Friday, September 30, 2011

An enemy in common

From Byword- India Today (September 30)

America," Jinnah told author-photographer Margaret Bourke-White just one month after partition in 1947, "needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America." The shadow of Russia muted the claim from pompous to possible. Jinnah always understood the power of an enemy far better than the value of a friend. America, he believed, would buy into the Soviet threat, and Pakistan use it as a decoy to obtain arms for what Jinnah believed would be an existentialist war with India.

Bourke-White remarked, perceptively, while recording the conversation in her book Halfway to Freedom: "Jinnah's most frequently used technique in the struggle for his new nation had been playing off opponent against opponent. Evidently this technique was now to be extended into foreign policy." Pakistan, which abandoned Jinnah's domestic philosophy of a secular Muslim state very quickly, and without remorse, has been more faithful to Jinnah's foreign policy.

Jawaharlal Nehru, reflecting the philosophy of India's freedom movement, set India's foreign policy by a different compass: the search for common friends rather than enemies in common. He dismissed alliances as neo-colonisation. His idealism could bubble to levels unacceptable to his more sceptical colleagues, many of whom accused Nehru privately of dangerous naivete only to be proved publicly right during the 1962 China war.

American foreign policy, shaped by the life-and-death drama of a world war against fascism, quickly followed by another against Communism, understood the impulse of nationalism but was deeply suspicious of any internationalism that blurred the difference between 'good' and 'evil', as Washington defined the terms. Neutrality was almost as grave a crime as hostility. Wartime sensibilities stretched to accommodate any kind of government if it remained onside in the confrontation with the Soviets. The greater threat obviated the problem of lesser evils like dictatorship in the range of allies. To be fair, the Communist bloc was hardly a shining example of democracy, or even social justice; it was equally cynical and less productive to boot. In any case, Washington was at ease with either democrat or dictator in Pakistan as long as both were Cold Warriors.

Much has been written about the impact on India of the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather less about the consequences for Pakistan. The over-extended celebrations of the US-Pak victory in Afghanistan drowned out an obvious reality: friends become as irrelevant as enemies at the end of war. America's alliance with western Europe would quite likely have dissipated after 1945 had the ideological-military challenge from Russia not kept them together. Jinnah had wisely predicted that Soviet Union would force America to befriend Pakistan. But that wisdom was co-terminus with the existence of the Soviet Union.

Geopolitics is a variable science; geography may not change, but politics does. America and Pakistan have drifted into virtual conflict which both governments were loath to acknowledge for different reasons. The Mujahideen who declared war on America, a long list of militias including al Qaeda, continue to treat Pakistan as a sanctuary, a fortress from which they hit America, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. The Pakistan army offers terrorists succour and space in pursuit of a "patriotic" agenda, as a strike force against India and any government in Kabul that refuses to accept Pakistani hegemony in Afghanistan. The Pak military establishment is not particularly unhappy when America bleeds in Afghanistan.

For a long while Washington refused to read the evidence, or pretended it was satisfied with patently manufactured excuses. The Pentagon has swallowed its anger for a decade, in the belief that even a duplicitous Pak army is better than an openly hostile Pak army. It even kept quiet when Pak soldiers ambushed American officers and men on May 14, 2007 at a place called Teri Mangal after a tripartite meeting with Afghans. An American major was killed, and three other officers wounded; the Black Hawk in which they escaped was described as "blood-soaked".

But fiction has become difficult to sustain after the discovery and death of Osama bin Laden. On September 22 Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, put this duplicity on record when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that anti-American terrorists, responsible for 77 US casualties in one truck bomb strike alone, were a "strategic arm" of the ISI. It was a week in which Barack Obama could not find the time to meet Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani. Gilani canceled his trip to New York. Islamabad is scrambling to reorganise with its usual mix of bluster, sulk and SOS to old friends. It will have to come to terms with a radical shift in the strategic environment. India and America now have an enemy in common-the terrorist with a base in Pakistan.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (September 25)

In the loneliness of the small town where I was born, and the shuttered years of boarding school, dream was a five-letter word called Tiger. Mansur Ali Khan's magic transcended the supreme piffle that passed for cricket commentary when radio, with a glowing green eye in the right hand corner, was our primary passport to Test cricket.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Good Lord

From Byword- India Today (September 23)

The best doctor for the cure of pontification is surely the Pope. The best political Popes understand this. When Mikhail Gorbachev was asked at Harvard's Kennedy School what would have happened if in 1963 the Soviet supremo Krushchev had been assassinated instead of American President Kennedy, he took a grave look at the audience and replied, "I do not think Aristotle Onassis would have married Mrs Krushchev." If Gorbachev's predecessors had possessed a sense of humour, and come down to earth from the high walls of the Kremlin at least occasionally, Soviet Communism might, just might, have survived. You can't afford to be pompous when the potatoes have run out at your signature store across the street from the Kremlin. More empires have died of pomp than circumstance.

It's bad enough when the Pope thinks he is God. What happens when God thinks he has been demoted to a mere Pope?

Of the many imponderables in contemporary Indian politics, there is one thing that stands out as certain. We now know the identity of the person in Chennai who hates P. Chidambaram the most. His name is R. Kumaramurugan. On September 16, the home minister's 66th birthday, he plastered Chennai with huge posters adulating Chidambaram as the modern Lord Krishna. Kumaramurugan, who is a "senior member of Tamil Nadu Congress", does not believe in metaphors. He is a literal man. His portrait of the Lord had all the requisite accoutrements of a calendar Krishna, including a pointy crown, bracelet, armband, garland and lipstick, but just in case there was any misunderstanding, the Lord's face had been refitted with that of Chidambaram. This was the first Lord Krishna in history to wear spectacles.

Kumaramurugan is not a man who believes in making mere claims. He offered three reasons why Chidambaram had become divine at the age of 66. I quote: "You disbursed educational loans...You are the one who can save the country from terrorist attacks...You are our God." Fair enough. Anyone who can provide school loans and save us from terrorism (except of course if you happened to be at the Delhi High Court in the same week) is clearly miles ahead on the road to divinity. Kumaramurugan also put other Congress divines into perspective. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were there, but looked like mere postage stamps on this huge celebratory envelope. In Delhi, the Gandhis get pole position in any poster or advertisement display. But we now know who is who in Chennai.

Obviously Kumaramurugan despises Chidambaram and wants to destroy him. He could not have created this poster out of love and admiration, could he?

Chidambaram cannot be blamed for the sins of his sycophants. The bizarre nature of Tamil Nadu politics, in any case, encourages hyperventilation from fans. Kumaramurugan may not actually next finance a temple to his Krishna, but embarrassment is not his problem. He flaunts ownership of the poster, and expects due reward in the form of a party position, or at the very least, public proximity to his personal god. What the Kumaramurugans do not understand is the difference between the culture of loyalty in a democracy and its alternative, dictatorship.

Adulation in a dictatorship tempts rulers away from reality, and ends up making tyrants out of leaders. A Gaddafi or an Assad genuinely begins to believe that he is indispensable to the nation, and criticism becomes either a foreign conspiracy or treachery. The police and the armed forces shift their focus from defence of the realm to defence of a megalomaniac. One of the more astonishing images to emerge from the people's uprising across so much of the Arab world was the sight of Syrian army units exulting with high fives in front of cameras, behaving as if they had just wrested the Golan Heights from Israel. All they had done was killed hundreds of unarmed Syrians in Homs. Assad has probably distributed hundreds of medals to honour this atrocity.

In a democracy, pomposity has only one destination: towards the sketch pad of a cartoonist. A caricature does not exaggerate, or it would not work; it captures the man the leader thinks he is, and then pricks the bubble with a sharp and painful nib. Kumaramurugan's Lord Chikrishna poster achieves the near impossible: it makes caricature unnecessary. Life has left art far behind.

A good politician knows how to make a cartoonist irrelevant. He understands that a sense of humour, like charity, begins at home. He laughs gently at himself long before others begin to laugh at him. Mikhail Gorbachev was a democrat trapped in a dictatorship. He would have done well in India, though.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

In the memory of millions

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (September 18)

The appeared for just that split second that television reserves for images it cannot fully comprehend. She was in the pavilion stand at Cardiff, watching as Rahul Dravid bounded towards the dressing room after his last one-day innings, with a spring in his jump that belied the fact that he was in the winter of his career. She held a placard saying, "I love you Rahul".

Friday, September 16, 2011

Bandwagon Politics

From Byword- India Today (September 16)

The relationship between an egg and a pudding is the definitive test within the art of cooking. A chef knows when to leave well enough alone. Overegging the pudding is not just a culinary mishap. It can ruin a great deal that has been achieved. Anna Hazare captured the popular imagination because of two ingredients in his menu. He addressed a pervasive crime. Corruption has seen many avatars in six decades of Indian democracy. It has now burst through the once elitist dam of cozy glad-handing between businessman and political don, and poisoned the people's river as much as the village well. It is no longer either exclusive or evasive. That is why the response cut across class, caste and religious lines.

It also bridged the partisan divide because Anna refrained from treating any party as holier than thou. Opposition colours fluttered more freely at the venue of his fast only because a ruling party does not protest against itself. A government bears the brunt of any crusade because power lends itself to corruption. It is difficult, but not impossible, to be corrupt when out of power. The tricolour that the young wore as a symbol of protest was therefore the khadi of the national flag, not the standard of the Congress. Conversely, you would not have seen too much saffron in the air if Hazare had been fasting at Cubbon Park in Bangalore.

This is the contradiction that threatens to skewer L.K. Advani's proposed chariot ride against corruption. It will be a journey without a specific destination. As an individual Advani can take legitimate comfort in the fact that he resigned from Parliament when the Narasimha Rao government accused him of taking bribes from a businessman at election time, and returned to the Lok Sabha only after he was exonerated by the courts. But he is not setting out in 2011 to vindicate his personal reputation. He is also leader of the BJP. He would not be so naive as to suggest that BJP has never touched any tainted money. And if he did no one would believe him.

As a political vehicle, BJP has gained much mileage out of the Anna campaign. But this is collateral benefit. The moment it tries to take ownership of honesty it is inviting trouble. The parties which coalesced into Janata benefited similarly in 1977 from Jayaprakash Narayan's movement in 1974 and 1975 but they were prevented from making their share of aggravating mistakes by Mrs Indira Gandhi, who threw their leaders into jail and surrounded them with the glow of temporary martyrdom. No one is going to grant opposition parties a similar favour in 2011.

There is the parallel danger of a yatra epidemic in Uttar Pradesh, where politics is on the verge of becoming a tour guide. As is obvious, these are road shows to raise electoral capital. Their nature is brittle. If the electorate is turned on by the sincerity of Hazare it can also be put off by the tokenism of any bandwagon.

Narendra Modi has found a unique reason for weakening his health by abstaining from food for three days. This will strengthen Gujarat, he says. The last time anyone checked, including with the Union government in Delhi, Gujarat has been pretty muscular during the decade when Modi ate three meals a day without a break for fast. If he wants to diet a bit now its purpose is personal, not regional. Word of caution: it is much more sensible to travel step by step from Ahmedabad to Delhi. When you rise on a pole vault you never know where you might land.

Is it possible that BJP leaders, convinced that the game with Congress is essentially over, have already begun to compete between themselves? That would be dreadfully premature. This opera aint over till the fat lady sings, and the lady has a title: Election Commissioner. There is always time in politics to make mistakes. Moreover, time is not neutral. It is generally biased in favour of the establishment.

The acquisition of power is also a process. The BJP should use time to consolidate alliances with past, present and potential partners. It cannot form a government alone. It needs to construct a maximal Bihar-style network of relationships driven by a minimum programme of good governance, which are sustainable only because they abjure emotionalism. The space for manouvre in democracy is never large enough to encourage undue optimism.
Moral science lesson number one: if you don't take the egg off the pudding, you will get egg on your face.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not very intelligent, Mr Chidambaram

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (September 11)

Calm down, everyone. Relax. Our invaluable Home Minister P. Chidambaram has finally found the answer to terrorism. Indeed, he did so on 13 July, after the Mumbai blasts.

Friday, September 09, 2011

For a Few Cusecs More

From Byword- India Today (September 9)

Dr Manmohan Singh, vegetarian by preference, went to Dhaka to eat some hilsa fish. He returned, alas, with a bit of ash in his mouth. But this failure to sign an accord over Teesta water is a story that makes no sense.

Failure, of course, is an orphan. No one wants paternity rights to a bastard. The blame game over the Teesta fiasco is already being played at a fast and furious pace with each player tweaking the rules from his or her vantage point. When Mamata Banerjee points, she does not do so with a mere finger; she flashes a full hand. Her aides do not whisper when they brief media; they shout when the news is good, and scream when it is bad. The truth is, or should be, an official secret but its versions are being fed to a starving media. The message from Calcutta is unambiguous; it was betrayed by Delhi. Mamata had agreed to part with 25,000 cusecs of Teesta water, but Delhi upped this to 33,000 cusecs. When Trinamool minister Dinesh Trivedi raised an objection in the Cabinet, he was brushed aside by Pranab Mukherjee.

This makes even less sense.

Anyone familiar with international treaties knows that the torture lies in the detail. The print is always fine. Diplomats hire smiles from plastic surgeons, and then fight like pit bulls in very slow motion over every comma. A pattern is etched onto grey areas, dot by dot. There is give and take till deadline. The Teesta waters have been floating across the Indo-Bangladesh dialogue ever since Teesta, or at least ever since Bangladesh was born in 1971. It took a quarter century of negotiations to sign the Ganga River Treaty in 1996; but the generation of Jyoti Basu and Inder Gujral went to Dhaka with clean ink because there was continuous consultation between Delhi and Calcutta. What was so difficult about maintaining similar transparency between Dr Singh and Ms Banerjee?

This treaty was not drafted by the foreign ministry; the Prime Minister's Office took ownership of the process, with National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon in charge of detail. He went to Calcutta twice in the last two months solely to brief Mamata on the sharing of Teesta water. And there lay the problem. It was not a conversation between equals. Menon was adequate when there was agreement; but when Dhaka wanted more, Calcutta was, inexplicably, kept out of the loop. Perhaps Menon thought that the pressure of a deadline in high-stakes diplomacy would persuade Mamata to be more flexible, always a risky manoeuvre. But negotiating with a mercurial CM were above Menon's pay grade. A bureaucrat can brief. Only an equal can persuade.
There seems, however, more to this episode than meets the eye, or ear. The fuss began before the catastrophe, when Mamata said she would travel independently to Dhaka. You float such political confetti only when you are itching to put some distance between Calcutta and Delhi.

It is always difficult to know if Dr Singh is crestfallen. His crest never moves, so how do you know if it has fallen? His voice gives even less away, when he chooses to speak. But you do not have to be a mind-reader to gauge a gathering depression. Unanswered questions, some born in the morning, others which are ghosts of crises past, are strewn around, a noxious debris sucking life out of this administration, event by event. The bomb that went off in Delhi on September 7 was not the first terrorist attack in the era of Dr Singh; but this was the first time that Rahul Gandhi was heckled after a visit to see victims in hospital. Delhi's question is basic: A terrorist bomb failed to go off in the High Court in May; why did Home Minister P. Chidambaram do absolutely nothing done to improve security? Alibis are melting in the heat of popular anger.

The mathematics has gone awry: things don't add up. Ever since UPA survived the Lok Sabha vote on the nuclear deal three years ago, the Government has insisted, despite dramatic TV footage, that no MP was paid to switch sides. If that is true then why is Amar Singh in jail? The Delhi police, which reports to home minister P. Chidambaram, believes Amar Singh paid money to MPs. On whose behalf did he do so? Amar Singh is not a philanthropist. If Amar Singh is guilty, he cannot be guilty alone. Is he yet another scapegoat in a lengthening queue?

Silence can stem a stain, but not erase it.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Be a sport, let go of sports

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (September 4)

Praful Patel had a good point to make. "If such a Bill is passed," the former Union minister for civil aviation and present Union minister for some portfolio which escapes my memory, said, "bureaucrats like a joint secretary will be running the sports federation. What is their competence in sports administration?"


Friday, September 02, 2011

Day Of The Assassins

From Byword- India Today (September 2)

Curious. Thiru Dr Muthuvel Karunanidhi, patriarch of the DMK, ruling ally of the Congress in Delhi and defeated ally of the Congress in Tamil Nadu, has called the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, father of Rahul and husband of Sonia, a "man of honour". Is that why Karunanidhi's friends assassinated Rajiv two decades ago? Is this the fate reserved for a man of honour in the Karunanidhi moral code?

Perhaps Thiru Karunanidhi might object to being called a friend of Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan, the three assassins on death row convicted of taking the life of Rajiv Gandhi. Would he prefer friend to be downgraded to "sympathiser"? If Karunanidhi can move a bit of heaven and a lot of earth in his efforts to save the assassins who merely elicit his sympathy, imagine how much of the stellar system would be disturbed if he had to save a murderer who was a friend.

Pardon me if I sound a trifle confused: I no longer understand the meaning of simple words being flung across the public discourse in the debate about whether the killers of Rajiv Gandhi should be hanged to death, as ordered by the law, or given a reprieve, as urged so passionately by a coalition of politicians, lawyers and, well, sympathisers. Why is a death sentence, passed through due process of law, wrong for those who have planned and then carried out the murder of a former prime minister of India because they did not agree with a political decision that he made? Karunanidhi is not interested in the abolition of the death penalty on principle, otherwise he would have campaigned for it, irrespective of this case. He is only interested in keeping the killers of Rajiv Gandhi alive.
No one suggests that there has been a mistrial. No one pretends that the judges who passed the sentence have gone beyond the remit of the law. Karunanidhi's case for mercy rests on the thin basis that "they have already served 20 years". That must be good news for any murderer. If he kills someone at the age of 20 he will still be 40, a youth by current political standards, and ready to enjoy a long and happy life ever after, or at least until God passes His death sentence. If the political class believes that the death penalty is inhuman, then it should have the courage to change the statute.

As long as the law exists, it will follow its course, and if the course leads to a noose, so be it. A protest by students in Delhi condemned this judgment as judicial murder, while one innovative poster demanded, "Give justice. End political revenge." Excuse me? Since when has escape from justice become justice?

Political revenge? The phrase clarifies one aspect, though. It admits, implicitly, that the assassination was not an emotional crime of passion; it was a cold-blooded political decision. The response of the Indian state was not Mark Antony's exhortation after the assassination of Julius Caesar: "Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!" It was long, transparent and even tortuous, full of the very delays that are now being used as reason for exoneration. Those who believe that 20 years in jail is sufficient punishment, might perhaps consider the decades that Rajiv Gandhi lost of his life.

Perhaps my confusion arises out of an inability to sift through the duplicity inlaid into the debate. Any relief for assassins is greeted with triumphalism by the Chennai legal and political elite. Celebratory slogans were raised and crackers burst in front of the court when execution was stayed on August 30. The Tamil Nadu Assembly, led by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, has passed a resolution urging death be commuted to life imprisonment. The politics is transparent. Every public gesture by the Tamil regional parties all but justifies the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, who is being deliberately recast into the "villain" who prevented the birth of a Tamil state in Sri Lanka. The rout of the Tamil Tigers has only sharpened the need for artificial alibis.

Why was Karunanidhi less generous to these three assassins when he refused to recommend clemency for them in 2000, when he was chief minister? The defining difference, a decade later, is politics. Karunanidhi believes that there are votes to be milked from post-Eelam Tamil angst. A defeated politician is tempted into many swamps; this one has poison currents that corrode the national interest and infect vital institutions of state. Is there someone in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly already working upon a resolution for clemency towards Afzal Guru? Politics is the life of democracy. It should not become the death of national interest.