Saturday, April 30, 2011

The power behind the throne

Byline by M J Akbar: The power behind the throne

Power changed hands in the third living generation of Britain's House of Windsor through the touch of a finger. It happened during the most dramatic part of a wedding ceremony, when Prince William began to place the ring on the finger of Kate Middleton, a beautiful young lady of common rather than aristocratic birth. Either the jeweller who fashioned the ring is an ass who couldn't get the measurement right, or the very happy Kate had put on weight since her meeting with the jeweller. Since the latter is unlikely, the first must be true. The groom struggled to get the ring onto his bride's finger while a breathless world watched on television cameras.

There is not much distance between awe and farce; a few more seconds of struggle and the magic would have begun to peel. Judging the dilemma perfectly, and without losing an iota of composure, Kate deftly took William's hand and brought the ring home to what should be, if all goes well, its final resting place.

We know now who will be in charge when Kate and William become Queen and King of Britain and those former bits of the old British Empire that will have them.

There are at least three firsts in these nuptials. This is the first British royal wedding in which 50% of the union is not royal. This is the first time that the bride is older than the groom: William's mother, Diana, was only 19 when she married the much older Charles. And, unlike in the case of Diana, no one is interested in whether Kate is a virgin, or indeed whether she lost her virginity to William. The British royal family has joined the egalitarian spirit of its 21st century subjects.

The extraordinary, and even moving, success of the British royal family lies in its unique ability to step back in order to move forward. If their remaining peers around the world understood just this much they would not be in the trouble they are now. No period in history has seen as much change, evolution, war and upheaval as the last century. The Windsor genius has enabled this dynasty to change before they were changed by tides outside their control. They stepped away from supreme, "divinely-sanctioned" authority, in gradual stages, without any fuss, and blossomed into an imperturbable institution that is a magnet for national social cohesion. No elected British Prime Minister would be so foolish as to test his will against theirs.

There is something about this royal, even majestic, aura that supersedes reality. Would anyone be caught wearing trousers with a seargent-major's red vertical slash running down the side from waist to shoe? But there they were, William and daddy Charles, at the wedding dressed in what is surely the very opposite of a pinstripe, and managed to look elegant. So much of British royal procedure, from decor to decorum, not excluding the faux haughtiness of underlings who populate the palace, is the stuff of potential cartoons that, from a distance, it looks immensely fragile. But it is as strong as silk.

If you or I tried a display of pomp, we would merely look pompous. On Friday the Windsors turned out all the pomp in the world and it seemed totally befitting. The one area that they might want to tweak towards modernity could be in their names. It is still all Henry Arthur Louis Witherspoon-Cutlery in the guest lists. Research reveals that one of William's pre-Kate girlfriends was called Davina Duckworth-Chad. No judgement on the girl, but it is a relief to the rest of us that he didn't marry a surname which was a combination of a publishing firm and African nation. Some leeway is possible in titles, of course. The moment that the heir but one got married, William became, thanks to the gracious generosity of mummy, the Duke of Cambridge, the Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus. The Cambridge bit is quite nice; after all it has a great university. But by the time you descend to the Barony of Carrickfergus you are competing with limericks.

A marriage is an occasion for tradition and sentiment, and one's first wish is of course that the marriage is blessed with happiness. The track record of Queen Elizabeth's children, or her sister, is not a triumph of marital bliss. William is a child of a family that broke in the glare of a merciless media. His mother Diana took revenge against real or imagined slights with a ferocity, and a succession of bizarre boyfriends, that became the subject of relentless gossip. But tradition, the plasma of this bloodline, is not about mistakes but about recovery. Kate, it seems to me, is steely and level-headed enough to nourish a functional family as her contribution to Windsors. Thank God she comes from "common" stock. She has, thereby, common sense.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Death of the whisper

Death of the whisper
The British Monarchy and how Princess Diana defied the rules

How do you whisper in print? With an infectious mix of guile and panache, if you are a journalist in the British tradition. Other hacks might scream or giggle when salting their story, but nuance is an Anglo-Indian speciality. The diary, a staple of the English press, winks its way through social and political stories. The brevity of a diary item, paradoxically, provides a journalist with far more leeway to stretch a meaning than the long report. The implicit is always far ahead of the explicit, encouraging imagination to take it even further. The British press left little to imagination thirty summers ago, when reporting the most titillating fact of the wedding of the 20th century, between an excitingly pretty Diana and the jug-eared Charles, then and still heir to the British throne, in a royal wedding that had much of the old Empire agog with excitement and thousands of colonels drooling with nostalgia. The press reported, in a suitable whisper, that Diana had taken a virginity test, and all was well.

No one expected Charles to take a virginity test. That would be lese majesty. In the good old days-well, good for the sire in any case-the lord of the British manor would exercise his right to sleep with a bride on her first night while the groom comforted himself outside with either the company of friends or beer, whichever was less greasy. That privilege has disappeared with the onset of a more equitable era, but gender is not equal in the aristocracy. Girls were trained to make suitable marriages, and not bother their heads with education.

Chastity was not the preferred virtue of a royal stag. The male was, and actually still is, expected to throw his seed about a bit, with some inevitable consequences. The British aristocracy, with its belief in male primogeniture (the eldest son inherits everything, and siblings get a decent handshake) has never been a good advertisement for gender equality. British bookstores must be currently packed with anecdotal histories of royalty. Even if some have been embellished by the fertile excesses of authors in search of a quick buck, there are enough bastards in the narrative to invite the wrath of all Ten Commandments. Princes still enjoy the company of sidekicks like the Shakespearean Prince Hal's Sir John Falstaff, even if today's Falstaffs possess neither the wit nor extravagance of the flatulent old monster. The modern princely tavern is a nightclub, but the night offers the same vagrant pleasures to the male that it did five centuries ago.

The first laugh might belong to the prince, but the last laugh will be the prerogative of the princess. Diana was a virgin till she married Charles; after two children, she turned Charles into a virgin while she went on an international romp that sent media into hysterics, and threatened the British royal family with the prospect of its first child with Arab blood. British royals don't do anger. Their lips are the stiffest part of their body, even at night. They are not afraid of rage. But they are terrified of ridicule. The 17th century Earl of Rochester's famous put-down of Charles II ("Here lives a Great and Mighty Monarch/Whose Promise none relies on/Who never said a foolish thing/Nor ever did a wise one") was only a smear, not a wound.

It did not matter that Charles II did nothing wise, as long as he said nothing foolish. The frosty silence with which Diana's lusty love affairs were treated helped preserve a dynasty that had peaked in entertainment value, but lost its dignity. While Diana's death in a Paris car crash will be a permanent exhibit in the world museum of mystery, her sudden death must have come as a relief to a traumatised establishment destabilised by the fury of a scorned woman. Since British royals have had centuries of practice in disguising their relief, they did it well during Diana's over-the-top funeral. Her husband Charles, surely the most famous cuckold on record, donned a mask of stone. Charles is blessed with blood, but not much luck: he has already waited 59 years to become Charles III and his mother is perfectly healthy.

The extravagant Diana changed the rules before she died. When her son Prince William gets married to Kate Middleton, a pretty lady of triumphantly middle class origins, on April 29, among the guests will be Kate's ex-boyfriends. They will mingle with William's ex-girlfriends. No one expects Kate to be a virgin, or indeed to have lost her virginity to William. Royalty has finally joined a Britain from which it held aloof for as long as it was possible.

There is no whisper in the British press, for Diana killed the whisper before she died.

Smile of the banyan

Byline by M J Akbar: Smile of the banyan

Does one have to be as old as Anna Hazare to remember India’s freedom struggle?

We were sitting in the shade of a magnificent banyan, a marvel that dominated the single-storey brick structures and temple that constitute his work complex in the village Ralengansiddhi, some 90 minutes by car from Pune. So often during our conversation he addressed this question, sometimes to me and sometimes it seemed to himself: what was that marathon, non-violent war against the British all about? Had all we managed to do was replace white colonists with those of a darker hue?

We ate a simple lunch of local corn, yoghurt and roti, brought by an enthusiastic well-wisher, in a small slap-up building consisting of a claustrophobic living room stuffed with sofas, a dining room barely larger than the dining table, and a comparatively spacious washroom, a few minutes drive away. This was not built by the Anna trust, but by the Maharashtra government. The amenities were not meant for Anna, but for His Excellent Excellency the Governor, who had decided to bestow personal benediction upon Maharashtra’s most famous village. Apparently the His Majesty the Governor’s office decided that a plastic chair, or a charpoy, would be too uncomfortable for the Governor’s buttocks, and so put up this house for the two hours that His Notably Notable Honour would spend in the village. The shock at waste lingers in Anna’s voice as he repeats this anecdote. When he asked officials why they were wasting people’s money, they offered protocol as the excuse. Such protocol, said Anna, might have been considered necessary during British rule, but why was it still in place in free India?

There was a moment when he was young, said Anna, when he seriously contemplated suicide because he could not find a purpose to life. Then he chanced upon a book by Swami Vivekanand at a railway bookstall, and found his raison d’etre: service.

Quaint? Naive? A bit too pious for a world consumed in the terrifying struggle for the next promotion, the next holiday, the next slippery road to some extra income [source irrelevant]?

His smile is the antidote of cynicism, which is probably why Delhi – where most smiles are dipped in grease – dismisses him as either a sanctimonious humbug or, at best, “simple”. The second is the verdict of friends. Simplicity, it needs to be noted, is not a compliment in power-obsessed Delhi. In Ralegansiddhi, where emotions are untouched by mercenary need, Anna is loved precisely because he is without guile. His first name is not “Anna”. This appellation, meaning elder brother, is an amalgam of the respect and affection that captures the essence of his character.

This essence sparked some long-awaited fire in the young of urban India when Anna went on a fast because they understood, instinctively and instantly, that Anna’s reward lay in what he could give, not in what he could take away.

The band on his wagon is of course another story. There is no point in translating the Hindi phrase “Shivji’s baraat” as “Lord Shiva’s wedding” because the cultural chasm between the two is simply too wide. Suffice it to say that, along with the sincere, caring and honest, every hustler is also out with his trumpet, and every peacock and peahen has arrived to join the dance. One senses that Hazare is possibly less dangerous to the government than to the NGO industry, because so many do-gooders turn up with excess baggage, much of it slipped through the rules. When the rules fight back, such guardians of morality use the classic weapon of a hustle: drown out the alternative narrative by screaming at the top of your voice.

Politicians have the merit of being predictable. If there are votes on the bandwagon they will ride it at high speed, always wearing a safety belt of course. They prefer not to die, or even risk injury, in any impending crash. The hospital of politics can be very inhospitable. There will be a crash or two in the journey towards the creation of a national ombudsman for honesty, armed with effective powers that can slice through the comfort zone of wealth and authority. Some cuts to the draft of the proposed Lokpal bill might even be necessary for its arrival: I was aghast at the thought that the august Lokpal would be elected by a self-appointed club of worthies including Nobel Prize winners of Indian origin. V.S. Naipaul, where are you when we need you? The India you find despicable, your area of darkness, cries out for you!

The most important question was raised by Mayawati, even if she could not resist the temptation to politicize her question. Is the Indian corrupt or is the Indian Constitution corrupt? Why should we destroy the great edifice of our Constitution merely because those in power have lost their respect for it? Throw out the mucky bathwater, Anna, but please hold on to the baby.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Children of change will have their say

Byline by M J Akbar: Children of change will have their say

Revolutions are famous for eating their children. There is not much mystery in this menu. The eneegy, rage and even chaos that is necessary for comprehensive upheaval is anathema to stability. When stagnant kings have fallen, the new order needs calm as much as the old order it has replaced. Lenin famously wondered whether it was possible to make revolution without firing squads; the self-evident answer was 'no'. But the range of the squad guns extended to those comrades whose romanticism threatened anarchy, as much as the leftovers who fantasised about the restoration of monarchy.

The dialectic of democracy is a bit different. Revolution has been replaced by evolution. But there do come moments when the confrontation inherent in change is no less dramatic. We saw one during the Anna Hazare moment in the uprising against corruption.

Dr Manmohan Singh is widely renowned as the uncle, if not the father, of the economic revolution of 1991 and 1992 that laid the foundations of New India. His government is being shredded today by the children of his own revolution, by men and women in their twenties who are aghast that their reformed India is still plagued by the maladies of old India, most viscerally the fatal cancer of corruption. The contemporary young have provided the surge that has led India to the doorstep of international economic leadership, and they want the benefits of this growth to rescue the impoverished base of the country, and strengthen the middle class to which they belong. Instead they see wealth being sucked up the needle-point apex of the pyramid, captured by a coalition of capital and comprador politician. They are angry at the thought that the national symbol has become a bloated leech.

The young may be impatient— that is their template mode. But they are not unduly intolerant. They have space in their attitude for some leeway. In any case, democracy is a pretty laidback sort of beast, and the young enjoy the relaxed ride it provides. The beast does transfigure into a fire-spouting dragon once every five years or so, but that electoral conflagration has curative powers, nourishing and cleansing. Democracy, more crucially, is a daily fact. It is life without fear, a non-negotiable need of modern India. We did not win independence from the British in order to surrender our freedom to a gruesome local elite on the excuse of economic progress or stability. Some observers find this confusing, even contradictory, but their cynicism reflects the master-slave syndrome that sustained production systems of colonial Europe. India's economic growth does not require bondage of the worker or the silence of the middle class.

The young, however, are fascinated by change. Their willingness to take a risk with the unknown, or less known, is higher. It is not an accident that Dr Manmohan Singh is the only Prime Minister who has been re-elected after a full term since Rajiv Gandhi gave a vote to the 18-year-old. Dr Singh achieved this because he won the young with the promise of sustained economic achievement. Singh was their king.

Within a year of reelection, that kingdom is frayed. The bitterness of the young is that much sharper because Dr Singh's promise was that much higher. He was a symbol of their aspirations, because he was honest and transparent. They accepted his argument that coalition politics demanded the occasional compromise, until they discovered the extent and magnitude of compromise. What we are witnessing is the first genuine revolt of the Indian middle class. Do not measure their strength by numbers alone, although those numbers are not small. They control the discourse of the nation, and they set the agenda. Their frustration in Bengal may not be because of corruption, since that is not a problem with the Left. But individual honesty is insufficient without a quantum leap in job opportunities. A person born fifteen years after the Left came to power in Calcutta is a voter now; how much patience can we expect of him? It is important to note, however, that the demand on the alternative in Bengal, represented by Mamata Banerjee, will be intense, if only because the expectations are colossal.

The children of change, whether in Delhi or Calcutta, are making their demands clear, and doing so with impressive clarity. If they are left hungry, they will dine on the powerful.

Friday, April 15, 2011

In an acoustic shadow

In an acoustic shadow
By M J Akbar

Third Eye - Byword in India Today April 15, 2011

The question was moot: should a government rush in to pre-empt a crisis with some deft foot-play; or does it make more sense to wait, bide your time and see if the crisis falls into a ditch on the way to your doorstep? The context of this conversation over an amiable lunch in New York was Cairo's Tahrir Square, but it could so easily have been Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

Long experience in power has taught the Congress to wait. So much can happen along the way. A challenge can run out of steam, get diverted by the unforeseen, split into disarray by dysfunctional leadership. Why develop a long-term strategy when short-term tactics will do? Those at the pinnacle content themselves with minimal verbal intervention, leaving noise in the custody of mid-level leaders who can be disowned in a crunch: ministers without political flesh, or hapless spokesmen taught to spin. When you talk every day, who listens? And if anyone does listen, who remembers?

Time is generally an ally of establishment. Governments prefer the pace of sober elephants; and Congress is an elephant with a long memory, heavy tread, institutional demeanour and the amoral ability to crush the skull of an enemy without a pause in its stride when opportunity beckons. But what happens when such an elephant slips on a banana peel? Is that a comedy or a tragedy? Probably a bit of both, to that merciless spectator with a permanent pass to the arena, the voter. Even if the elephant does get back on its feet, its dignity is lost, its majesty punctured.

The UPA Government has slipped in a peculiarly silly manner, repeatedly sending invitations to a whole bunch of bananas as if one or two might be insufficient to destabilise its bearings. Its fatal flaw has been a complete miscalculation about the nature of India's anger against corruption. It dismissed the challenge as yet another ploy from a bedraggled opposition, or, more boringly, some phantom right-wing lurking in the dark shadows of the national psyche. It has encouraged pro-establishment elements to howl against imagined conspiracy, just as it did in the case of Jayaprakash Narayan nearly four decades ago.

The roar that is echoing through the country is the voice of the people, not a political party. The default position of a government under siege is to retreat into an 'acoustic shadow'. This is a term from warfare. The shadow is a strange zone in which you can see the flash of cannon fire but cannot hear any sound, although the thunder may be perfectly audible to those further away. This almost metaphysical condition serves as an unconscious suspension of a faculty that can register some dangerous truth, creating a psychological comfort zone. The UPA is ensconced in this shadow.

Dr Manmohan Singh might have been more comfortable in this crisis were he a complete cynic. He is paying a heavy price for some residual sincerity thoroughly inappropriate to the politics of UPA survival. If all politics is touched by theatre, then the central characters obviously become instruments of high drama.

Dr Singh is principal lead in a five-act tragedy, but neither as Macbeth nor Othello. You can almost see the developing split in his personality as he struggles, Hamlet-like, to be or not to be. His instinct tells him to be; then his lawyers turn up and suggest that he buy time with rhetoric or manipulation of detail, as if this nation were nothing more than a debating society. India expects Dr Singh to act; his lawyerministers tell him to argue.

His dilemma might be explicable to a sympathiser, but will not be condoned by the people. Action involves high risk to his coalition. The arrest of A. Raja in the telecom case has already strained the Congress' flexibility with the DMK to breaking point; the next stretch heads towards the Karunanidhi family. You can flay a scapegoat with as much flourish as you wish, but you cannot condemn the high priest of the temple where you have prayed in partnership. Still waiting in the wings of accountability is a middleweight like Sharad Pawar. Can Dr Singh drop Pawar in his much-promised reshuffle after the Assembly results in May? No.

The government is mired in the status quo, and the status has become septic. Gangrene will waste Congress limbs even as it cripples allies. The only escape route is drastic action, which is improbable, or a general election, which is impossible. In theory there is no threat to the UPA. But governments are elected to rule, not merely to survive. In their present mood, Indians have distilled governance to a single demand: eliminate, or at least control, corruption.

Instead of meeting this crisis head-on, months ago, Dr Singh has allowed the crisis to implode in a serial sequence. Time, they say, waits for no man; but even less so for those who wait for their time to come.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bharat Bhagya Vidhata

Bharat Bhagya Vidhata
By M J Akbar (In The Sunday Guardian)

The romance of cricket has but one competitor, the mystery of conspiracy. When the two become part of the same narrative, there is an all-time best-seller. We have had two in one week.

The credibility of both SMSes and bookies rose sharply before the India-Pakistan semi-final when a pre-match SMS circulated what the bookies thought — or knew? — what was going to happen: India would bat first, make 260, lose 3 to 4 wickets in first 25 overs, Pak would cruise to 100, lose 2 quick wickets, be 150 for 5, crumble and lose by over 20 runs. Twenty minutes before the finals on Saturday I received this SMS: Lanka will bat first, score between 240 to 250. Tendulkar would fail (meaning, score 37), as would Sehwag, but Gambhir would shine and India would win.

At 2.30 pm Lanka batted first, but the prescient SMS had underestimated their score. They put on a batting performance that began with professional virtuosity, and paced it like a musical overture: minimum fuss at the start, no histrionics, the music's passage crafted by a captain who knew this had to be the innings of his life, but ending with a thunderous clash of cymbals, a mighty final five overs that climaxed a perfect harmony. Mahela Jayawardene's Sri Lanka had outdistanced the know-all SMS by a crucial 25 runs. Would that become the vital difference that kept the World Cup in either the largest or the smallest of the cricket countries of South Asia?

It was evident that Mahendra Dhoni had made his first big mistake of the tournament by investing in Sreesanth. It was not merely the runs that he gave away to Lanka's cool batsmen, but the manner in which he gave them, with that strange alchemy of petulance and ability that has made him a wanderer rather than a fixture in the side. Sreesanth is not a boy big enough for the big moment.

The Indian innings was an essay in transition. The old order was giving way to the new. Gautam Gambhir did not merely deliver in mathematical terms, important as they are; a new captain was claiming his place for the future in front of the most important audience of his career. When Gambhir and Dhoni were batting with India at 170 for 3, the only question was whether those last five overs of the Lanka innings had been the game-changer. At this stage, a target of 140 to 250, with Yuvraj still to come was eminently reasonable. India was full of runs and Lanka short of wickets. There was suddenly a big hole where wickets should have been, and for one reason alone: the last finale of the greatest bowler in Lanka's history, Muralitharan, seemed to have lost its magical, piercing rhythm.

Dhoni and Gambhir made the failure of Sehwag and Sachin irrelevant. A team is always greater than the sum of its most combustible sparklers. Such was their dominance that when Murli returned in the last ten overs, he surrendered a wide and was hit for a four. The mojo was gone. Then, as if to prove that cricket would always remain the eventual winner, Gambhir was bowled. Drama revived, a dying game returned to life. Indian hearts were attacked when a run out and an lbw went to the third umpire at 241. But there was a batting power play left. Surely India could not come so near and yet be so far.

If Sri Lanka had a king as their captain, India had an emperor. Moreover, he had a prince as partner, Yuvraj. Emperors save their best for the last. The six that brought India its second World Cup, in the new capital of international cricket, will be adorned in history as the finest stroke of a game that began in England and has become Indian. The final began with the Indian national anthem. Our anthem was the perfect metaphor. Bharat bhagya vidhata...Jaya hey!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Bookies and Bathwater

Bookies and Bathwater
By M J Akbar

In Third Eye - Byword
April 8, 2011

Would you be outraged if someone whispered that Mahendra Singh Dhoni had wagered Rs 1 crore on an Indian victory in the World Cup? The sententious answer is yes; the honest answer is no. Dhoni would have bet on India's side; he would have put money where his heart was, just as millions of other Indians did-in fact, those who bet on form must be kicking themselves now. We do not object to betting, even if it is illegal. We object to the unethical.

Betting and cheating do not share an umbilical cord. The silly moaning about bookies is as ludicrous a bit of humbug as any devised in the long and often hypocritical history of commerce. Cheats are dishonest because they are cheats, not because they are gamblers. The best solution to illegal gambling is to legalise it. India, instead, is double-faced. Why should horse racing be permitted as a gambling sport, but not cricket? Has any government prevented anyone from gambling during Diwali? It is perfectly legal to bet on the outcome of any aspect of a cricket Test in England: has that corrupted English cricketers? No. In fact, it may be more valid to say that illegal gambling induces corruption since those in charge of the business have to, perforce, either belong to or work with the underworld.

You might get a bizarre incident or two, but no systematic crime. The most famous case in my memory is that of an Australian fast bowler (still alive, honourably retired, but shall remain nameless in this column) during what has come to be known as the Botham series, thanks to the incredible feats Ian Botham engineered with both bat and ball. In one Test, England were in such a hopeless position that the odds on their victory climbed to 50-1. Our Australian pacer thought that they were too good to ignore, and placed a modest sum on Australia losing. Then Botham arrived and led England to a fairy tale win. The Australian collected from his bookie. Some eyebrows were raised, and a moustache or two possibly quivered, but no one accused the bowler of selling out.

Money and sport are natural partners, even though Victorian and post-Victorian England sponsored the classy fiction that honour was more, well, honourable, than cash. Cricket was unlawful in England till after the accession of Queen Victoria since the despotic Henry VIII banned all sport through an Act of Parliament in order to protect archery. The game survived because no law can ban anything which the people consider legitimate. Gambling was part of the fun, except when it reached ruinous proportions, or when it was hijacked by syndicates. The splendidly named and decorated Englishman, R. S. Rait Kerr CBE, DSO, MC, notes in The Laws of Cricket: Their History and Growth that stakes and gambling were "an essential factor in the development of cricket", and that the highest royalty offered rewards as high as 1,000 guineas for an important match long before 1750.

Where there is money, there will always arrive a pompous journalist, particularly if he can't get his hands on any. The Chelmsford Chronicle intoned in 1774: "This sport has too long been perverted from diversion and innocent pastime to excessive gaming and public dissipation. Cricket matches are now degenerated into business of importance. The increasing evil our magistracy ought to suppress in the Artillery Ground. It is confidently said that a set of idle fellows, or more properly, a gang of dextrous gamblers, are hired and maintained by a most noble lord, at so little expense as 1,000 pounds a year."

Noble lord, of course. Professional bookmakers did try and steal matches, then as now, but instead of sending them underground British legislators did the necessary spadework overground. In 1774, laws were introduced to regulate and clean up betting. The British refused to throw the baby out with the bathwater. MCC removed bookmakers from Lord's in 1820, and gradually both the sport and the flutter surrounding it found its true, and acceptable, levels.

Our present legislators, across party lines, believe that if they close their eyes, there will be no bathwater. It is the sort of bogus moral pose that pretends that prohibition is necessary in Gujarat because Mahatma Gandhi was born there. Every Gandhian value is abandoned, but we cultivate his most irrelevant dictum. If Gandhi were alive, the present state of corruption would probably have turned him into a despairing alcoholic.

Gandhi succeeded in mixing idealism and pragmatism in equal proportions. I daresay he would have approved legalised betting in 2011, with the provision that all its tax revenues be kept for poverty alleviation programmes. They could always be called the Mahendra Dhoni Garibi Hatao Yojana.

A fast unto life

Byline by M J Akbar: A fast unto life

Mahatma Gandhi flagellated himself with 17 fasts. They were not all fasts unto the death; they could be time-specific. This did not reduce the risk to his life, for 21 days without any nourishment or medical intervention could drag a frail man with an average weight of some 110 pounds to death’s door.

Gandhi was a visionary, but not one ever trapped by illusion. He did not believe that a fast would persuade the British to pack up and leave the most lucrative part of their far-flung empire, the jewel of their crown, just because one obstinate, half-clad, toothless native had decided to stop drinking goat’s milk for a few days. The British establishment always treated Gandhi with contempt (exceptions like Lord Irwin apart); and as defeat loomed in the 1940s this evolved into unmitigated loathing, not least because an extraordinary arsenal of non-violence, moral momentum, and an unprecedented national awakening had driven history’s mightiest empire into limp impotence. When Gandhi started his liberation movement, the ranking Indian within the establishment, Lord Sinha, confidently averred that the British Raj would last for four hundred years. Thirty years later, the last Viceroy with any authority Lord Wavell [Mountbatten was a mere midwife, and left the motherland bleeding] had this to say in his diary on 26 September 1946: “The more I see of that old man [Gandhi] the more I regard him as an unscrupulous old hypocrite; he would shrink from no violence or bloodletting to achieve his ends…he is an exceeding to achieve his ends…he is an exceedingly shrewd, obstinate, domineering, double-tongued, single-minded politician”. You have to hate someone with unbelievable intensity to stitch together such a farrago of lies. Wavell wrote this just after his beloved British Raj had killed some four million Bengalis through another man-made famine.

Paradoxically, many of the British on the second rung admired the man who had made it his life’s work to destroy their empire. They understood that if they had been born Indian they would have been with Gandhi. On 11 January 1924, the superintendent of Pune jail, where Gandhi was interned, rushed the Mahatma to Sassoon hospital for an emergency appendicitis operation. The electricity went off when Colonel Maddock, the surgeon-general, was operating on the night of 12 January, with the help of a British nurse; he completed his duty with torchlight. Gandhi thanked them for saving his life, and they were proud to do so.

The British constituted only half the challenge before Gandhi; the other, and bitter, half were fellow Indians. Gandhi knew that unless he could exorcise, or at least contain, the evil of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, even success could become ash in his mouth. He had no instrument of coercion to use against fellow Indians, but he had a secret weapon: moral blackmail. He could hold his own life hostage through a fast while Indians sorted out between themselves whether the ransom, Gandhi’s life, was worth paying. Over and over again, India paid up, for no Indian, Hindu or Muslim, wanted the sin of a Mahatma’s death on his head. It was in 1924, the same year as his appendicitis, that Gandhi went on a 21-day fast after the Kohat riots. Very deliberately, he chose to fast at the home of the great leader of the Khilafat movement, Maulana Mohammad Ali, in Delhi. By the time he sipped some orange juice on 8 October, the fever of violence had passed, at least for the moment.

The instinctive reaction of governments to any such fast is cynicism. A government might be, in fact, as weak as a terminal patient in cancer ward, but will delude itself, till its dying breath, that to surrender before a man ready to sacrifice his life will make future governance impossible. The Congress, which had wept through Gandhi’s fasts, refused to compromise when a Gandhian went on a fast unto death to demand the creation of Andhra Pradesh in 1950. The Gandhian died, and Andhra was born. The Akali Sants put fasts to effective public use during their movement for a Sikh-majority Punjab. The Marxists laughed about Mamata Banerjee’s weight when she went on a fast in Calcutta to protest against their land policy; on 13 May, when the Assembly election results are out, Mamata will have the last laugh.

A fast succeeds not because it bends a government to its will, but because it is the yeast that foments the rise of a populace. Anna Hazare’s fast in Delhi is not meant to bring down a government, its solitary purpose is, or should be, to resurrect an India that had become so supine that it slept indolently while the wealth of this nation was being looted by a handful of politicians and their acolytes. Anna Hazare is not waiting to see how many corrupt, hypocritical ministers come to his side; he wants to know how many Anna Hazares have emulated him on a street corner in front of their homes. He has asked just one question: do you, fellow Indians, have a conscience?

If the answer is yes, then rise and save your nation from the death-grip of corruption. This is a fast for India’s life.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Of Gods and Men By M J Akbar Byword - India Today April 1, 2011 The first hint that divinity was involved in the battle of Mohali came when India won the toss. Till then, there were two opinions on the outcome. The rational analysis (which means, of course, only the British commentators) suggested that things seemed even: India can't bowl, Pakistan can't bat, and both can't field, so clearly a great match was in prospect. The sentimental view backed India. The true connoisseurs of cricket, the bookies, agreed: bookies earn international respect because they are the only ones who put their money where their mouth is. The players were professional enough to internalise their tensions as the ultimate test of nerves began; the stiffest upper lips at 2.30 p.m. were those of Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Geelani. Within less than an hour of play, during the 11th over to be precise, there came conclusive evidence that a story circulating through the SMS sprawl was in fact true. Apparently, when Pakistan began to plan for the Mohali encounter with India, their captain Shahid Afridi sent up a fervent prayer to god for divine help against India. God was sympathetic, but pointed out that this was impossible, since he, after all, was opening the batting for India. Maybe Afridi does not know India enough to understand the extent to which Sachin Tendulkar is treated as a god in India. Anyone human would have certainly been out in the 11th over: the finger went up for an LBW the first time, only to be reversed by the camera; and when, immediately after, Pakistan celebrated a stumping, the Great Camera in the Sky proved that a thin part of a Sachin toe, invisible to human eye, was on turf. Then, as if to confirm that destiny can be a tease, Pakistan dropped Sachin twice. Even the experienced and beady-eyed Yunus Khan dropped a dolly. By the time he reached 82, Sachin had been dropped four times, one chance easier than the other. I stopped counting after Pakistan dropped its sixth catch of the day. There is no earthly explanation for such phenomena; this was the handiwork of He Who Controls the Stars. Pakistan's brilliant bowlers, led by a superb Wahab Riaz, had our much-vaunted batsmen in turmoil:each time they took a wicket, there was national silence in India and doubtless a roar in Pakistan that shook Afghanistan awake. But Riaz had to deal not only with Indian opponents but also a powerful fifth column within his side. If Pakistan had been informed by their coach that cricket is a game in which you also have to take catches and stop the ball from reaching the boundary, India could have been out for around a 100 runs, the match over before sunset, and the Singh-Geelani summit held in the calm after the storm. But Sachin survived to score onethird of the total, even though on this day this god seemed to have lost faith in himself. A hundredth century was technically, only 15 runs away; and yet Sachin never seemed as distant from a century. Perhaps he got out because somewhere deep inside he felt that he did not deserve one on Wednesday. Never has Sachin scored so many runs in such misery. Misery is infectious. The great Indian batting stars looked far happier in the ads that challenged cricket on television screens than on the field. My lasting memory of Mohali will not be that of victory or defeat. In any case there will be controversy: why, for instance, did Afridi not take the powerplay when he was batting. I wanted India to win, and desperately: let me confess that I could not bear to turn up the volume of the TV in my office until Pakistan were four wickets down. When Shahid Afridi holed out trying to send Harbhajan to Lahore, the volume went up sharply. The abiding memory, however, will be the rediscovery of a god who was, on the day it mattered, only human; of a genius who played and missed, who changed his bat but could not improve his timing, and yet displayed in flashes the incomparable strokeplay that makes us bow before the immortal. This does not reduce my admiration for Sachin; if anything, it increases the awe, for you can get blase about the perfection of a god. It is only when a god slips that you recognise how difficult it has been to reach that pinnacle, and then to glory in it for two decades. The ascent of man is, after all, so much more fascinating than the descent of a god.

No genius plays only for himself

Byline by M J Akbar: No genius plays only for himself .

The difference between the Indian team that won the World Cup in 1983 and the one in 2011 is an uncomplicated one: the economy. The 1983 victory was a consequence of talent, extraordinary self-belief and some luck. In 2011 the Indian cricket team is by far the richest eleven in the game, sucking the oxygen out of other sports, a template for ambition in homes across the small cities that will become the Delhis and Mumbais of tomorrow, a magnet for middle class and rural India which understands that the distance from obscurity to superstardom is a game that bypasses the educational demands of conventional professional upward mobility, and fetches rewards quite outside the zone of merit and salary. Cricket has become a supreme totem pole of the Indian economy both on an individual as well as a collective level, a classic instance of the virtuous cycle in which money breeds success and success generates greater profits. India begins with a substantial advantage over the other cricket teams of South Asia. Victory and defeat are determined of course by the human element, otherwise sport would be too dull to bother about; but the institutional spread offers both a massive pool of talent as well as the motivation that only an exploding bank account can bring. Yusuf Pathan cannot find a place in the final eleven, but is nearly Rs 10 crores richer out of the IPL which will follow the World Cup. He was born in circumstances where such a figure was beyond imagination.

How much better, therefore, would the brilliant players of Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been had they had the good fortune of such an economy to hone and add lustre to their superb capabilities? The tragedy of a negative environment is profound: when Pakistan players make a mistake (and they made too many in the semi finals against India to be forgiven) cruel whispers of match-fixing swirl around. The post-match talk is all about whether the Pak interior minister had been briefed by his intelligence agencies when he publicly warned the team about throwing the game away against India. The logic is mathematical, rather than moral. There is immediate and continuing monetary reward for an Indian player which makes the risk involved in a fix a stupid option. A crook might be able to continue playing cricket, but no crook is going to get paid to appear on an advertising billboard. But if a player is in the unenviable situation where cash from illegal betting is higher than legitimate earnings, temptation will always hover inside the dressing room. It hardly helps that some Pakistani players were recently caught making deals with bookies, despite high levels of vigilance imposed by ICC. In Mohali, the Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi won millions of Indian hearts when he accepted the adversity of defeat amid a cloud of inevitable suspicion, with the grace of a great champion: how much more would his genius have flowered if he had lived in a more stable age of Pakistan's history!

The tortured internal conflicts within Muralitharan's soul can barely be imagined: a Tamil who got an impossible 800 Test match wickets playing for Sri Lanka during decades shredded by a civil war between a Sinhala-majority government and the Tamil Tigers. Did the ferocity in his eyes belong to inner demons? If they did, he is a man of great character, for he silenced them through a display of commitment to his team and flag that has made him a hero of his nation. No genius plays only for himself: talent might belong solely to the self, but withers when it becomes selfish. Murali, or Sachin Tendulkar have achieved much more than their ability warranted because they also surrendered their genius to a higher, national cause. Neither needed to be captain to prove they were superior; the responsibilities of captaincy diminished Sachin. Those of us who delight in cricket should consider ourselves blessed because we will see, on Saturday, the finest batsman in history compete with the greatest spinner ever born in a match of wits that could define which side will take the cup. This is obviously written before the result, but the result is only going to be a statistic. A statistic has no place in an epic. We shall see the last, dazzling burst of meteors that have enflamed our firmament.

So far, Sri Lanka have been the best team in the tournament. They have been so good with the bat that we do not know how good, or indeed how fragile, they are down the line. The partisan within me admits this reluctantly, but the past is, in such an event, irrelevant to the present. Murali will bowl his last ball in a World Cup, and Sachin stroke his final off-drive through a motionless field. Those are memories that will mature into magic as we weave our own way to our last days.