Sunday, July 31, 2011

The power of the small story

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (July 31)

The big picture generates understandable excitement. Sholay will always get more hype than an "art movie", as state-funded cinema used to be called in the days when the state still had the will to hand out dollops to chaps wearing pyjamas and beards. But there is as much to be learnt from the intricacies of the small picture. The most famous portrait ever painted, Mona Lisa, was done on a small canvas.

Politics may be more reasonably compared to artifice rather than art, but the analogy holds.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Revenge of the scapegoat

From Byword – India Today (August 8)

The slings and arrows of fortune, or more accurately misfortune, are a periodic affliction of high office. Serious politicians, however, are not flippant about fate. They do not attribute to divinity what can be measurably sourced to humanity.

Subconsciously, we seek comfort in hard times from the mysterious logic of destiny, which is one explanation for the deep Indian devotion to astrology. But while Delhi's power-mongers definitely keep one eye on the stars, and fill their fingers with protective rings, they keep the second equally firmly planted on their colleagues. When a poisoned arrow strikes, they check out the bungalow next door. That is why the classic Delhi shield is not held in front of the body. It is strapped to the back.

A. Raja and Kanimozhi, the two DMK leaders who have mutated from pillars of the regime in 2009 to caterpillars in the shrubbery by 2011, have had enough time in Tihar to ponder over the source and trajectory of the arrows that hit them in the spine. Their legal response is constructed around a simple question with complicated answers: how does a scapegoat escape the axe?

Conventional escape routes are not available. The DMK is fractured in Chennai and hospitalised in Delhi. Their leader M. Karunanidhi is in anguish, but too weak to alchemise his pain into politics. He does not have enough MPs to threaten the survival of the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi government, a fact that is being fully exploited by the principal beneficiary of the arrangement, Congress. Nothing is more self-destructive in politics than an empty threat.

Raja has in truth only one option. He cannot trouble the government's majority, but he can leave its leaders deeply troubled. That is precisely what he has set out to do.

Such a calibrated response has collateral advantages. The law of intended consequences appeals to other allies within the ruling coalition, which must factor in the possibility that the Congress has reserved a place for its high-fliers in the Scapegoats Corner of Tihar Jail. Sharad Pawar, who thinks through every move with a chess grandmaster's precision, took an unusually public risk when he sent one of his knights, D.P. Tripathi, to say hello to Shahid Balwa in an open courtroom. It was not an overdue courtesy call on an old pal. There was a message written in simple language, without any code. This saga has many more chapters to go, studded with enough twists and turns to make it an aerobic exercise of yogic proportions.

If attack is the best form of defence then counterattack is the most effective form of offense. If a scapegoat can demonstrate that he was not the only head at the head table then he has opened up numerous channels to safety. He will not sink alone but take the boat with him.

Raja has always looked, from his body language, more confident than his circumstances seemed to warrant. Now we know why. He kept the evidence of all those discussions at the high tables of governance. This, by the way, is now de rigeur with Cabinet ministers, from all parties-a classic symptom of unstable, uncertain times. The most effective weapon in the political arsenal is now a photocopier. Everyone keeps true copies of secret files. The president should order the deletion of the secrecy clause when she administers the oath of office.

The Government went for Raja's throat; he has gone for their jugular. Honours even. Or perhaps tilted a bit in Raja's favour. He has nothing more to lose. Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Dr Singh and P. Chidambaram have a government to lose. If Raja has his way, the prime minister and the home minister will be grilled in the witness box, with the nation's chief law officer in the vicinity. That will be a sight for television crews waiting outside the courtroom.

Raja's objective is transparent. He cannot do much about the survival of the upa Government. But he can do a bit about the survival of the government's credibility.

Democracy is much more than a game of numbers. It is a curious fact that Dr Singh was a far more assertive prime minister when his numbers were under continual challenge during his first term. He has been ambushed after he led the Congress to 206 seats in the Lok Sabha. The damage has been done by his friends, while his foes have watched in disbelief.

In any case, 206 is a false number: far below the 272 needed for single-party rule, and just enough to induce that deathly viral known as complacency. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had 271 MPs on his side when he lost the vote in the Lok Sabha, and he was seasoned enough to know that Parliament is not a gambling den.

If you live only by numbers, one day your number will be up.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Between a yawn and a yelp

From Byword – India Today (July 25)

It's becoming a habit. Whenever Congress gets a headache it orders a foot massage. Dr Manmohan Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi recognised the size of their problem, which is why they met four times, one-to-one, in their attempt to stabilise a government that had lost shape and begun to wobble. They did not need to save the Government, since they have not lost it, yet. UPA 2 can splutter along on the usual paradox: the bigger the crisis, the closer partners cling together, since elections can only bring bad news. What Government has lost is the confidence of the people. The reshuffle was an opportunity for radical renewal of an administration immobilised by corrupt politicians, comatose administration, an angry Supreme Court, and citizens outraged by venality and inflation. All that Mrs Gandhi and Dr Singh managed was surface tinkering that induced a yawn from a handful of winners, a yelp from a basketload of losers, and puns by the tonne in newspaper headlines which opted for wit in the absence of substance.

The smiles were few, silent and strained; the yelp was picked up by media nationwide. It is not, as the prime minister correctly noted, terribly significant that Gurudas Kamat and Srikant Jena were upset at being denied a place in Cabinet. Parliament is packed with MPs who believe that they should be in Cabinet, and Cabinet teems with ministers who think they should be prime minister. The story is that their behaviour is part of a growing pattern of indiscipline, which is slowly disintegrating into disarray.

Mukul Roy, the little-known minister of state for railways, had the audacity to taunt the PM when told to visit the site of a railway accident at Fatehpur. Instead of being dropped, he was promoted to independent charge of shipping. If Roy had insulted his party leader Mamata Banerjee, he would have been out of a job. Ergo: he knows whom to respect. Veerappa Moily blithely attributed his demotion from law to corporate affairs to "vested interests", implying that the PM is beholden to such interests. Every such remark whittles away the authority of a Prime Minister. A weak government begins to melt from the head, or at least the neck.

Immutable law of politics: Never shut a door that can be left ajar. The prime minister did himself no favours when he asserted that this would be the last reshuffle before general elections in 2014. I have never been able to fully understand why 'gruntled' is not the opposite of 'disgruntled', but mysteries of the English language include dysfunctional logic. However, for every gruntled person in Delhi there are a hundred who are disgruntled. Their self-respect survives in hope. They have no other answer to the question gnawing at their hearts when it is not sprawled over conversation: why have you not become a minister? The last alibi is gone. There is no next reshuffle. Their only option now is transference of hope, to the next prime minister. Since every Congressman knows his name, all future applications will be addressed to Rahul Gandhi.

Such pinpoint confidence certainly worked for the backward caste leader from Uttar Pradesh, who defected from Mulayam Singh Yadav's party to Congress, Beni Prasad Verma. He is our glistening new Cabinet minister for steel. This is not the messiah Indian industry was waiting for; this is not the economic brain who will bring inflation under control. Verma's star has evolved into a meteor through collateral benefit; Rahul Gandhi believes that this will bring him additional votes in the next UP Assembly elections.

All politics is sold as welfare of the people; the truth of democracy is that politics impels Cabinet promotion more easily than ideas or competence. The prime minister probably had a far more difficult time in making the environment ministry more environment friendly to investment, and law ministry more conversant with law than Rahul Gandhi had in putting some steel into his UP gambit. This is the conundrum that has harried Dr Singh. The time left to solve the riddle is ebbing, even as delay turns a headache into migraine.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dream come true, or perhaps not

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (July 24)

The little patch of London I encounter is watching cricket and talking Rupert Murdoch. The colour of language matches the English sky; grey, rather than black and white. Media is not devil-black, and cricket is not virgin-white.

Heaven, for a cricket-fantasist like me, is a spectator seat in the committee room at Lord's on the opening day of the centenary Test between India and England. [A cricket-fantasist is someone who believes he should be captain of India because he scored 32 in a crucial school match.] The gentle murmur of nostalgia between a galaxy of greats is punctuated by acute observation on the prospects of the day's play ahead. Tea and coffee are the mildest libations available: opening time is 11 a.m. and I may have added my tiny bit to the cultural history of Lord's with a recipe called Coffee Mary.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Wheel of God

From Byword - India Today (July 18)

Arun Shourie's new book, Does He Know a Mother's Heart? How Suffering Refutes Religions, offers a choice. You can pretend it does not exist, or you can suffer. We are cowards before destiny, particularly those fortunate enough to waft on normalcy; we shroud sensibility with the alibi of indifference. Shourie rips apart this security blanket of feigned ignorance with an existentialist question: Who is the God of injustice? Who creates the gene that goes awry and twists an innocent life into lifelong tragedy? Who ravages earth with the mass annihilation of an earthquake or tsunami? Death is the law of life; but what is the logic of sudden death, or lingering misery that consumes existence, drip by slow drip, with wanton, cruel, endless pain?

Shourie, trying to keep his own torment aside, sets his laser-pen through the prism of his wife Anita's anguish. Her beauty is a marginal fact: this book is, partly, a narrative of her character, courage, and above all her love, all of which have been tormented by a feckless fate. They have a spastic son, Adit, who is now 35, but lives outside time. The bond between parents and child is a boundless, almost mystic, love; and if its price is unbearable for an outsider, how benumbed must be the hearts of Arun, Anita and Adit? Adit's limbs are helpless; his heart is full, and fully conscious. So answer the rage of Shourie if you have the audacity to do so: "He (Adit) loves everyone. Everyone in the family loves him. His maternal grandmother, Malti Shukla, was his life. He is ours. And...God just does not stop pounding this helpless, defenceless child. And then Anita goes down with Parkinson's.

Every faith knows that it must offer some rationale for the illogic that sways this life from the rationale we have absorbed, internalised since creation. Christianity believes that this world is a consequence of crime and punishment. Adam and Eve disobeyed the Almighty, lost Paradise and nurtured this capricious world. But who is responsible for punishment without crime? Adam condemned us all with his fatal step from original innocence to original sin. But has divinity abandoned this logic for human existence? Why are the sinful blessed with laughter? When has the threat of hell deterred Adam's child from evil? Which doctrine explains a hell on earth for the innocent?

Islam has the promise of justice in eternity, when Allah shall resolve the inequities of this arbitrary span from birth to death. Only the atheist believes in death; for a Muslim death is a pause in the continuity of life. The Quranic funeral verse is simple: from Allah we come, to Allah we go. But is there a radical soul who, on the day of judgment, will perhaps ask a question or two himself? The priest told him to fear God, the sufi asked him to embrace divinity: what should a spastic do?

Hindu philosophy is more nuanced. It takes the cyclical view of pain, and offers purification as an answer. Even the villain has a soul seeking release from villainy. When Krishna destroys the mischievous Shishupala by cleaving him from head to foot with a flaming discus, Shishupala's soul flings itself at the feet of Krishna "for even the enemies of the Lord go to salvation by thinking wholly upon him".

The human answer to this conundrum is trapped in contradiction. Shourie recalls Mahatma Gandhi's indictment of the victim after the Bihar earthquake of 1934, which left 30-foot chasms broad enough for four elephants to walk through. D.G. Tendulkar, Gandhi's biographer, quotes the Mahatma on Bihar: "I share the belief with the whole world-civilised and uncivilised-that calamities... come to mankind as chastisement for their sins...I regard untouchability as such a grave sin as to warrant divine chastisement" (Harijan, February 2, 1934). But the quake had no caste system. It did not spare Dalits.

Shourie's God is a croupier at the roulette wheel, indifferent to those whose number spells misfortune.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Criminal and the Callous

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (July 17)

There is no category of criminals as brutish and barbaric as terrorists. The depravity of their intention is matched only by the perversity of their actions. Their target is the innocent citizen, the non-partisan, the individual, the nameless child who might have been drawn to death by the accident of circumstance, or the misfortune of destiny. The terrorists who attacked Mumbai on 13 July were cowards, hiding maliciously behind anonymity. Since we live in an age increasingly stripped of values, whether in war, peace or the indeterminate grey in between, a brave city like Mumbai has adjusted to the fact that terrorism is part of the price of urban density. But Mumbai will not reconcile itself to either the inefficiency or the alibi that politicians trot out to protect themselves from the whiplash of accountability.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The high price of being a friend

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (July 10)

In a curious surge of counterintuitive energy, the Congress has in the last two years managed to revive the BJP and either destroy or alienate everyone who helped it come to power in 2004 and 2009. The principal party pillars holding up UPA 1 were DMK and Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD, who between them gave the alliance nearly 60 seats. Both are shattered. Congress can, and does, argue that both DMK and RJD are paying for their own sins, both venal and political. But such logic has only surface appeal. Their venality did not prevent Congress from taking their support when it was needed for a majority in the Lok Sabha. Both allies have been used and then left to twist in the wind when the weather changed.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

PMs Don't Dine on Humble Pie

PMs Don't Dine on Humble Pie
'Manmohan needs to assert his legitimate authority for better governance'
by M J Akbar

In Byword - India Today
July 11, 2011

Manmohan Singh's dilemma is unenviable. He still cannot make up his mind whether he has been elected by the people of India or selected by Sonia Gandhi. 'Both' is a compromise that survives in calm waters but comes apart at the first hint of turbulence.

Sonia Gandhi's problem is a complication of adversity: you can tell a Salvation Army that there is no Army, but you can't suggest that there is no Salvation. The Congress face of salvation is Rahul Gandhi, not Manmohan, which creates a disconnect between government and party. A senior party office-bearer like Digvijaya Singh, therefore, has no qualms about undermining Manmohan at will. Would Digvijaya Singh dare criticise Rahul Gandhi, even after the calamity of the Bihar campaign or the less than salutary results in Tamil Nadu? No. He knows where the source of bread and butter in Congress is. They are the reward of those who constantly demand that Rahul Gandhi replace Manmohan forthwith. The notional prime minister has more authority in Congress than the national prime minister.

A famous tycoon who built an empire out of a dream used to say that it was always possible to lose your way if a car had one driver; but a crash was absolutely certain if it had two. The UPA Government has three drivers, all in the front seat. Manmohan has been handed the steering wheel without being given the keys to the car. If nothing moves, he gets the blame. When he does try and move, driver and navigator often work at cross purposes. Sonia Gandhi's agenda is fixated on populist measures that she believes will make Rahul Gandhi electable; Manmohan is constrained by the limitations of fiscal responsibility. Almost any issue, including the corrosive management, or mismanagement, of corruption, exposes internal contradictions.

Manmohan became prime minister in 2004 but had to share power with a higher authority. After 2007, he has been denied even the privileges of his office. He has been shunted to a waiting room, awaiting the day Rahul Gandhi feels sufficiently stirred to do Indians the favour of becoming their prime minister. But the nation has no pity to waste on a prime minister who does not assert his legitimate authority. Every waiting room has a door. You can always exit through the door that brought you in.

Instead of moving, either to assert control, or to walk out, Manmohan seems frozen. The freeze included his vocal chords, because candour could easily have become incandescent in an environment where his party leaders are allowed to taunt him publicly. Manmohan is a humble man, but effective prime ministers do not dine on humble pie. He has been persuaded at long last to loosen his chords, and we learn that he will take tea with media "regularly", perhaps even once a week. It is always better to chat with the messenger than shoot him, but the point surely is whether there is any resolution for the contradictions that have trapped governance.

How long can a government last without governance? The technical answer is known. A majority in Parliament is often described as "brute" because it can become impervious to popular sentiment. If the Congress believes that it can be both government and Opposition, soaking up the advantages of power while stoking popular sentiment against a scapegoat prime minister, then it will pay a heavy price in the next elections. Duplicity does not work.

Manmohan is a reticent man, whose feelings are rarely visible. But he is unable to hide his discomfort any longer. He has never laughed in public, even in happier times, but he did flash the occasional smile, which sort of burst through his beard, but gently. He almost beamed after victory on the nuclear bill, which set the mood for re-election in 2009. Within two years of his finest moment, he has lost his smile. He should either get it back, or go home.