Sunday, October 30, 2011

Through the looking glass ceiling

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 30)

How much anger do you need to smash a glass ceiling?

A glass ceiling became the symbol of discrimination during the struggle for women's rights in western democracies. By the 1970s women had moved out of the stereotype steno pool into the infested rivulets of middle management, but there was no further room for upward mobility. An invisible ceiling prevented them from entering the boardroom. No rules prevented entry. It just did not happen.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Arabian Knights

From Byword- India Today (October 28)

The Arab Spring is a rebellion on the cusp of becoming a revolution. It started as a sudden uprising ten months ago in Tunisia. Last Sunday it took its first stride into the future when Tunisia held its first free elections. The last time Tunisians "voted", in 1994, intelligence agents checked ballots and arrested those who had not stamped the ballot in favour of their preferred dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. On October 23, thousands of candidates from 80 political parties sought a place in the new Constituent Assembly.

A revolution, as has been famously observed, is not a tea party; a rebellion even less so. Peaceful transition in Tunisia and war in neighbouring Libya illustrate an old fact: it is up to the ancien regime to determine the difference. Ben Ali understood that he had cheated his people long enough, and disappeared into exile with his pot of gold. Libyans would have given Muammar Gaddafi gold enough, and his retinue of nurses plus an Italian football team for his vicious sons, as farewell gifts if they had left quietly. Instead the megalomaniac Gaddafi decided that Libyans were rats who should be exterminated.

I am surprised that anyone is surprised at the manner of Gaddafi's death. What did we expect the rebels to do? Offer Gaddafi buttered scones and an airline ticket to Geneva while the clock struck four at Grantchester? Lenin understood the dangerous romance of nostalgia fanned by dispossessed elites, particularly the media, and their ability to idolise false memory. He knew the halo of death can obscure the obvious and did not waste much sympathy on the Romanovs. Libyans had none for the despotic, avaricious family that turned a nation's resources into personal wealth, ruled by decree and terror and tortured anyone who opposed them till its dying day.

There is always some distance between a first step and destination but if Tunisia's election becomes a moment of true liberation it will shape the contours of the 21st century. Exactly a hundred years ago, a group of army officers known as the Young Turks launched the mid-eastern Muslim world's first search for modernity on the deathbed of the Ottoman empire, but history dumped this opportunity into the blood-soaked dustbin of the First World War.
This movement reinvented itself, under Mustafa Kemal, as a Turkish resurrection. The Arab territories of the Caliphate relapsed into feudal neo-colonisation or, later, into the mirage of officer sultans who promised socialism and justice but delivered tyranny. Gaddafi was Libya's version of this corrosive delusion.

It is entirely in order that the party expected to win Tunisia's polls, Ennahda, offers Turkey as its role model. Its leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi, is clear about his vision: a durable, plural democracy which protects minorities and promises women equality in education and employment and the freedom to wear or reject a head scarf if they so choose to. This, naturally, is sufficient to invite the appendage "moderate Islamist", as if that were a vaguely acceptable but not quite desirable sort of crime. I await the day when the great liberal newspapers of Europe and America call the Christian Democrats "moderate Christists" or America's Republican Party a "Biblicist Planet Coalition".

The Arab future will be rough, as freedom also enables the release of poisons in the storehouse of the defeated establishments. Egypt has already witnessed violence against Coptic Christians. But communal riots continued in India after freedom without derailing the nation's commitment to democracy. It took a century to reach from the Young Turks to Election Sunday; it will take perhaps a decade for the democratic revolution to become durable.

History is not an even story. A lifetime may deserve nothing more than a footnote, and a year that energises an epoch could require many volumes to comprehend. The last year has been a stirring chapter but the book is still being written. Dictators need paid chroniclers. Tunisia's narrative belongs to 30-year-old Amin Ghouba who told The New York Times on polling day: "Today is the day of independence. Today we got our freedom and our dignity from the simple act of voting."
Democracy is dignity.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Shield of Higher Cause

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 23)

When Julian Assange, father of WikiLeaks, makes a viral enemy of a potential friend, he always does so in the name of a Higher Cause. Such mavericks are necessary in an age where information has become a frontline weapon.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Alibi Called Secrecy

From Byword- India Today (October 21)

Secrecy in government can be both dangerous and essential. The difference lies in the cause: secrecy is criminal when it veils misdeeds, and honourable when it protects the national interest. Unfortunately, only politicians in office can make that call. Their primary impetus does not drive them towards transparency. They are far more adept at justifying self-interest with some rant about national duty. Patriotism used to be the last resort of the scoundrel; these days it is generally a first preference.

The debate on the Right to Information (RTI) is caught in this warp. Governments argue that in certain circumstances they are duty-bound to shade the truth, or even lie. We understand that. We also understand when that privilege is exploited. Every nation permits flexibility in the lie-line during times of war, for instance; but even in the fog of high patriotism we condone the evasions of a warrior but punish the falsehoods of a warmonger. The scars of George Bush and Tony Blair, who lied to drag their countries into war with Iraq, will not heal in their lifetime.

Dr Manmohan Singh's Government is not engaged in any war, except with itself; but fractious civil war tends to encourage the temptation of censorship. It has quite deliberately started a public debate on RTI, albeit with the usual feints and side-trips into blind alleys, aimed at amendments which will curb access to documents. Privately, this administration is convinced that RTI has degenerated into a licentious free-for-all.
If we want to understand why, then the correct question to ask is 'why now?'

Dr Singh did not inherit RTI. He can claim parentage of this legislation. He placed it among his more noteworthy achievements during the campaign for the 2009 general election, and doubtless won at least a few additional votes. During his first term, Dr Singh was perfectly content with RTI. Why has it become a problem two years into the second term? RTI procedures have not become any more liberal, although activists have become sharper and more sophisticated, blocking loopholes before they can be used to escape disclosure. The difference between the RTI triumphalism during UPA 1 and RTI nervousness during UPA 2 is fairly simple. Before 2009 Dr Singh felt he had nothing to hide. That confidence has melted with the disclosure of malfeasance by his ministers on an industrial scale. A series of self-inflicted wounds has shredded credibility, with RTI inflicting most of the injury. Corruption is the source of these wounds, making them gangrenous. The nationwide symbols of corruption are the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum sales. In both cases files obtained through RTI not only broke the story wide open but also sabotaged the possibility of any cover-up.

When governments seek to set the record straight, a question must follow: who set the record crooked? Before RTI it was far easier to blame media for distortion. But when media has in its possession a true copy of original files, then the whistle of the blower sounds more authentic than the convoluted explanations of a minister. Our parliamentary system has a nuanced approach to lies: any minister caught lying to the House is expected to resign, but a minister who can avoid the truth is considered clever and competent. RTI leaves ministers bereft of such protection.

Dr Singh's Government is showing all the symptoms of "secondtermitis", a wasting disease that can turn fatal. Most governments thrive after election; it is rather more difficult to survive re-election. Even the great Jawaharlal Nehru began to wobble after re-election in 1957. The peace pedestal on which he had constructed his international persona began to crumble on the China front by 1959 and collapsed during the 1962 war. At first glance Mrs Indira Gandhi's case seems an exception, for nothing could go wrong at the beginning of her second term in 1971. But by 1973, nothing could go right. Her third term, between 1980 and 1984, drifted on the acrid smoke of mistakes and violence, ending in the tragedy of her martyrdom.

Governments which are re-elected atrophy in the squeeze between high expectations and complacent delivery. They also begin to believe the illusion that opposition is dead. Nothing dies in a democracy.
Public life has more than one meaning in a democracy; it is not only about the management of public affairs, but also public in its process. The shelter of privacy is accorded to only a few subjects, notably defence. In other areas of governance, secrecy is an alibi, not a solution, and alibis do not even buy you much time at the contemporary exchange rate. Dr Singh no longer has a government to gain by whittling RTI, but he still has a reputation to lose.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Media needs some immediate attention

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 16)

I can't quite determine which part of the story made me laugh, and which brought on tears, when I learnt that some zealous functionaries had passed around envelopes with Rs 500 notes to journalists in Satna who had been summoned to report on L.K. Advani's anti-corruption campaign. It was not Mr Advani's fault; he was victim of a prevailing system. However, as pitfalls go this was a bit of a crater dip.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Brothers In Arms

From Byword- India Today (October 14)

Brotherhood is a moveable feast. The Abrahamic faiths have always been cynical about its virtues. Cain, first child of the first family, dispatched Abel and then artfully asked the Almighty, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Cain was never a likely candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he could have become, in a contemporary incarnation, a cold strategic warrior, much sought after by think-tanks. Abel the Good Boy merely confirmed that decency is an invitation to murder.

On October 4 Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai described Pakistan as a "twin brother" just hours after he signed up on a strategic relationship with India. Was Karzai encouraged by the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are locked in a property dispute across the Durand Line? Friends do not have ownership claims; brothers do.

Brotherhood was also on the mind of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad when, within the same week, he telephoned Karzai to say that "enemies never want to see friendship and brotherhood in the region and we should do our best to bring hearts and thoughts closer to each other." Ahmedinejad tends to talk like a Persian poet of the inferior sort; his point was not very subtle. He wants the three Islamic "brothers" Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to make common cause against "enemy" America. I am not totally sure that Karzai, who has just lost his real younger brother Ahmed Wali to a Taliban bomb in Kandahar, believes he has the same enemies as Ahmedinejad or Asif Zardari.

On October 12, India signed agreements with "maritime neighbour" Vietnam to deepen strategic ties, and, in a rebuff to China, continue oil exploration in the South China Sea. Vietnam is the only country in four decades to have silenced China on the battlefield, forcing Beijing to withdraw from its territory after a 17-day war in 1979. Vietnam did not defeat France and America in order to succumb to China.

International diplomacy is a layered mechanism. Every bilateral purpose leaves a bit of space for potential crosspurpose. Peacetime manoeuvres are often far more intricate than straight-line confrontations of nations in conflict: foreign policy is the art of establishing advantage without the self-injurious risk of forcing a war. The patterns emerging from Iran to Japan are fascinating, perhaps because they are volatile. Primary needs intersect with parallel initiatives, linked by self-interest when they cannot be held together by logic.

Ahmedinejad is testing the possibility of a "Muslim alliance" of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan as the dominant influence between the Caucasus and China, stretching down to the Indian border in Punjab. This does not necessarily mean that Iran would be hostile to India, but Delhi has no role in this "Muslim consolidation". Pakistan might get more "strategic space" against India, but become vulnerable to American pressure and Chinese worry; China fears secessionist Islamism in Sinkiang. India's response is ethnic outreach to Afghan Tajiks, who resent the domination of Pushtuns. India's strategic intervention is largely about training Tajik soldiers for war against Pushtun-dominated Taliban, a variation of the Northern Alliance strategy when India financed anti-Taliban forces before America returned to lead them into Kabul after 9/11.

India has one significant advantage. It has no brothers in a region overloaded with faith-fierce siblings. Nehru tried brotherhood in the Fifties, and we all know what Comrade Mao thought of it. Today, emotion has been squeezed out of Indian policy, making it leaner and hopefully a bit meaner. Even at the height of Indo-Soviet amity in 1971, Delhi side-stepped Brother Brezhnev's bear hug. The cool Vajpayee-Singh cultivation of America is bearing reward now, nudging ahead quiet partnerships. There is virtual understanding between India, Vietnam, Japan and the US in the blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with China. They are drawing a line on water.

In 1962, America was ready to send air force squadrons with bombs and pilots to the Himalayas. The key question since 1962 has been: Which nation will support India in a second India-China conflict? The answer is emerging in the Indian Ocean and Pacific.

As the wealth of the world begins to rotate back to resource-hungry Asia, confrontation and cooperation will be calibrated by both long-term perceptions and immediate needs. We will learn, over the next decade, which nations have understood the tilt of history. Fervour is not conducive to comprehension; far better to be cool. Delhi is getting good at cool.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Seen, obscene and unseen

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 9)

Wealth is far easier to recognise than poverty. Wealth is either seen or obscene; poverty remains largely unseen. Poverty of the worst kind is hidden in those parts of India — or indeed the world — where it is outside the provenance of government, and beyond the interest of individuals and institutions who fuel the engines of modern life, like business concerns or bureaucracy or media. Those of a liberal persuasion do feel the occasional moral twinge at the passing sight of near-starvation, but poverty does not appear on any balance sheet, liberal or conservative. The cure for liberal guilt is aversion. We take our eyes off the hungry. We leave the responsibility to government.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Salt On Poverty's Wounds

From Byword- India Today (October 7)

There are three ways in which a journalist gets a headline right: deep thought, instinct, and good luck. Of the three, instinct might prove to be the most reliable, since it does not permit space for doubt. The favourite word used by media to describe the cessation of hostilities between Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and former finance minister P. Chidambaram, at a particularly volatile moment in their war, was "truce". Spot on.

The Oxford dictionary defines "truce" with its usual pithy perfection: "An agreement between enemies or opponents to stop fighting for an agreed period of time." A truce does not signify the end of war, and it isn't. Congress President Sonia Gandhi would of course like this truce to last at least till the next general election, or the installation of her son Rahul Gandhi as successor to Dr Manmohan Singh, whichever comes earlier. Both the contestants might be irrelevant to a Rahul regime, Pranab because he wants to retire, and Chidambaram because he is now too controversial. But the Pranab-Chidambaram ceasefire, negotiated through multi-tier back channels with a finesse that nations might envy, was held together by a band-aid rather than a bandage. It was always a veneer, and it crumbled within days.

The artillery of Delhi's intra-party wars is disinformation; the battlefield is mostly newsprint; the first casualties are bureaucrats, particularly those under consideration for some choice posting. There is an old Indian saying from the feudal days: when you want to destroy a king, first kill his parrot. That is the fate of officials close to ministers; they get trapped in poison weeds planted by the opposition. As in any war, the circumference of damage is inevitably far larger than the circle of target. Institutions get battered, as much as individuals. When critical ministries like finance and home are involved, government becomes dysfunctional. This is not sniper fire, this is civil war, symptom of a much more serious malaise.

Stability in power is not merely an attribute of numbers, and levels of support in the legislature. An American president does not need a majority in the Senate, but Barack Obama's mooring has come unhinged. There is no threat to Dr Manmohan Singh's tenure yet, but his coalition has lost its centre of gravity. Its majority is sustained by the compulsion to postpone accountability, although in a democracy this cannot be an indefinite luxury. Survival may be certain, but governance becomes uncertain. When a government loses discipline and direction, it can inflict self-damage in the most curious, if revealing, ways.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, to offer the most recent instance, has poured salt upon poverty's wounds with a fervour that the electorate will remember long after feuds fade into the subconscious. His economists must have done the math: calculated the minimal calorie requirements for survival, costed it and emerged with the now infamous Rs. 32 definition of daily urban need. Statistics are a trap in an insensitive mind. They may be necessary for policy, but they must be refurbished by the human touch in politics. Here is a statistic that Montek Singh Ahluwalia might consider worth a thought or two. He lives in the most exclusive residential zone of India, or perhaps Asia, in one of the string of multi-acre palaces built for the elite of the ruling class in Lutyens' Delhi. If the Government ever thought of selling Ahluwalia's bungalow, it would fetch Rs. 400 crore or more. Economists in the Planning Commission have computers which can count and divide. They would calculate that every blade of grass in Ahluwalia's expansive, grace-and-favour residence is worth more than Rs. 32.

Politicians who live in similar palaces are at least accountable at election time, and know that the price of callousness is defeat. Ahluwalia is where he is because of only one vote, the Prime Minister's. Dr Manmohan Singh is a generous employer. Ahluwalia's sole penance was to appear pseudo-contrite on a friendly television channel. The remark will prove more expensive to the party which hired him.

General Jack Jacob, our living hero of the Bangladesh war, told me of a cockney ditty British soldiers under his command would sing during the Second World War. It's the rich wot gets the pleasure, It's the poor wot tikes the blame, It's the same the whole world over, Isn't it a bloody shime!

Within months of victory in this great world war, these impoverished cockneys threw out Winston Churchill, the genius who saved his nation, in an election that became an avalanche, because they were tired of taking the blame while the nabobs drank champagne. Democracy hath no fury like the poor scorned.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The certainty of uncertainty

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (October 2)

The Congress is suffering from the hammer blows of ambition on the anvil of power. The BJP has a splitting headache in expectation of power. The first is serious. The second is silly.