unlike other princely states, insisted on Article 370 before signing the document of accession, because independence has been co-opted into a Kashmiri Muslim agenda rather than a Kashmiri cause.

This makes Omar Abdullah an accessory to India rather than a citizen. An accessory’s loyalty cannot be taken for granted, and so if there is a bit of adultery in an open marriage, why kick up a fuss? The Abdullahs like keeping a door open to Delhi and an ear open to Islamabad. They have to survive, you see, just in case you asked.

Peace is rarely an accident. Omar Abdullah negotiated a temporary settlement with the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, the openly pro-Pakistan Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani welcomed the price of purchase after Omar made his “accession-not-merger” speech in the Assembly.

The discovery of Omar Abdullah as a Sheikh of Options is interesting. Far more intriguing will be the rediscovery of his mentor in Congress. Fudge won’t work. Omar was not writing a treatise, he was delivering a political speech fully conscious of its repercussions. So far the Congress left led by Digvijay Singh has knee-jerked towards Omar; its spokesmen bought time; and Rahul Gandhi preferred his usual way out of a dilemma, silence. At some point silence becomes consent. This is not the only problem. Farooq Abdullah is in the Union Cabinet. Does father share son’s views? If yes, what are the consequences?

Omar might have gained a little temporary space in Kashmir; he has lost many times that in the rest of India. It is not an intelligent trade-off for a man still at the beginning of his political career.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A peace of land

A peace of land
(India Today Column : THIRD EYE)

October 3-11, 2010

One challenge was old as Babar, the second as old as Nehru. Both are aspects of India’s most divisive dilemma, the Hindu-Muslim relationship and its impact on shared space. Why then, as the Allahabad High Court judgment showed and the sensible reaction of Indians proved, is Ayodhya moving from deathbed to health, and Kashmir slipping from wound to gangrenous coma?

The answer is simple even if its implications are nuanced. When politicians run the country you get fractious, ego-driven, fudge-coated misrule, as in Kashmir. When the country runs the politicians, there is healing. The message from the street on Ayodhya was unambiguous. Even if the dispute remains, the violence goes. Before the verdict the government was in greater panic than the people.

Indians did not suddenly become non-violent on September 30 in honour of Gandhi’s birthday two days later. But they have, almost imperceptibly, turned

anti-violence. The young are bewildered that their parents could have chosen chaos over construction, and acid over an economy. Their elders have abandoned nightmares from the past and joined a modern dream. The spirit of peace did not descend from leaders to the people, it rose from the street to the corridors of governance and justice. Politicians understood that if yesterday violence meant murder, today it means suicide.

The bjp realised that if 1992 catapulted it forward, conflict in 2010 could send it spinning into an abyss. L.K. Advani advised his party to remain calm in adversity and conciliatory in victory; rss chief Mohan Bhagwat described the verdict as neither a victory nor a defeat for anyone. The Congress, which has consistently exploited the politics of irresolution, so that it can be all things to all constituencies, discovered that this tactic had become a self-activating trap. Hallucination is not my preferred form of relaxation; I am not suggesting that we have entered some form of nirvana. But the message from the Indian voter is self-evident. The cost of provocation will be defeat.

The politics of irresolution has been the consuming tragedy of Kashmir. There is a substantive difference between life as usual and life as normal. Delhi’s politics in this summer of discontent has revolved around a belated effort to resume life as usual. The usual provides flexibility for games. Militants and separatists can play footsie with Delhi while they dine off Islamabad’s menu; Delhi can treat pacification as victory, after offering a sleeping pill and calling it medicine. The young picked up stones because they wanted change, not a couple of extra schools; women came out of their homes because they were angry at the usual and desperate for the normal.

The last time both Ayodhya and Kashmir were inflammatory was the period between 1990 and 1992: the fire across India was complemented by a rage for ‘azadi’ in the valley. We know what has changed in the Ayodhya confrontation. The poor have realised that poverty is not communal. They want the self-respect that comes with a full stomach; they have enough places to pray. This has dampened the politics of every form of communalism.

But something has changed in the Kashmir scenario as well. The promise of Pakistan as the elixir and purist paradise for Muslims has collapsed for a second time. In 1971 it exploded and Bangladesh was born. By 2010 Pakistan has visibly imploded. Many more Muslims are dying of manufactured violence in Pakistan than in India. There have been only two major riots in India since 1992; after Babri and Godhra. Pakistan is a daily litany of death, and a collage of seamless civil wars. Indian Muslims do not need a sermon to educate them; they see facts in media.

Kashmiris do not want to be annexed to a fractured geography. Their ‘azadi’ is ethnic rather than Islamic; it does not include Muslims from Jammu, let alone Muslims from Faizabad or Hyderabad. It is a heady, undefined fantasy that cannot pass the test of daylight. The solution lies, as in Ayodhya, when Delhi gets a simple message: the people are more important than politics.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director of India Today and Headlines Today.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

2010 is a Century away from 1992

Byline by M J Akbar: 2010 is a Century away from 1992

The judiciary is more important than any judgement. Every institution has to be larger than the sum of its members, and nowhere more so than the two pillars of any democracy, Parliament and the judiciary. We do not question the legitimacy of an enactment just because we disagree with an MP, or indeed because the behaviour of some MPs might have been unsavoury. A substantial section of India did not agree with the passage of the nuclear bill in 2009; and evidence of bribery in the process was produced, in a fairly dramatic way, during the proceedings. This did not mean rejection of the new legislation.

Lawyers and leaders of the Sunni Waqf Board and the Muslim Personal Law Board have repeatedly insisted that they would abide by the judgement of the courts. This was both reasonable and acceptable [reason and response have not necessarily been in harmony during the long years of contention over a mosque at Ayodhya]. When the Allahabad High Court’s judgement was deferred by the Supreme Court for about a week, there was perceptible irritation among Muslims, who wanted the verdict to be announced. It is possible that such enthusiasm for the verdict was fuelled by a conviction that it would go in favour of the mosque. The lawyers and spokesmen of the pro-mosque movement displayed considerable confidence. Maybe they forgot that however strong a case may be, it still has to be argued before a bench, and complacency within the legal team can be a fatal flaw. It was the BJP that was preparing for an adverse judgement. Its leader L.K. Advani told his party repeatedly, before the verdict, that any remorse should be a private matter; and that violence was unacceptable. No disputant can deny the validity of the judicial process, or the credibility of the verdict, just because it has gone against you. That is counter-productive, and dangerous.

In any case, the Allahabad judgement is a semi-colon, not a full stop. The full stop will come when the Supreme Court takes a decision. Muslims will appeal, as they have every right to. It must also be stressed that in 1993 Parliament clearly prevented the courts from hearing any other dispute over a place of worship. Ayodhya is the last case of its kind.

The Congress, which has been in power during all four of the nodal points of the Babri-Ayodhya controversy — opening of British Raj locks and installation of idols in 1949, laying of the foundation stone for a temple in 1989, destruction of Babri in 1992 and the verdict in 2010 — is in search of an “amicable” settlement. The game is old and evident. Congress policy on the dispute has rotated around one axis: how to get the temple built without losing the Muslim vote. The BJP has no Muslim vote to lose, but it will support such an under-the-surface endeavour since it obviously wants a temple to be constructed as soon as possible. If Ayodhya is the last case of its kind perhaps we should let it complete the legal process as well. We have waited for six decades; why not wait for two or three years more? Any “amicable” settlement is unlikely to be amicable enough for everyone, to begin with and could degenerate into a “political” compromise that could strain community relations rather than heal them. If we trust our institutions then we must trust them fully.

Pseudo-politicians in religious garb seem to be able to resist everything except temptation, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. Unsurprisingly, therefore, one or two professional fire-breathers among Muslims have reinforced their reputation for irresponsibility by indulging in provocative rhetoric from the pulpit. They have not learnt from the experience of a quarter century what the price of provocation is, for they never suffer. The price is paid by the poor and the defenceless, who live in crowded lanes, defenceless on one side and hostile on the other.

There is however some good news. Those who think they can still milk hysteria are blind to an extraordinary change that has come about in India. The people, Hindu or Muslim, have risen above the negative politics of communal conflict; they want the positive politics of development. Faith and worship still matter to Indians; and it is a very limited, elitist, Delhi notion that the young have moved beyond religion. They have not. But they have moved beyond violence as a means to their horizon.

The impoverished have understood a simple, important, over-riding reality: poverty is not communal. There is no shortage of places for prayer in our country. There is, however, a shortage of self-respect, since every hungry stomach in our country is a sharp slap on the face of the idea of India. 2010 is a hundred years away from 1992.