Monday, November 12, 2012

Prez Obama’s rainbow finds its pot of gold

Out of Turn
Prez Obama’s rainbow finds its pot of gold
M.J. Akbar
Any politician  who gets elected thanks to the worst financial crisis since America's Great Depression in 1929, and needs the most violent hurricane in a century to get re-elected, obviously has the vote of the Almighty. Many Americans remain convinced that the divine  benevolence Barack Hussein Obama enjoys is from a God called Allah, rather than the bearded old man of Christian iconography.  Barack is not an English word, let alone an American one; it derives from the Arabic baraka, meaning blessing. Others, and Donald Trump comes to mind, accept that Obama  was born, but wish he hadn't been, and certainly not in Hawai.
Obama faced three potentially fatal obstacles, two of them snake-pits: race and religion. Certainty about his colour, and uncertainty about his faith, cemented the outraged determination of conservatives to limit America's first black President to one term. The third hurdle, the economy, was colour neutral in theory, but whites reacted more negatively than other voters.  Obama lost the white vote in every category: 45 to 51 among those between 18-29; 38 to 59 among the 39-44 group; 38 to 61 among the middle-aged, 45-64; and 44 to 65 in the old. But you can also see a new America emerging from this barren chrysalis. Obama's vote increases as the  voter gets younger. The future is with him. Overall, Obama got 60% of young support as compared to only 37% for Mitt Romney.
Romney was straight from Republican central casting: well-brushed hair, a moderate public voice, a mean private discourse, all things to all people, and a business CV straight from a tax consultant's manual. What he did not have was sufficient population. The white electorate in America has dropped from 84% in 1984 to 72%, and will dip to 69% by 2016 as the demographic easel continues to mix colours.  Romney invested in geography, as a look at any  results graphic will confirm. Obama placed his bet on demography, and sliced Romney along the jugular.
Leadership is the art of extracting diamonds out of a coalmine. In a remarkable display of reverse engineering, with advice from that professor emeritus of American politics Bill Clinton, Obama mobilized the margins through positive discrimination, from rights for  children of illegal immigrants to support for same-sex marriage and unprecedented health care for the impoverished, mainly Blacks.  Every vote he got was obtained by commitment and craftwork through his term in office.
Obama could depend on  the insular and insensitive Republican right to rescue  him when he needed help most, as when the argument seemed to be fading from his grasp. One American satirist, Andy Borowitz, described the Republican message with less exaggeration than humour normally demands: 'We're strongly opposed to FEMA and health care but basically OK with rape...When God wants to create a hurricane or make a woman pregnant, big government should get out of the way.'
The antediluvian Republican challenge to abortion helped Obama cleave enough of the white women's vote to ensure that two per cent margin which made his election safe. Any disappointment with Obama was not enough to dissolve their fear of the ruthless anti-abortion lobby.
Obama rearranged his base into a sparkling coalition of minorities,  till the sum became greater than its parts. It is entirely consistent that white liberals, women and men, who voted for Obama were also a minority within their demographic.  
But no engineering has ever been reversed as adeptly as Obama's  repositioning of a still convalescent economy. He tried to  display some  green shoots:  IMF has projected that the American economy will grow at 3% next year;  900,000 jobs a month were being lost in 2004, today  170,000 are being added. But they were lost in the incandescent rage of election advertising. Obama deftly turned the argument into a contest between the possessed and the dispossessed. Obama remains in the White House because of  support from  who suffered most in a faltering economy, the poor, the deprived and those struggling to enter the middle class.
Obama united the differences of America and inspired the collective to rise above  snake-pits to claim a new centre. He has  reset politics on a fulcrum that just might send Republicans into oblivion.  In 2016 Democrats will have a white candidate sailing in  the breeze of economic recovery, and anchored in the grateful commitment of diverse minorities. Republicans were once the party of Abraham Lincoln, guardians of national unity and uplift. Obama is Lincoln's  child now,  and Democrats the Lincoln vehicle. If Republicans do not change they will be forgotten like the Whigs of Lincoln's time.
A sigh of relief was audible across the world when Obama won. There was sullen anger in only three places: Republican America; Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's office;  and Drone-peppered Pakistan. But that is a thought for another day.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The war that did not take place


The war that did not take place

M.J. Akbar

If by any mistake Democrats had publicized widely why I, if  perchance  an
American citizen, would have voted for Barack Obama, his tight victory
might just have become that much more tense. Nothing that Obama did, and he
did more than he is given credit for, matched, as far as West and South
Asia are concerned,  the one thing he refused to do: go to war with Iran
under pressure from hawks in Washington and hunter-falcons in Tel Aviv and
Jerusalem.  His cool deflection of warmongers in the heat of elections was
quintessential leadership.

He outmanoeuvred one of the wiliest politicians in the world,  Israel's
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He watched without a flicker of an
eyelid as Netanyahu exploited his special cache in American  politics, and
snubbed him as no ally had ever dared to do. Obama was quiet when Netanyahu
and  Washington's legislature staged  political drama to upstage the White
House;  Netanyahu virtually accused him of appeasing a nuclear Iran and was
drowned in applause. Implicit in this game was an insinuation, never voiced
of course, that Obama was secretly pro-Iran. Mitt Romney played this
gallery; and Netanyahu's judgement became so heady that he brazenly
invested in a Romney victory.

Obama understood the risks, but did not flinch. Jewish support for him
slipped from an overwhelming 78%  in 2008, to  69%. To the credit of
American Jews, by far the greater majority backed their President's
 moderation against the provocations of warmongers. Netanyahu upped his
gamble by ordering  a silly attack on a Sudan factory, on the pretext that
it was building Iranian missiles,  as if Sudan was capable of doing so even
if it wanted to.

Action, but no reaction. Obama finessed each challenge with the ease of a
master strategist, and kept the world safe from a conflagration that would
have made Iraq seem like a sideshow.

This was neither appeasement nor weakness; this was judgement. Obama has
not become soft on Iran. He will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power
under his watch. But he will not send American troops to premature war just
because Netanyahu wants one. Obama is neither goose nor duckling. He is not
a pacifist, as Pakistan has  discovered. But for him, war is a last option,
not a first strike. Such conviction requires more courage than George Bush
and Mitt Romney, both of whom escaped the warfront in Vietnam through
humbug:  Romney became a teenage preacher for his church in the rather
charming city of Paris; there is no record of how many Frenchmen he
converted to Mormonism.

Ironically, this clarity was missing in Obama's domestic policy. When he
did initiate significant change, whether on women's rights, same sex
marriage or health care, he preferred to temper his rhetoric, as if he was
not certain about how many votes this would cost on election day. This is
why Obama was so limp in the first debate with Mitt Romney; he thought he
could fudge his way with silence and a pleasant nod. Those who believed in
him were shocked at the sight of a leader who did not seem to believe in
himself. In 2008 candidate Obama invested in change because he saw that
America was changing; four years in office put so much dust in his eyes
that he could no longer see how much America had changed.

In 2004 the war-tarred George Bush managed to squeak past John Kerry
because he mobilised the anti-gay vote. In 2012, America got its first
lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin defeated the heavyweight Republican, Governor
Tommy Thomson, in Wisconsin. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill punctured
Republican Todd Akin, who had the temerity to say  that a woman's body
could in some mysterious way prevent pregnancy after "legitimate rape".
This was also probably the first time in public discourse that rape had
been segmented as legitimate and illegitimate. Indiana's incumbent
Republican Richard Mourdock, went a step further; he thought that pregnancy
after rape was "God's will". God told him it wasn't. He lost his seat. In
Massachusetts, the former Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren recaptured an
old Democratic stronghold, Ted Kennedy's seat, on a feminist platform that
was remarkable for its straight talk.

The old language is dead. American liberals have recaptured the mind,  and
they are not going to surrender their nation in a hurry. A self-confident
woman has taken her place at the high table of power, and the new majority
is being structured in alliance with the Obama man. Mitt Romney is the last
candidate of an age that has been defeated.

This will have, inevitably, implications for foreign policy as well. Iran
will be wise to use the opportunity for dialogue, and seek ways towards a
guarantee of non-intervention, its primary concern, and a Palestinian
state, its parallel demand. An optimist would call both inevitable; I shall
limit myself to saying only that both are possible.

A turning point for Congress

A wheel that began to turn in 1969, when Mrs Indira Gandhi split the
Congress and changed the fundamental structure of a party shaped by
Mahatma Gandhi, has come full circle.

Gandhi reinvented Congress between 1920 and 1921, during his first and
arguably his finest mass movement, by lifting it out of the clutches
of patriotic professionals and bulking out the base through grassroot
membership. He was not embarrassed about declaring himself dictator of
the mass struggle, but he was not equally authoritarian within the
party. He fused command with consideration, turned the tremendous
adoration that the poor offered him into an asset for the party, and
ensured its credibility through regular elections. There was even the
historic occasion on which his candidate was defeated by Subhas
Chandra Bose. His word prevailed, but he was never bigger than the
Congress. He turned the party into the vehicle of his 28-year-old
freedom struggle, with benefits that have not entirely disappeared
even today.

Nehru was Gandhi's heir, and while he understood that stress of power
would encourage less democratic tendencies, the Congress remained the
only guarantor of stability. But Indira Gandhi was Nehru's heir; and
the dominant role that Nehru played in the Congress government perhaps
began to squeeze the distance between individual and organization. She
began to see the organization as a problem, rather than an anchor.

The split of 1969 was a first step. Her landslide victory in the 1971
general elections destroyed the ragtag bunch of opposition parties;
but that was less important to her than humiliation suffered by the
aptly named Congress (Organization). The parent became the rump. It
wilted and disappeared. Politics has no space for losers.

Ideals cannot compete with success. There was an attempt to go back to
tradition after Mrs Gandhi's defeat in 1977, but all questions were
buried in the avalanche of her victory in 1980. A theory became fact
in the party's imagination: Congress wins elections not through party
organization but through family charisma, anti-poverty slogans and
pre-poll distribution of largesse towards that broad rubric called the
poor, with specific attention to vote banks like Dalits and Muslims.
As that supreme loyalist of Mrs Gandhi, Dev Kant Barooah, put it,
Congress cannot be defeated as long as "Ali and coolie" vote for it.
The setbacks of 1990s were attributed to absence of family at the
helm, and reforms that the poor could not understand. When Sonia
Gandhi became president, the firm was back in business on old terms.

The historic impact of this year's UP assembly elections, spearheaded
by the Gandhi family, has not yet been analysed. "Ali", the Muslim
vote, dismissed Rahul Gandhi's promise of 17% job reservations as a
desperate ploy. But the most revealing aspect of the defeat was the
comprehensive rout in the family's pocket boroughs, Rae Bareli and
Amethi. The decisive shift came, in my estimate, when Priyanka Gandhi
took her children along, and Robert Vadra asked for his share as
reward for passing on the genes. Today's voter wants governance today,
not a king tomorrow.

Family and slogans will not immediately disappear, but they are
trading at a heavy discount. It is often difficult to recognize change
even when it comes armed with a torchlight through the fog. But there
is a distinct pattern. In a reversal of the past, Congress parties
without the family are winning elections against the Congress. Mamata
Banerjee is a recent instance. Jagan Reddy will do in Andhra Pradesh
what Mamata did in Bengal. Sharad Pawar, who is the first modern rebel
against the family, sold himself short when he compromised with the
Congress for a secondary place in office. If he had remained alone,
Maharashtra would have been his by now. Overlaps and inconsistency
might blur the picture, but there is a picture.

Pawar's seniority and political goodwill make him the ideal person to
revive what might be called a Congress (O). But the leader who will be
critical to the process will be Mamata Banerjee, who should be
considered heir of Atulya Ghosh, the Bengal party supremo who was
decimated by Mrs Gandhi in 1969 and 1971. Jagan Reddy would complete
the immediate triangle, but the geometry of expansion can take many
shapes. If Congress goes back to a federal culture of equals at the
decision table, there is no reason why Naveen Patnaik, son of Biju,
should not be part of this old-new Congress. You can go a step
further, and add Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) is dependent on his
political fortunes. This club could easily have more MPs in the next
Lok Sabha than the official Congress.

A Congress collapse will leave a dangerous vacuum at the heart of
India's politics. A historic inflexion point has arrived. Pawar and
Mamata Banerjee should seize this moment.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Laughing all the way to the White House


Laughing all the way to the White House

M.J. Akbar

On which occasion were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the two claimants for the White House, more accurate? When they were making claims amid amateur posturing during the second Presidential debate on Tuesday 16 October, or when they were posing as jolly back-slappers 72 hours later at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner hosted by the Roman Catholic Church in New York? You can rest assured that there was much more truth in their made-up gags, and the fact that they were guests of a church had nothing to do with the level of virtue.

The joke has one enormous advantage over a claim; most often, it is about the other, not yourself. Every professional will confirm that it always helps to throw in a couple of gags against oneself. People think that those who can laugh at themselves have the right to laugh at others. But there was nothing spontaneous about the Obama-Romney laugh-in. Every word and line had been carefully vetted for the effect it would have on votes. It was not only the sally that had been thought through, but also the potential response to the opponent’s riposte. As in any drama, the main characters on the stage were the last ones to get the script.

As it happened, the best joke of the evening came when Obama laughed at himself. His appalling, disdainful languor in the first debate had turned the momentum in Romney’s favour, so he explained why he was feeling full of pep this time around: “I was really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate.” That was some more balm on self-inflicted scars. It also made him seem a bit human.

There are innumerable differences between Obama and Romney, but there is one thing that they have in common. Both are by nature patrician. Romney can hardly disguise his disdain for those who do not live in the comfort zone of a good income. Obama’s pride in his intellectual superiority is so obvious it bristles through his superior demeanour. Romney is distant from the voter; Obama is aloof from his opponent. The election will probably rest on who is perceived as less worse in the subconscious space where the undecided voter makes up his mind.

A narrow election requires management of both clinical issues and the volatility that can change popular sentiment overnight. Jokes are a good way of serving this dual purpose. And so Romney opened up the economic debate with a scalpel when he said, “He [Obama] knows how to seize a moment...And already he has a compelling new campaign slogan: you’re better off now than you were four weeks ago.” Obama had come prepared with reinforcement for his principal campaign line, Romney’s declared and undeclared wealth: “Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in mid-town. I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in mid-town.”

I wonder how much the gag-writers were paid for writing such lines. I hope they charged the earth. After all, the future of the world depends on who cracks a better joke.

Perhaps the world should concentrate on first-gasp debates in the Republican primaries rather than this last-gasp shootout to guess what might be in store. There was a time, only months ago, when these three candidates were front-runners: Rick Perry, governor of Texas, Michele Bachman, and even the silly Herman Cain. Perry admitted during a debate that he did not know if Pakistan had nuclear weapons or not; and Cain thought China did not have any! Bachman believed that slavery had ended in the USA with the declaration of independence in 1789.

It would be wrong to condemn the whole Republican Party for the stupidity of a few, but it still says something about the party that such men and women could even be in the reckoning. Perry, for a couple of weeks, was a favourite. This is not merely isolationist in political spirit; this is information deficit of a dangerous kind. The fact that Romney laboured, and swayed from one compromise to another, in order to defeat such meagre competition tells us something about how far Republicans have lurched into a beguiling unreality.

Obama has learnt very quickly that knowledge of the world is not sufficient to keep you leader of the world. Americans, like any other voters, measure their comfort levels against their own experience, rather than the woes of Greece or the contradictions of China. Obama entered the White House because he raised aspiration to phenomenal levels. There was no realistic way he could achieve what he promised. He is vulnerable.

If Obama wins, it will not be because of what he achieved, but because of what the Republicans promise to do, particularly on gender issues. His hopes rest on women. Fortunately for Obama, women have a more sensible sense of humour than men.

Lord of the Wring


Lord of the Wring


The English writer G.K.Chesterton famously dismissed journalism as saying

‘Lord Jones is dead’ to those who had no idea that Lord Jones was alive.

But journalists do become a trifle more useful when they find out what

precisely Lord Jones has been up to, particularly if Lady Jones has been

caught with her hand in the charity cash box.

Lord Salman Khurshid, doubly ennobled by an old stint at Oxford, dislikes

bad news as much as any mere mortal; but he truly hates the messenger.

Threats are the default position of those who have forgotten the difference

between authority and authoritarianism. When the dust of bluster at his

press conference on 14 October had settled down, Lord Salman had a simple

message for Aajtak, the news channel which broke the story that made him

front page news: ‘Off with your head!’ But pesky reporters know how to

keep their heads, even when all around them others are losing their cool.

Such Lords like to believe that nasty journalists are impelled by malice.

The primary motivation is rather less dramatic, if more dangerous:

curiosity. Curiosity is a basic and rewarding human virtue, the inspiration

for both the introvert in the laboratory as well as the extrovert searching

through the topography of an arctic pole. It is entirely appropriate that

Nasa named its Mars robot Curiosity. It is also the primary reason why

citizens read newspapers and watch television. Yes, curiosity does

occasionally kill the cat, and there are occasions when a journalist

working the ledge leans too far, loses his balance and lands in a mess. But

for every fatal mistake there are 99 success stories. The expose of Salman

Khurshid was an excellent example of journalists doing their job,

untroubled by fear of revenge.

Perhaps Salman Khurshid should be more worried by his real friends in

politics rather than imagined foes in journalism. His senior Cabinet

colleague and partner on the UP election campaign, Beni Prasad Verma, a man

who has clearly seen money arrive and depart, raised a piquant question:

why would someone so senior in government think of stealing a mere Rs 71

lakhs? It is a very good question. When talk of corruption under the

present government swirls into hundreds of thousands of crores, why pick up

petty cash? Khurshid is not a junior official in a minor Union territory:

he is the Union Minister for Law, with an Oxford degree. But the curious do

have a different way of looking at facts. How do you measure the depth of

an iceberg unless you have done due diligence on the tip?

The Congress seems to have adopted two techniques to deflect bad news:

bluff and aggression, as in Khurshid’s case; and self-pity, laced with

threats against media and officials, in the case of Robert Vadra. Perhaps

the nadir came when Digvijay Singh made the preposterous suggestion that

families of the powerful should be kept outside the corruption debate.

It did bring to mind the fact that Vadra is not the only model for a

son-in-law. Jawaharlal Nehru had a son-in-law as well. His name was Feroze

Gandhi, and it is his surname that is being used by the most powerful

ruling family in the country. Feroze was husband of Indira and a Member of

Parliament at a time when Jawaharlal’s personal power was unquestioned.

Feroze did not seek to enrich himself with sordid land deals, encouraged by

a kindly wife wearing a beatific smile, while the Prime Minister pretended

that nothing had happened. One the other hand, Feroze Gandhi as MP exposed

one of the major financial scandals in the Nehru government. By today’s

standards, of course, the amount of money involved was pitiable.

There are many in the establishment who believe that news can be

suppressed; and that if no one knows the story, it has not happened. You

can shield information up to a point, but not beyond it. The oldest and

most revered Indian epic, Ramayana, poses a question that it does not quite

answer: how did a dhobi in Ayodhya know that there were rumours about Sita

in Lanka? News travels, and never faster than when by word of mouth. The

Lord of India did not threaten the dhobi, even when he knew the dhobi was

wrong, because he understood that the credibility of his throne lay in his

ability to eliminate both apprehension and misapprehension with reason and

evidence. That dhobi is nameless. But he cannot be eliminated from history

because he questioned power, and then went back to washing clothes.

India is greater than its governments. India has produced an astonishing

citizens’ revolution to challenge the passage of power into the grasp of

pygmies. Each crisis point produces the hitherto unknown revolutionary who

takes a national mission forward. Ashok Khemka, the Haryana IAS officer who

further exposed Vadra’s land deals in Haryana, has just joined a growing

list of heroes who believe that if they do their honest duty, our nation

will be safe.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

One Passenger's Airline

One Passenger's Airline

In the beginning, says the Bible, was the word. If you need  evidence that we are now far closer to Judgement Day, with much of humanity destined alas for a spell in hell, note  the manner in which we have corrupted the word in the service of subterfuge. It would be wrong to condemn a whole industry for the sins of its pirates, but the public relations crowd has much to answer for in the continuing degradation of language. Their purpose is no longer to convey a fact or an opinion, but to mislead.
Perhaps it was a sign of naiveté that my jaw dropped upon reading a statement issued by Prakash Mirpuri, a spokesman of Kingfisher airlines, in the middle of the strike by pilots and engineers who, instead of being paid for their work, have been fed a stream of lies about the salary cheque will arrive. The text was from a dictionary published by Alice in Wonderland, where words are slaves of their employer. The exact paragraph needs to be repeated: "We regret that the illegal strike has still not been withdrawn and normalcy has not been restored in the company, thereby continuing to cripple and paralyze the working of the entire airline." It was deception delivered with pathos. Mirpuri deserves an immediate increment, even if there is no money for pilots.
Only in the rarefied clouds where Kingfisher management resides, is it absolutely legitimate to deny staff  salaries for work done, and demand that they be punished for breaking the law if they protest. Some bright spark on the Kingfisher board must have thought jail to be a perfectly reasonable option; after all meals are free in jail, reducing the cost of living.  The salaries of  big bosses never stops, incidentally; cheques in their name neither bounce nor get lost en route.

And what precisely is the new definition of normalcy in Kingfisher? That an airline which set off to conquer the world has been driven towards bankruptcy by psychotic ownership? That every minute a staggering debt load becomes heavier? That some of this debt was obtained by rigging the value of company shares? That those who leased aircraft to the company are picking up their property from the terminal in a desperate bit to cut their losses? That Airports Authority of India will not let the airline fly until it clears Rs 273 crores in dues, since cheques of the value of Rs 107 crores have bounced, and owner Vijay Mallya has pleaded with the courts for exemption from personal appearance in the subsequent criminal case? That this sum represents only an infinitesimal level of its collective debt of around Rs 8500 crores?

And yet the spokesman has the temerity to suggest that it is pilots and engineers who are "continuing to cripple" the airline. Were pilots taking boardroom decisions? Did pilots order berserk expansion and spending designed to feed an owner's ego rather than a rational business plan? Pilots were in their cockpit, not in chairman's cabin or the chief executive's chair. Note the subtle suggestion inherent in the use of "continuing": pilots are being blamed not only for the present strike but also for what has happened in the past. Just in case 'cripple' did not pack sufficient punch, they threw in 'paralyze' as well. A cripple can still move; paralysis is immobility. Mirpuri should issue a follow up statement: 'How dare these pilots and engineers demand back pay! They should instead pawn their family jewels so that they can send appropriate donations to the Vijay Mallya Rehabilitation Fund [only personal cheques, please].'

Not also the spokesman's charge that pilots and engineers  have destroyed the "entire" airline, not just its wing or nose-tip or fuselage. Entire is a juicy, comprehensive word: we talk of an entire nation, stretching from east to west and lengthening from  north to south. It would probably take an entire newspaper to convey the entirety of pain on the executive floor of Kingfisher airlines.

It is not employees who have virtually retired an entire airline; Kingfisher  was barely able to patch together the minimum number of flights required by its licence when the strike began as a final attempt to glean something from a failed proposition. I have no idea who the passengers on these scratch flights were, but they should get gold medals for optimism and courage.

There is one set of pilots and engineers in the entire fleet that has no reason for complaint or rancour. They get paid on the dot. They fly with a smile, if not a song in their hearts. They probably get lots of overtime, since punctuality is not a priority in their operations. They are the crew that ferries Vijay Mallya around the world in eighty days, or less if there is a Formula One party going on somewhere. Kingfisher has become one passenger's airline.