Thursday, June 30, 2011

A spring in Arab history

A spring in Arab history
By M.J. Akbar

Ibn Khaldun, the classical Arab historian, ascribed the great revival of the Arab spirit to “asabiya”, a term that can loosely equated to “group solidarity”, a consciousness that rose above traditional loyalties like tribal identity and released the inspirational energy that made oasis dwellers and nomads into world conquerors. Nothing can compare with that seminal 7th century resurrection, but there is a touch of “asabiya” in the transnational Arab Spring that has turned a dormant Arab street into a revolutionary force that is clearing the septic cobwebs which have turned a great people into victims of local despotism and tyranny.

The pace and trajectory of a revolution can never be predicted, nor can its re-formation into a stable order be guaranteed. But the Gaddafis and the Assads are clinging desperately to a world that is dead, along with their bankrupt ideas and alibis, all of which have been a thin cover for devastating regimes which turned national wealth [including oil] into personal property and castrated the people’s right to freedom and democracy. These army-police states tried to garner international respectability through a thin middle class which shared some prosperity as reward for loyalty to the new hereditary, civilian sultanates. Could there be a worse instance of medieval despotism than the Gaddafi family, whose anarchic flamboyance was tolerated for so long by the rest of the world?

Western powers were indifferent to values they professed at home as long as despots honored their regional security concerns: an Egyptian somehow did not need democracy as much as an American if Hosni Mubarak was obedient. Now that Tahrir Square has decided otherwise, traditional relationships are in disarray. America and Europe have not been able to save clients in Tunisia or Egypt, even while they mobilize on the side of street anger to destabilize regimes in Tripoli and Damascus. With the Soviet Union long buried, and Russia and China hesitant to offer more than verbal reassurance, the establishments in Libya and Syria are fighting their last battles with incremental brutality against their own people. They have a lot to lose: their loot. They will fight hard to preserve their obnoxious oppression, and the process will be neither easy nor predictable.

Paradoxically, if the pro-West monarchies have shown a greater flexibility in the management of dissent, it is because they have been closer to their societies than republican despots. But that, in the long, or even medium run, is insufficient. There are many layers of meaning in the campaign for driving licences by Saudi women. They are asking a loaded question: if Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, could drive a camel at the head of her army, if women could go to mosques and take part in consultations, then why cannot women drive cars in a country ruled by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques? The question juxtaposes current reality with a pre-monarchial republican ideal in which there was far great gender equality than in most modern Arab nations. The debate is opening minds. Open minds demand open societies. If Arab monarchs do not turn their abodes into a Buckingham Palace, and substitute total authority with a ceremonial role, the spirit of “asabiya” will rattle their gates.

Hafez Assad had a slogan on every city gate and public building: “Our Leader forever is President Hafez Assad”. His son Bashar shares this pompous conviction. Time, and the tide of “asabiya”, wait for no man.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Guruji, Heal Thyself

Guruji, Heal Thyself
'Tihar's impoverished convicts find prison far more civilised than freedom'

The most interesting author I have met calls himself 'Guruji' Shastri, Girish Chandra Gautam. The apostrophe and comma are a carefully nuanced note of stress, not mangled grammar. Perhaps he needs a delicate pause between his scholarship and present status. He is a convict in Tihar jail No. 2. I did not check the nature of his crime; a certain delicacy is the legitimate due of fellow authors.

Lord Ganesh is seated majestically on the cover of his 'patrika' (journal); the back cover belongs to a cross-legged 'Guruji', sun rays streaking away with pointed force from behind his head. Three rings of rudraksha circle his neck. There is an Om on his raised right palm, and a touch of steel in his eyes. The title is self-explanatory: 'Recognise Yourself Through the Knowledge of Palmistry'. His journal tends towards palms rather than palmistry (long nails denote simplicity, shorts ones intellect) but he must have something going for his art. On page 31, he predicts the future success of his book; and here he is, already being reviewed in INDIA TODAY. That's fame.

It is easy to underestimate the lure of a Guruji. There have been intelligent charlatans in every faith, in every age, who have used religion as their passage towards credibility and thence to popularity. The distance between such popularity and wealth is a short one, whether you wear saffron robes or wear a beard.

The vulnerability of religion as an instrument of manipulation lies, paradoxically, at its core: that it cannot be roped to the moorings of reason. The institutions of faith, whether temple, mosque, gurdwara or church, have been regularly victimised by the interloper, the charlatan, adept at sweeping the masses off their senses by the promise of supernatural reward. The elasticity in the spectrum of belief, and its distance from the laws of conventional behaviour, provides space for characters whose principal purpose is fraud rather than service.

The power of the faith-orator is evident all around us; his phrases offer hope, an experience-proof security blanket against the bitter winds of helplessness, the most common affliction of humankind, or its near relative, hopelessness. But can a religious con find an audience in prison? Prison is, in theory, Dante's hell: abandon hope all ye who enter here. A prison has finality. You know you are in, and a calendar will tell you when you could be out. There are no miracles inside prison walls.

Paradoxically, the majority of Tihar's prisoners abandoned hope long before they crossed its intimidating doors. Tihar is a stigma upon India, not because of recent high-profile guests, but because of its stream of regular inmates: 92 per cent are from below the poverty line. More than 40 per cent are totally illiterate. The majority of those between 18 and 21 arrive without a single possession, even a set of clothes. They have never used a proper toilet. These are street children long abandoned by family and nation; the children of Delhi we trained our eyes to ignore while driving past in cars, the detritus of a ravenous metropolis ingesting chunks of national wealth to satisfy its insatiable appetite for development. The poor were not born criminal. Life has given most of them little option.

The irony of course is that Tihar's impoverished convicts find prison far more civilised than freedom. There is the certainty of food and the possibility of work. The soft-spoken Neeraj Kumar, Director General, Prisons, has upscaled a remarkable programme of reform in Tihar that seeks to ease crime by softening the criminal. Tihar produces exquisite linen shirts (I am wearing one as I write) and a range of products whose quality is controlled by professional consultants. But Tihar is as distant from the rest of Indian prisons as Delhi is superior to the rest of India.

The European Karl Marx thought religion was the opium of the masses. In caste-ridden India, for centuries, opium was the religion of the masses. The Gurujis of today have found a wonder drug: they sell both, in a single mixture.

The Chewing Gum War

Byline by M J Akbar: The Chewing Gum War

Collateral damage is surely the most unhappy consequence of this tragic business called war. There you are, quietly preparing the day’s propaganda sheet in yet another existentialist confrontation between George Bush and Saddam Hussein, or Barack Obama and Mullah Omar, or Pranab Mukherjee and P. Chidambaram, and wham! From out of the night-blue a Drone demolishes your ego so completely that you cannot recognise your self-esteem from the debris of your self-respect.

Spare a thought, friends, for the Congress spokespersons who were ordered last week to keep quiet at the peak of the raging civil war between the Home Minister and Finance Minister of India. There is little more devastating to the pride of a spokesperson than being told not to speak, particularly when heavy artillery and napalm are cascading through the battlefields of media.

The serious historian will, doubtless, record the range of emotions and arguments that have coursed through the War of the Chewing Gum. This is perhaps not the most serious conflict of 2011, but it is pepping up to become its most hilarious. There is enough bathos to daunt the muse of that poet-prince of satire, Alexander Pope. But jollity should not blind us to the serious questions that must be answered in the cause of national security as well as prestige. What, for instance, is Pakistan’s preeminent security establishment, ISI, thinking of Indian capabilities now that they are sure that the mightiest of all surveillance battles is being fought through that most useless invention in the history of mankind, that device of teenage mastication, chewing gum?

We belong to an age in which superpowers can pick, with heavyweight computers, any conversation that travels through the world’s airwaves, and then transcribe and decode it before breakfast. Even at the low end of the market, a ruthlessly chivalrous spy like James Bond would not be caught, dead or alive, with either chewing, or its first cousin bubble gum. That sleuths working on behalf of the Home Minister of rising India used this supremely silly blob of virtual rubber as a principal weapon is worrying confirmation that where security is concerned India is merely a fourth rate power.

Experts, either shocked or gleeful, have flooded the internet with deep-background analysis. It seems that there are two kinds of bugs. Permanent ones need to be planted inside walls, but that can only be done while the building is being constructed. Since the walls of India’s finance ministry were built before Lord Irwin became Viceroy in 1930, that was clearly not a feasible option. Temporary, or opportunist, bugs can be scattered into the enemy quarters through the help of a fifth columnist, who then removes them after the requirement is over. Some clever chap thought little blobs of something that “looked like chewing gum” would suffice to deceive the Finance Minister of India and his most trusted civil servants.

The only thing more amusing than this Pink Panther-style spy story is the cover-up. The official line, now that government is being forced to clean up an embarrassing mess, is that nothing much happened. No one, however, is saying that nothing was attempted, even if the master sleuth of this particular operation was an outstanding bumble bee.

Pranab Mukherjee has more experience in high office than most of the Cabinet put together. He is not prone to seasonal hysteria. His maturity is beyond question; his supporters still cannot understand why he should do the bulk of the work but not be appointed Prime Minister. If he took as deliberate a step as placing his complaint on the record with a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he did so after the most careful consideration. He had his office swept by technologists hired by the Central Board of Direct Taxes, which reports to him, rather than the Intelligence Bureau, which reports to Chidambaram. His letter went ten months ago. It is unsurprising that the Prime Minister’s Office chose silence as its first and last line of defence. The Congress, when it was forced to utter a word or two, went into its default position, which is treating everything unpleasant as an RSS conspiracy. The one exception was senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh, who believes that a formal probe has become essential.

Digvijay Singh is right. This government is coming apart at the seams. Individual ambition is tearing apart the fabric of governance. The voter can see what Delhi can’t, that the emperors have no clothes.

There comes a point where a joke refuses to amuse. We are near that tipping point. Manmohan Singh, himself a bit ragged now, has one last visit left to the tailors: the Cabinet reshuffle he has long promised but never quite delivered. He can no longer afford to stitch a few buttons; he needs a whole new wardrobe -- and one which can survive the acidic wear and tear of whatever time is left in his political destiny.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Grim Reminder To Mumbai : Dey Murder

A Grim Reminder To Mumbai
Dey murder: Should we assume that it is currently legal to shoot journalists in Mumbai?
By M J Akbar
In Byword - India Today, June 27, 2011

The besetting sin of the Indian ruling class might prove to be exceptional stupidity rather than pervasive corruption. Successful politicians are clever, or they would not be successful. But they can become foolish enough to believe that the rest of us are stupid.

The subtle lie is a fine art, and a crisis rouses veterans to their slipperiest best. The murder of crime-busting reporter Jyotirmoy Dey in Mumbai by a posse of motorbike gunmen, in the soggy daylight of a monsoon afternoon, was a public relations catastrophe for the Maharashtra government. The crocodile tears of ministers began to compete with the monsoon instantly. Carried away by excessive piety, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Home Minister R.R. Patil and all-purpose busybody Chhagan Bhujbal even promised a majestic law to protect journalists.

Since this law has not been passed, should we assume that it is currently legal to shoot journalists in Mumbai?

There is no shortage of laws in India. There is a terrifying shortage of legal order. The order of the day in Mumbai is determined by a politician-police-criminal coalition that deploys private armies to send a periodic message to pests who interfere with their lucrative control of the economic sinews of the black economy. They do not kill journalists, or whistleblowers, every day. Discretion is the better part of their valour. Their purpose is just to let everyone know whose finger is more effective on the trigger. Dey's death was one such reminder to the media.

The litany of alibis, including a few pompous ones like the proposed legislation, trotted out by politicians is designed to cajole, flatter, fudge or even buy the Mumbai establishment's way out of a crisis that threatens the stability of the cops-criminal-minister nexus.

I often wonder why we keep calling Mumbai's criminal gangs the underworld. They live in, and dominate, the overworld. 'Underworld' tends to give them a shadowy, even ethereal presence, as if they float in dark corners of the city like phantoms on the prowl.

They are masters of the day, not vampires of the night. They are in league with, if not colleagues of, high officials who shield them from those suicidal enough to challenge their kingdom.

Within 48 hours of Dey's murder, an Assistant Commissioner of Police, Anil Mahabole, in charge of the Azad Maidan precinct, had been downgraded. His ranking senior, police commissioner Arup Patnaik said that he was "neither denying nor confirming Mahabole's role" in the incident. Such equivocation suggests guilt, at the very least. Simple question: how long does it take an assistant commissioner of police to get corrupt? 24 hours, or 24 years? If Mahabole's reputation was common knowledge, why was he in control of Azad Maidan police station? On one side, Azad Maidan runs along a green lung to Bombay Gymkhana. Turn 180 degrees, and life shifts: just beyond the great railway terminus lie the congested lanes where Dawood Ibrahim used to live, and from where his brother and sister still control their prolific business. A few weeks ago, a motorbike squad tried to kill Dawood's brother in one of these lanes, and got his driver instead.

You do not have to be as brilliant as a chief minister or a police commissioner to guess what the Mumbai police's brief is: promise just about enough to appease journalists, but do nothing to destroy the enriching partnership that rules Mumbai. Round up scapegoats. Sacrifice one or two, strictly if necessary. Photograph the applause. Limit this to a media issue, not a citizens' cause. Circumstances are on your side: the culture of an ambitious metropolis is determined by the self-interest of anonymous survival, not the generosity of community consciousness. Mumbai knows that the "bhai", the gangster, is an ineradicable part of the city's ecology. Take your time. Reporters will return to their grind, with another tiny germ of fear etched into their hearts. A reporter's death is a statistic. Mumbai is not sentimental about statistics.

The ruling class will rule, until the phlegm at the base finally rises, and boils over into rage.

Silence, or bluster, is not an answer

Byline by M J Akbar: Silence, or bluster, is not an answer

We need to lay out the sequence if we want to assess the consequence.

In the 12 June 2011 issue of the Sunday Guardian our political editor Kota Neelima broke a story that in one of the famous taped conversations A. Raja, the telecom minister, told lobbyist Niira Radia that “Chidambaram has taken a lot of money”. Her source was a CBI document, part of the written CBI evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, headed by Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, based on an “Analysis of calls received from Income Tax Department”. It was submitted by the Anti Corruption Branch of CBI. This document is in possession of the Sunday Guardian.

Chidambaram, now home minister but in charge of finance during the substantive part of the telecom scam, has issued a statement that the “Raja” mentioned in the CBI note to Parliament was not A. Raja, the minister, but a certain K.R. Raja, an executive working for Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. K.R. Raja has made a statement apologising for casting such aspersions on Chidambaram.

The case gets more curious at every step. The questions have increased, not disappeared.

1: CBI has been investigating these tapes for a year at least. How could it make a mistake in identifying Raja’s voice in the audio when it must have heard that voice countless number of times? Do the Reliance Raja and the DMK Raja have the same voice? Could CBI not have checked the difference, if any, and sent this tape for authentication to a laboratory? Incidentally, the assumption that it was a private sector executive who believed that Chidambaram had got “a lot of money” does not make the allegation any less heinous, since it is the private sector which has paid politicians in this scam.

2: This conversation was obviously recorded from Radia’s mobile phone, since the Mukesh Ambani Raja’s phone was not, presumably, being tapped. Did CBI question Radia about whether she had any knowledge of this “large sum of money”? Or does CBI pursue allegations against a DMK Raja to the hilt, but is totally indifferent to allegations against powerful Congress ministers? It is the duty of CBI to investigate allegations of all corruption, which is why these phone taps were authorised in the first place. What efforts did the CBI make to either substantiate corruption by Chidambaram, or absolve him? Or are we to assume that CBI has been ordered not to enquire any further when someone of the political weight of Chidambaram is involved? Accusing the finance minister of corruption is as high a misdemeanour as we can get: Why did CBI not pursue this lead from the transcript? The matter could have been settled long before this paragraph went to PAC. Did CBI ever check with telecom minister Raja whether he had made that remark? If yes, what was his answer? If not, then why not? Raja is still in custody. Has CBI bothered to ask Radia about this since the story broke? And if the voice is that of Reliance Raja, as Chidambaram avers, then has CBI asked the private sector executive why he made such a remark? If yes, what was the answer? If not, then why not?

3: In the documents sent to PAC, CBI has consistently referred to principals by their surnames without adding initials before them. Chidambaram, for instance, has been mentioned only by his familiar surname in the relevant paragraph; there is no “P.C.” before the surname. The context of the document tells us that the text refers to the then finance minister, and not to any of the millions of other Chidambarams who are citizens of India. Similarly, former telecom minister A. Raja is regularly referred to only as “Raja”. Witness, to mention only a few examples, the CBI’s analysis of conversations on 15 November 2008, 18 November 2008, 19 November 2008 or 20 November 2008. All these references are in the papers that are with the Public Accounts Committee. There is no reference to any K.R. Raja in the CBI document. And even if the statement was made by the Reliance Raja, the question will not go away: why was there no follow-up in an investigation about corruption during these many, many months? Home minister Chidambaram has not denied that the reference was to him, nor has anyone else.

4: Is CBI so incompetent that it sent a document to the highest authority in a democracy, Parliament, without a full check on something as serious as an allegation of corruption against a former finance minister and present home minister? CBI lets this explosive allegation about “a lot of money” going to Chidambaram hang in the air. Why? Which officers of CBI are responsible for this lacuna?

Who will provide the answers? Silence, or even bluster, is not an answer.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lost between bail and bail-out

Byline by M J Akbar: Lost between bail and bail-out

If the final fatality of this summer of suicides happens to be Dr Manmohan Singh's government, some intrepid, future historian of Congress affairs could be tempted to point a finger at Delhi High Court. The Court has asked DMK patriarch Karunanidhi to choose between a loving father of his daughter Kanimozhi and a loyal ally of Dr Singh. Unlike the Biblical King Solomon, famed for innovative justice, the Delhi High Court has not offered a solution to tricky problems. It has merely delivered its obiter dicta and adjourned.

Simply put: if Karunanidhi wants Kanimozhi out on bail, which he has every legitimate right to desire, he will have to walk across to the Opposition benches in the Lok Sabha, thereby in all likelihood initiating a process that could precipitate a premature general election.

Even a cursory reading of the honourable court's reasons for rejecting yet another bail plea, on 8 June, makes this obvious: "They [the petitioners] have got strong political connections. Petitioner Kanimozhi Karunanidhi belongs to same political party to which accused A.Raja belongs and the said party is sharing power in the central government." That's it, then. If you share power in the central government you share a jail in Delhi. You do not have to be a convict to languish in jail. Being an accused is sufficient, as long as you are among the rulers of the nation.

Logic is not an option. Karunanidhi might well argue - as he is probably instructing his counsel to do before they move up to the Supreme Court - that if he had the clout to disrupt the course of justice, Kanimozhi would hardly be in jail. He might suggest, reasonably, that Kanimozhi and A. Raja, former telecom minister, had been out of prison for years before their incarceration and did not tamper with evidence or influence witnesses, so how could they do so now? Indeed, if proximity to power was sufficient for life in lock-up then Suresh Kalmadi, or anyone else in the Congress, has no chance of leaving Tihar for many years, irrespective of whether they were guilty or not. If he does get tetchy, Karunanidhi could even wonder how the courts will deal will some powerful Congress names who could be next in line, since they approved all the decisions on G2 made by Raja. But all this disappears into the academic category. The court's thinking is categorical: in office? Off to jail without bail.

Perhaps it is the thought of abortion that is making some Congress leaders hysterical. Some of them are turning abusive, and aggravating this offence by making a virtue of the unnecessary. Others, with higher ministerial ambitions, have opted for political rather than personal virulence. They are treating dissent as treason. One of them declared that this was a virtual war against the state and drew out a precise map of the space he had allotted for opposition activity. Anyone who stepped out of that line deserved a muscled thump, if not some unlit recess of a mofussil prison. The pompous rhetoric surrounding nothing more savoury than self-interest is always shrouded in various aspects of patriotism, of course. Out of kindness, we shall not mention their names, but even a casual look at the newspapers will suffice to reveal who they are.

Claim and accusation are not relevant. The moot fact is that governance has disappeared much before this government has disappeared. The union government has frozen into a caricature, with some of its ministers sallying forth into people's territory from their castle, like so many Don Quixotes on individual missions against a rising crowd of windmills. It is as if whatever the union government touches ends up in shambles. Mistakes can be contagious, and the summer of 2011 is acquiring plague proportions. If there is still a semblance of sanity across the country it is because the state governments have not yet been infected with the plague.

The Congress has shown a remarkable inability to manage a partner, DMK, who has in fact nowhere else to go except oblivion. The acid drips from the wounds in this relationship are corroding the stability of the UPA alliance. It has proved incompetent in its response to those forces who are exercising their democratic right to destabilize the alliance. If a union government cannot take the measure of a maverick like Baba Ramdev, and find the right means of defusing someone who was always more bluster than substance, then it has no right to rule the country. Government has turned Ramdev into an unlikely hero for more voters than it can immediately count.

The Manmohan Singh government may not have lost its majority, but it has lost its poise and purpose, and is unlikely to recover its elan. The government seems in desperate need of a bail-out itself.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Beware the ideas of June

by M.J. Akbar

Byword - In India Today

There is something about June that does not quite agree with Congress fortunes. On June 25, 1946, the Congress accepted the Wavell plan to protect a notional form of Indian unity, only to walk away from its decision in a fortnight and open the party to accusations that may have become archaic, but never quite disappear from history books. On June 4, 1947, the Congress accepted the partition of India. Mahatma Gandhi, sitting in Delhi’s Dalit colony, mourned: “Today, I find myself alone… (even Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru) wonder if I have not deteriorated with age.”

Gandhi, Patel and Nehru would have got together to cry on June 26, 1975 when Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency, and the country hovered in anxiety and fear while her son Sanjay repeatedly expressed the thought that dictatorship should continue for another two decades. Maybe the old guard knew about the June malaise: Jayaprakash Narayan launched the movement that precipitated the Emergency in June 1974. Indira Gandhi’s second terrible historic blunder, Operation Bluestar, took place on June 6, 1984. A closer scrutiny of dates and events would surely produce more interesting data, albeit on a sliding scale in descent.

The follies of June 2011 may seem squalid, particularly when juxtaposed with some contemporary characters who have seized centrestage, compared to the great confrontations over nationalism, democracy and federalism in Junes past, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the fury that has seized Indians over black money and corruption. A complacent and even arrogant Congress is showing every sign of doing precisely that. It believes it can mollify Anna Hazare and vilify Baba Ramdev just as it once thought it could ignore Anna and deal with Baba by stroking the latter’s ego. This is a petty strategy for a profound problem.

The voter is recording every scene of this volatile drama in his subconscious, and that montage will determine the next elections. History tells us that it is virtually impossible to defeat the Congress until it takes a very determined vow to defeat itself.

Paradoxically, the problem of corruption is a consequence of success. Before 1947, the British did not need to ferret away black money, because they could pick up as much white money from India as they wanted. Empire apologists, or their Indian sycophants, rarely acknowledge the war debt that Britain owed India after 1945, and which it could not pay when free India needed the money most.

The black economy was a marginal fact for three decades after freedom, because when you don’t have much of an economy, black economy can’t be much of a deal either. In the 1960s and 1970s, smuggling was a theatrical reality for newspapers and movies, but it did not penetrate the bloodlines of the Indian economy. Today, corruption is leukemia. The Indian is both awed by a figure like Rs 1.76 lakh crore, as well as nonplussed by it. It is so fantastic that it floats into the notional. What makes Rs 1.76 lakh crore real is the fact that Indians have to pay Rs 176 at every corner every day to get every small thing done by government, or indeed the multiples they pay as a bribe to twist the law or ignore it. The result is a deadly mixture of rage and guilt. Underlying both is a gradual conviction that if matters continue as they are, the nation state will corrode. The young are at the forefront because they want to protect an India they know will blossom once it is rescued from those who have infected its bloodstream.

This national fury has found a legitimate target in the politician, because the political class has outstripped all competition to become the most obnoxiously rapacious exploiter in modern history. Businessmen at least provide jobs. Politicians fatten files when they are not fattening themselves. In 1739, Nadir Shah looted Delhi for three days, and we have not forgotten. Politicians have welcomed the 21st century with loot on an unprecedented scale.

It is ironic that this loot has taken place under the watch of a decent Prime Minister who has kept his personal distance from the sack of India. But Dr Manmohan Singh’s financial integrity is of little use to Indians when he presides over a Cabinet weighed down with the corrupt. He refused, for years, to recognise guilty colleagues because that would have brought his government down, although he knew precisely what they were doing. This continues to be true. The current crusade is being led by non-political actors because Indians no longer trust their politicians. There is stain on every side. It is necessary to note that when they believe a politician to be honest, they reward him with reelection.

If 2004 was the best year in Manmohan Singh’s life, then he might, when he gets to write his autobiography, rue the day he was reelected in 2009.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Party Singh vs. Government Singh

Byline by M J Akbar: Party Singh vs.Government Singh

Has the time for the Congress high command to issue notices to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his virtual deputy Pranab Mukherjee and his principal interlocutor for officially unofficial dialogue Kapil Sibal, for gross violation of discipline? If it cannot muster up the courage to censure its own PM, it could always expel general secretary Digvijay Singh. The party Singh wants to send Baba Ramdev to prison or perdition, whichever is nearer. The government Singh believes that acrobatic subservience by four ministers in the VIP lounge of Delhi airport, rather than within the more private environment of a drawing room, before the crusader-Baba, is the way forward to an honest India in which every politician glistens with moral fervour, and anyone giving or taking a bribe gets the noose he deserves.

It must be the summer. The government's brain has melted. Whatever else may be your view of Baba Ramdev, you have to be a bit soft to believe he can be bribed by flattery. The Baba has not risen from a bicycle in Haryana to a private jet by being gullible. He is playing for much higher stakes.

The Prime Minister had two options when confronted by a "fast unto death". He could either negotiate with a man who had everything to gain by confrontation; or he could have gone over Baba Ramdev's head, as it were, and spoken directly to the India that was lining up in support of the Baba, not just in Delhi but in every small town. Better still, he could have done both; negotiate at a minimalist level, and address India's core concern comprehensively, decisively. The multiple negotiations with Ramdev have not only raised the latter's stature in public life, but also ensured that the credit for any decision will go not to Dr Singh's government but to the man who generated a midsummer day's thunderstorm.

Pressure is guaranteed to ensure mistakes in decision-making. Dr Manmohan Singh would have handled pressure from Opposition parties, but is unable to deal with parallel stress from two different, but inter-linked points. The anger of the people has derailed governance. But his most difficult challenge is neither from the people nor from a crusader; it is from a faction within Congress that derives its power from proximity to Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Digvijay Singh is the main spokesman of this faction, which is why he has the freedom to offer a continuous stream of alternative policy advice, on every matter from Assam to Kashmir, depending on the news of the day. Digvijay Singh has done more to weaken the authority of Dr Manmohan Singh than anyone else; and a mute Prime Minister's helplessness before this onslaught only confirms the power equations within today's Congress.

Mrs Sonia Gandhi has also empowered her parallel Cabinet, the NAC, which believes that Dr Singh's Cabinet and Parliament should listen to its instructions. Some of its members specialise in pomposity when they are not heckling the Prime Minister. The strategy is transparent: to snatch credit if the government does anything right, and turn stridently accusatory if the government makes a mistake.

The BJP has to do nothing to destabilize the Manmohan Singh government, which is crumbling under the pressure of internal contradictions. Opposition parties need to do nothing except wait. Once upon a time they did not know how to. Now they have learnt.

Inevitable question: how long can a dysfunctional government totter around? Technically, forever [caveat: forever comes in 2014, the year of the next scheduled general elections]. The mathematics of this Parliament works in favour of the establishment. M. Karunanidhi may publicly rue the poor choice of friends he has made, meaning the Congress, but politically there is nothing he can do. Potential new allies are in no hurry to touch a DMK toxic with corruption charges. Regional animosities in other states create a curious algebra. It would take some catastrophe, for instance, to bring Mulayam Singh Yadav's SP and Mayawati's BSP on the same side of the voting platform in Parliament. But is this impossible?

Dr Manmohan Singh's government is not in any danger of being washed away by some sudden flood or devastated by an earthquake; its foundations are being eroded by inbred worms. Dr Singh is flashing a sword, slashing the heart of a former Cabinet colleague here, breaking the arm of a private sector executive, which makes for temporary political theatre. What he needs is very powerful pesticide, to be sprayed at home. The disease of corruption is not limited to enemies or allies who might have become dispensable. The Congress seems to believe that it can get away by speaking in multiple voices, each customised for whichever audience is in the hall.

Baba Ramdev has a significant advantage over the Congress in this test of wills. He has nothing to lose. The Congress does: it could lose power.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Didi at Heaven's door

By MJ Akbar

Byword in India Today

The door to heaven deserves a fresh coat of paint. There is only a smudge or two of contemporary colour in Siliguri, the last town on the Bengal plains before the horizon slides up to the ethereal beauty of the Himalayas. Siliguri is an urban scrawl, unable even to achieve the breadth of a sprawl. A couple of malls have come up along the national highway before it curves away towards the exquisite turbulence of the Teesta river, tumbling through picturesque settlements like Kalijhora and Kalimpong before it heads into Gangtok or Darjeeling.

Perhaps a hundred yards from Siliguri’s Spencers mall is a billboard from history, an advertisement for the cpi(m)’s daily newspaper Ganashakti (People’s Power). A once-strident typography has evaporated to the edge of invisibility. The faint masthead speaks of past glory. Askance of this billboard is a newly-minted office of a Bengali newspaper that has, over the last many years, fought the Left Front almost as ferociously as Mamata Banerjee. The building is on a wide, narrow strip, a house without proportional depth; its central feature a hall punctuated by open doors. The conjunction seems an appropriate metaphor for the seismic shift that has taken place in Bengal. The Left has faded away. But there is something empty and dysfunctional about the alternative space.

This is understandable, given that Mamata’s government has just begun to function. Her initial impetus has been on hard work. This too is explicable, since work was not the favourite occupation of a Leftist administration heavily influenced by trade unions. Mamata is surely aware of the ditty that Calcutta coined, with the resigned sense of humour that became its preferred weapon during the stagnant phase of Left rule, to describe the work culture of Writers’ Buildings, seat of Bengal’s government: “Aashi jaai, mainey paai, kaaj korley beshi chaai (I come, I go, I get my salary; if you want me to work, give me more).” The new chief minister will not find it easy to propel the sedentary babu, but she has set her ministers an unprecedented pace. The strain has sent one to hospital already, albeit briefly.

Mamata might be missing the point. It is of course always better to work hard rather than work soft, but efficiency is a secondary rather than primary priority. Surprisingly, given the national clamour on the subject, corruption is not a dramatic problem in Bengal. The give and take in Bengal has been of the petty cash variety, nothing that would disturb the summer siesta of an Anna Hazare or Baba Ramdev. The Bengali voter did not demolish the Left Front because it was lazy or corrupt. Its sin was far more venal: it had become barren.

What Mamata needs, immediately and in profusion, is mint-new ideas. She understands the intensity of the challenge required in such a massive resurrection, but she should also worry that her ministers could undermine her government by searching for solutions within a vacuum.

The most conclusive evidence for the view that the Left Front government knew it was heading towards an iceberg is the simple fact that the Marxists had a fabulous pre-crash party on the Titanic. They left the treasury bankrupt. Bengal has a per capita debt of Rs 21,697, the highest in the country, according to the new finance minister, Amit Mitra, who believes that he will have to borrow Rs 3,000 crore from the market just to honour unpaid bills. While Uncle Pranab Mukherjee in Delhi might be a wonderful mentor, he does not have the wherewithal for nepotism. Bengal needs the private sector. More important, private capital must deliver a high return in terms of employment for every rupee invested; which means, broadly, geometric expansion in the service industry.

Alas, the private sector is not equally in need of Bengal. The Left Front, clinging to attitudes that had exhausted its utility two decades ago, thought it could tax its way to survival. Mamata will need a different compass. She may need to look at the Himalayas for inspiration.

Her neighbour up north is Sikkim. Sikkim has no income tax. The state has a population of 600,000 and seven universities, only one of which is a state institution. A number of medical companies have started manufacturing units there. There is a building boom, messy and noxious, but there. Sikkim is a thin puff of steam compared to Bengal’s potential as an engine that can drive the revival of eastern India. Necessity forced Sikkim towards invention. Bengal obviously cannot replicate such flexibility, but if Mamata does not incentivise local entrepreneurs with irresistible sweeteners and bait national businesses that can change, visibly and quickly, ordinary lives in Bengal, she will fall prey to that most fatal of diseases in public life, frustration and its first cousin, cynicism.

The biggest box in Bengal is called Writers’ Buildings. Mamata must think out of it.