Sunday, December 25, 2011

The world of Maya

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 25)

That formidable number cruncher of the Mayan civilisation who, 5,125 years ago, initiated a calendar which decided, without much by way of explanation, that its last date would be 21 December 2012, had one distinct advantage over any contemporary astrologer. He isn't around to find out whether he was right.

So will the world end in a little less than 12 months?


Friday, December 23, 2011

Different Strokes

From Byword- India Today (December 23)

Dear Doctor Dubai:
You are a very busy man, Doc, as anyone who commands the sole confidence of the President of Pakistan must surely be, so I hesitate to waste your time over a niggle. But this niggle just won't go away. On December 6, President Asif Ali Zardari unexpectedly left his country ostensibly in search of your care in Dubai. Zardari returned to Pakistan on December 19 amid intense speculation that he would disappear again, this time for a more generous absence. It seems, therefore, that the fate of a nation hangs on a niggle.

Doc, all you have told us is that Zardari had "stroke-like symptoms". This carefully mysterious formulation has left us a trifle confused and a bit thirsty for more information. Every stroke may have stroke-like symptoms, but every symptom does not, it seems, owe its origin to a stroke.

So, Doc, was it a stroke or not a stroke? If it was a stroke, where did it strike? If it was merely "stroke-like" then you could perhaps let us know what it was like.

Please don't take this personally, Doc. But was there anything specific in those "symptoms" that required treatment in Dubai and only from your capable hands and doubtless brilliant mind? Are there no doctors in Islamabad, or Lahore, or Karachi, capable of dealing with dislikeable symptoms? One asks because nasty wags in Pakistan and despicable rumour-mongers in India are thoughtlessly spreading the idea that the President of Pakistan does not trust any hospital in Pakistan, and is terrified of being poisoned or some such. This cannot be true, of course, for if a President cannot trust his own people then he has no right to continue in office. But loathsome western journalists have even reported that Zardari was "recuperating at his home in Dubai" after, apparently, you sorted out those malicious symptoms. If Islamabad isn't safe even for some much-needed recuperation by its President, then you are up a creek without a paddle, isn't it?

Your medical knowledge is vast, Doc, so perhaps you could enlighten us on this one, without, I hope, violating the Hippocratic oath. Is it possible for a President to get a stroke from a memorandum?

I am referring of course to the memo passed on to the Pentagon by a Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, allegedly on behalf of Zardari's ambassador to Washington Hussain Haqqani, begging American generals to avert a possible coup in Islamabad. Haqqani, predictably, denied authorship but the memo was so toxic that Haqqani has disappeared into a coma. His resignation on November 22 did nothing to impede the rampaging infection of the memo. Haqqani is not a diplomat, by profession or temperament; he was and is star yes-man in the Zardari court. His appointment to Washington was a graceand-favour gift from Zardari. Add two and two and you get the contemporary Pakistan crisis.

Zardari ran but could not hide. His government fired shots in the air, insisting that Parliament, press, and its friends in Lahore and across the world would never tolerate another coup. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was not particularly impressed by bluster. Instead, the army chief showed that his grasp of politics and the comparative power of his country's institutions was more astute than civilians had bargained for. The army petitioned the Supreme Court to investigate the origins of memo which "unsuccessfully attempted to lower the morale of the Pakistan Army". Very smart: the memo was a failure, but its intentions were treasonable. If the Supreme Court after due process can find someone higher up the civilian command chain guilty, then Zardari is pincered. This would, in effect, become the most legitimate coup in Pakistan's history. Kayani could recover his own, and the army's, prestige by refusing to occupy the consequent vacant space, and letting a general election find the next president and prime minister.

Zardari recognises a crossroads by instinct. On the night of Friday the 16th, Kayani had a threehour meeting with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, an unusually long chat for peacetime palavers. Within 48 hours Zardari was back to his residence in Pakistan from his home in Dubai. Never imagine that a scapegoat cannot hear the sound of sharpening knives; indeed, the fever of his imagination raises decibels. When a military-political commentator like Lt Gen Talat Masood (retired) states deadpan that civilian and military leaderships are on a collision course, Zardari doesn't need any advice on who will be in the middle of that collision. At the age of 56, a hospital bed in Dubai, with recuperation facilities nearby, must be immensely preferable to years in a damp Attock prison, even if it is on the banks of a brisk Indus within breathtaking view of the Himalayas.

So you see, Doc, how vital those "stroke-like symptoms" are? Do reply when you find a minute.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Gathering power of moral snowflakes

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 18)

You can create a Lokpal, but how do you change India?

Anna Hazare's movement has been among the most important developments since Jayaprakash Narayan's stirring leadership in the 1970s marked the second phase of that long historic process known as minting a nation out of a country. Anna's breathtaking contribution is that he has forced us to recognise that there is cancer in the body politic and that it is entering a terminal stage. He has withstood threat, pressure and inducement, including temptations aimed toward both ego and bank balance. He has insisted with courage and conviction that we find a doctor and fund a hospital that will begin to address this national disease. Both are essential, since there can be no forward movement until we identify and institutionalise those who can heal the patient. But diagnosis, however brilliant, is not a cure; it is only the beginning of a process. The next step, if anything, is harder.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

How do you censor a teashop?

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 11)

Spokesmen do not speak for themselves; they are their masters' voices, or they don't remain the voice for very long. Ministers, similarly, do not propose dramatic, or drastic, policy options without implicit clearance from their boss. This is standard practice. Kapil Sibal is not solely responsible for the proposed censorship of social media, currently the most effective communication system on the net.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Death takes no prisoners

From Byword- India Today (December 9)

Dev Anand hated death as intensely as he loathed the consequences of time. Age itself was an unbearable coffin; and in some unfathomable way he believed that death could be postponed indefinitely. He thought of death as some kind of personal defeat, and defeat did not enter his vocabulary. He might falter, but never fail. For a six-decade superstar life does not imitate art so much as become an art form.

His movies always had a happy ending, and there was no way he was going to deny himself the same privilege off screen. He was not quite a Peter Pan, the child who froze time, but he remained rooted in his Twenties, unable or unwilling to step beyond a bracket that distilled the exuberance of existence into love, sex, success and adulation.

But a body does not have the flexibility of the imagination, and Dev Anand chose to wrap his neck in flowing scarves to curtain the tell-tale desolation of skin stretching away from flesh. He could hardly hide his face, but a miracle occurred each time I met him. The years visibly peeled off, through his eyes, driven out gradual layer by layer by the dazzle of his smile and the mystique of memory as conversation crept inevitably back into the past. There was nowhere else to go. The past was the only golden age, and if gold needed constant burnishing to glisten, it would get all the massage it required. In that exultant narrative, Dev Anand was both his name, a God of Joy, as well as Kama Dev, God of Love; the two were indistinguishable.

The one startling variation in a resplendent career was Guide. The film had very little to do with its origins in R.K. Narayan's book; Dev and his brilliant younger brother Vijay, who directed the best of Dev's oeuvre, threw it out of the window and made their own movie. Guide's Rosie, played exquisitely by Waheeda Rehman, was not mere rebellion, but a revolution that injected gender independence into the consciousness of an India still wandering through the fog of social norms.

Guide is also the only film in which Dev Anand dies. But this death was a strategic manoeuvre. He resurrects triumphantly as eternal truth, beyond the tragedy of time. No ghost has ever been so handsome.

While Dilip Kumar made a lachrymose fortune as part of his public persona obligations, and Raj Kapoor evolved from saving his trousers in Awara to saving the nation in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Dev Anand stayed faithful to an insouciant street smile, whether in Baazi's cheap gambling dens, or amid diamonds in Jewel Thief. He seemed ambivalent about smart theft; his loyalties were securely with law and order, but there was always a faint suggestion that his heart belonged to the panache of sophisticated crime.

Dev Anand was 42 when Guide was released in 1965. He solved his unacknowledged midlife crisis with style. He created the 1960s look with a sequence of memorable hits: Kala Bazar, Hum Dono, Bombai ka Babu, Asli Naqli, Tere Ghar ke Saamne, Guide, Jewel Thief, Johny Mera Naam, Tere Mere Sapne and Hare Rama Hare Krishna. He was the Sixties. His high collar shirts, exotic hats and ankle-length corduroys ended the baggies era. His heroines were a cast from heaven: Waheeda Rehman, Nanda, Sadhana, Suchitra Sen, Nutan, Vyajayantimala, Hema Malini and finally the only woman who broke his heart because she went over to Raj Kapoor for a role in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Zeenat Aman. As he grew older, his girlfriends became younger. He had broken so many hearts it was but fair that someone should break his at least once.

When history is written, as it should be, the tipping point will be a subject of legitimate debate. When did the decline begin? His hand, it is true, began to go limp from the wrist in Kala Bazar (1960), but that remained no more than a personal oddity even when his pistol in Jewel Thief notoriously pointed 45 degrees south instead of straight at villains. The ebb began with Gambler, offered to a shocked public in 1971: Dev Anand had a straight handlebar moustache that Groucho Marx would have shunned. The icon of charisma had lost it. By the 1980s his films were nothing more than a tawdry list of embarrassments. But, to use a phrase that has never seemed more appropriate, it was "Never say die".

Dev Anand had the rare ability to make a stranger seem a friend, and a friend feel irreplaceable. Anyone who entered his aura returned with at least an anecdote. Alas, now that there is no one to contradict them, stories about personal encounters with Dev Anand will both magnify and multiply. But that is how a life becomes a legend.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The 5-point Political Reform Programme

From BYLINE- Sunday Guardian (December 4)

It is time for the father of economic reform to initiate political reform. Priority Number 1: Dr Manmohan Singh should abandon the oath of secrecy which Cabinet ministers take, very solemnly indeed, when being anointed to the highest level of government. Step 2: a ban on mobile phones during Cabinet meetings. Which of the two is more difficult? The first, since it is easier to amend the Constitution of India than change the ideological commitment of politicians to their self-image. Democracy has its demands.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Chaos Theory, UPA Style

From Byword- India Today (December 2)

The decision on FDI in retail has been so clumsy that there is a counterintuitive theory to suggest that it must be secretly brilliant. There is always a good case to be made for chaos as an alternative to coma.

The Delhi variation of the chaos theory is persuasive, if you happen to belong to the innermost ring of the many concentric circles of power that constitute the capital of India. Thus travels the logic: the decision was taken during a Parliament session to deliberately provoke Opposition parties into hostility. A shut Parliament is good for a government without answers on contentious problems from the statehood of Telangana to the state of Anna Hazare. Add low economic growth (the rate has slipped to 6.9 per cent) and high inflation, and you have enough to keep Opposition hungry in Parliament. FDI successfully deflected the primary focus of a session during which BJP, with able help from Subramanian Swamy on the outside and former telecom minister A. Raja on the inside, hoped to whittle down Home Minister P. Chidambaram. The Almighty has turned an attentive ear to Chidambaram's prayers.

The corruption debate had only one side; a hapless Government under relentless attack. Foreign investment has at least two sides. Government can always claim that it will create jobs, help farmers and bring down prices-who's to check? These are projections drawn in smoke against a 10-year horizon, by which time most of today's leaders will be irrelevant. The helpful bit for the establishment is the existence of a mall class which hopes to turn India into America before the next general election, or at least within its lifetime. So, even if Rahul Gandhi takes a hammering in Uttar Pradesh next year, as his resident intellectual Jairam Ramesh seems to have whispered at the Cabinet meeting where the FDI decision was taken, the Youth Congress can always be sure of a warm welcome at any mall pub.

Pity, you can never be equally certain about what will come into the House with the storm you induce. There was never any danger to survival, since this Cabinet decision did not need confirmation by a vote in Parliament. This was a ruckus problem, not a mortality matter. The Congress was confident of being able to manage an aggregated Opposition. It was taken aback by a disaggregated Government. The leader of the House, Pranab Mukherjee, expected turbulence from Bengal, for he is familiar with Mamata Banerjee's style.

But Dr Manmohan Singh and his finance minister were thrown aback by the DMK's sudden discovery of spine. Sometimes injury can be good for your political health, and DMK has decided that it is not going to take its wounds lying down. Its strategy for Sonia Gandhi is borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi: it has begun a non-cooperation movement. It does not, as yet, demand independence from upa, but it wants a sort of Dominion status. It will make life as difficult as it can without seeking separation. The hurt at Kanimozhi's long imprisonment is apparent; in DMK eyes this was betrayal. Some insiders are livid; they are hinting that 2G money was shared in equitable proportions but DMK was left alone to twist in the wind.

If the Prime Minister was surprised by his allies, he must have been startled by the revolt over FDI within the Congress triggered by the leftish Defence Minister A.K. Antony. This was more than local political manoeuvring for while Antony fell silent, Ramesh Chennithala from Kerala and Sanjay Singh from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh decided that this would be a useful banner to unfold.

Denied the foreground, Anna Hazare flickered in and out of the screen from the background. Perhaps it is time to check out a seeming paradox.

The Anna Hazare movement is over, but it is not dead. It is over because it has completed its historic work. It is alive because it has successfully convinced Indians that corruption is the enemy they must destroy in order that the nation might survive. Some smug ministers imagine that Hazare's demand for radical change was maverick theatre, that the last scene has been played out and its impact can be erased by procrastination given the proverbial limitations of public memory. Memory might be fickle, but anger is not. Corruption has touched the national gut because it has corroded the body. Corruption is pervasive and persistent. Corruption is not sectarian. Retail FDI may enrage 10 per cent and enthuse a different 10 per cent, but bribery is the loathsome price 80 per cent pay to the 20 per cent with power.

In the immediate future, Anna Hazare might overplay his hand. He might even invite a few jeers. But the next general election will be a burial ground for anyone who thinks Anna Hazare's movement has lost its life.