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.

Banana Shake for Mango People


Banana Shake for Mango People


The seasoned wit and raconteur Robert Vadra believes that Indians do
not have a sense of humour. That may or may not be true, but it is
distinctly better than having no sense at all.

Humour is complicated. One man's wit is so easily another's insult.
Folklore, and general conversation, indicate that Indians enjoy  murky
ethnic  jokes  almost as much as they delight in the noble habit  of
laughing at the powerful. How would you rate this sms that raced
around after details about Vadra's triumphant rise as the most famous
real estate dealer in Indian history went  public? Rahul Gandhi
despairingly told his Mummy: 'First CWG, then 2G, then Coal-G. And now
it's Jijaji.' Not bad. That Jijaji has just the nice twang that serves
so well in north Indian chai shop chat.

At this moment, however, Indians are not discussing their own sense of
humour but Robert Vadra's. Politics is a tough sport, not suited to
thin skins. Invective has been part of its unwritten rules ever since
elections evolved into an art form in the fatherland of modern
democracy, America. I just read an op-ed in an American newspaper
which listed the language used in the age of electoral infancy. In
1800, Thomas Jefferson, an architect of the American Constitution and
much quoted for his defence of a free press, was accused of running a
"Congo harem" at his estate. Jefferson did not turn the other cheek,
like a good Christian. His supporters accused his foe, John Adams, of
smuggling British prostitutes for his personal needs. Mark: British!
That is equivalent to charging an Indian politician today of running a
brothel of Pakistani women, or vice versa. The best riposte came in
1884 when Grover Cleveland was charged with fathering an illegitimate
child, inspiring a ditty that followed him on the campaign trail: 'Ma,
Ma, where's my Pa?' Cleveland gave his answer after he had won: 'Gone
to the White House, ha ha ha!'

But it is one thing calling your foe names, and quite another sneering
at the chaps who voted you into office and its luxurious benefits with
a pun, deservedly described as the lowest form of humour. The common
man will  get a bit tetchy about being called a mango married to a
banana republic [in Hindi 'aam' has two means, both common and mango].
This sort of joke turns sour pretty quickly. Nor is it a very good
idea, unless of course you have invested in sarcasm as a profession,
like the bilious Ambrose Bierce who called politics a strife of
interests masquerading as a contest of principles, and a means of
using public affairs for private advantage. Robert Vadra is not only a
distinguished member of India's most powerful political family, but
also nurtures a desire for high office in his own right. The mango and
banana will follow him on any election trail. They also hurt the
prospects of his wife Priyanka Gandhi, who is slated to inherit the
Rae Bareli constituency from her mother, Mrs Sonia Gandhi.

We do not know too much about Mr Vadra's educational qualifications.
He could easily be familiar with geopolitics and the economic history
of Latin America, where exploitation by multinationals through pliant
family dictatorships gave the English language this eloquent
construct, banana republic. Perhaps he is only aware of the colloquial
interpretation, which means  a country run by monkeys who sell
national resources at banana  prices. It is not the wisest metaphor to
use when there is a debate raging in India about what multinationals
might do through foreign direct investment. Someone certainly woke
Vadra up to the dark side of possibilities, for he took those remarks
off his Facebook page pretty quickly. He will not however be able to
efface them from public memory,  not least because his tormentors will
not allow anyone to forget them in a hurry.

Mr Vadra's party, Congress, is trapped in uncertainty. Its spokesmen
first threatened Arvind Kejriwal, who turned the story into a public
fact; and tried to portray Vadra as an innocent who had been wronged
by evil manipulators. They discovered that Kejriwal is immune to fear,
and soon backed his accusations with more documentation. Moreover,
each reaction from a Congress worthy only managed to keep the story
alive on that dreaded oblong box called television.

It took a couple of days for the full implications to sink in. This is
the first time since Bofors in the 1980s when the Gandhi family is
being charged with corruption, and  mud is turning into glue. The
Commonwealth scandal involved Congress leaders, but not at the high
rungs; during telecom, Congress managed to distance itself and direct
blame towards an ally, DMK. Coalgate was harder but the responsibility
went to the government and the Prime Minister. Robert Vadra is family.

The Vadra crisis  has derailed the Congress effort to shift the debate
from corruption to economic reforms. The principal attention is back
on sleaze.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Temptations of Regress

The Temptations of Regress
M.J. Akbar

The story is funny, but not that much fun. On the first Friday, rage was free. The Pakistan government, mixing business with pleasure, declared a holiday so that young men could vent their anger against a virulent and scandalous film on the Prophet of Islam, made by an obscure American crook, who has now been re-arrested for breaking the terms of his probation after a bank fraud conviction. The collateral violence on symbols of sin, like cinema halls in Karachi and Peshawar, not to mention a few vehicles along the way, elicited little more than a shrug. Boys will be boys. To be fair, one of the theatres, in Peshawar, did have a reputation for showing porn to the starving hundreds. Its owner was a minister, who immediately did penance by announcing an award of a substantial amount for the head of the filmmaker.
American embassy and consulate officials were more apprehensive about the subsequent Friday, September 29, for the police tend to relax during a repeat performance. The turnout was not as high after Friday prayers, but they did turn out to shout slogans promising death to various eternal enemies. And then, suddenly, instead of frenzy, as if in response to some unseen signal, everyone in the crowd began to melt away. A puzzled journalist asked why. The answer cleared a great fog. They were all heading home to watch television, for Pakistan was playing in the T20 World Cup tournament that afternoon.
So, can celebrations begin? ‘Cricket defeats God’ is a pretty neat headline as well. Perhaps we can hold the glee. This neat story obscures a larger picture.
There should be no illusions. A significant length of the Muslim street across the globe has bought the narrative that America and its European allies are determined to dominate the Muslim world in an agenda that resonates back to faith-based crusades a millennium ago. American and Nato military boots on Muslim ground are a visible fact. The soft, ngo face of western intervention is dismissed as duplicity.
Critics gleefully note that ngos spend 80 to 90 per cent of their funds on themselves, which is largely true.
But whether in Libya or Egypt or Pakistan, there is a parallel message being conveyed by the aggressive crowds to their own government: They will be in charge of the national agenda, and they will calibrate the response to provocation as well as determine the shape of the country’s politics and polity. This is part of the internal debate for power, not just a voice raised against “Christian imperialism”. Media will amplify the slogans.
 The subaltern debate will command the attention of history.
A nation state evolves through process. Change does not sprout instantly into a full-grown tree. Even democracy as we understand it today took at least two centuries of change to reach where it has, even if we brush aside the British assertion that it all started with the Magna Carta in the 13th century (the Great Charter that whittled down
the absolute power of kings and gave barons some rights). When India decided to adopt adult franchise, in Gandhi’s Congress Scheme for a future country written in 1931, French women could not vote.
Democracy is much more than a chance to vote every four or five years. It is a set of freedoms built around equality, individual and collective, as in the exercise of any
faith, or it is nothing at all.
The Arab Spring could not institute overnight: It must mature into the full four seasons to achieve stability. Much of the Arab region slipped from Ottoman imperialism to British neocolonisation, where princes elevated from oasis to throne were given absolute power as reward for a strategic alliance with the West. This pattern was partially broken in the 1950s, but the military officers who promised socialism only led their nations into dynastic tyranny. The glimmer of change is visible, but there is some way to go.
Pakistan was created from a different dynamic, and remains a work in progress—or, as it often seems, a journey in regress. It is still grappling over the meaning of an Islamic state. Where do you draw the boundaries as extremists push excess in the name of Islam into all aspects of governance and all corners of society? The ulema’s search for a “pure” (Pak) state has only ended up creating a sub-set of minorities: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Qadiani, Memon and heaven knows how many other sects who are as loyal to their own brand as they are to the common faith.
The questions of a post-colonial age will not be easily resolved. Turmoil will often camouflage itself in more rational headwear. Theocrats, with a mass base and popular institutions, will promote themselves in the guise of idealism, even as a dwindling band of liberals squabble and compromise in the complexities of the short game. But this is not a fast T20; it is life-and-death Test that will span the coming decade.

Some facts of life


Some facts of life


Which of these stories will determine the fate of Washington this November?

On 3 October I read a Bloomsberg story, based from data just released by
the American government, that the top 1% constituting 1.1 million
households, took 93%  of income growth in the last year. It was the widest
gap in four decades. Bloomsberg, a very thoroughly capitalist news service,
noted that income disparity in America had surpassed Uganda, which must be
a milestone of sorts.

That Wednesday evening Mitt Romney, a somersault artiste who believes that
the 47% of America which does not pay tax deserves its poverty, creamed
Barack Obama in a televised presidential debate that delighted Republicans,
devastated Democrats and probably left the undecided cheering for more.
Luckily for Obama elections were still a month away, which leaves a lot of
time for questions.

The most obvious question surely is: why didn’t Obama use such data to
smother Romney? This one can be answered quickly. Obama and his team have
been laid low by a malignant virus called complacency. They were too busy
sniggering in private to worry about what might happen in public.

Newspapers can place a statistic in print, but it does not become a
political fact until it is bounced into play. The past week saw an
illustration of this reality in Delhi.  The transformation of  Mrs Sonia
Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra  into a business genius after the
Congress’ 2009 victory, thanks to some fiscal sleight of hand by a business
house, has been the subject of much conversation for a while. Very little
remains secret in Delhi, least of all property purchases. One newspaper,
the Economic Times, even published an investigation. But this brewing
scandal remained on the edges of consciousness until anti-corruption
crusaders Arvind Kejriwal and Shashi Bhushan, armed with relevant
documents, shoved it into the limelight. It is now voters’ property.

There is a more subtle equivalence. While surely tempted during the first
UPA term, Vadra and his businessmen friends played a restrained hand,
because both UPA and its presiding family were careful. The top heavy
victory of 2009 made them careless.

Spin doctors are hired to bowl  googlies  in a crisis. So far, those who
have stepped out to defend Vadra, largely from the second tier of
loyalists,  have chosen  bluster  for the media and threats against the
whistle-blowers.  One  legal eagle argued that since the documents were in
the public domain they did not amount to much. Alas, this does not make the
documents untrue. A second loyalist charged that Vadra had been targeted
because he was Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law. That is a bit of a non-starter.
After all, Vadra got these favours only because he was a member of the
Gandhi family. There was little chance of him becoming a property prince if
he had married his neighbour’s daughter in Moradabad.

Obama’s spin doctors, in comparison, justified their salary. They picked up
at least one sentimental nugget from the trash can of despair. They sold
the story that their man had been distraught because his wife Michelle was
upset that he had chosen to debate Romney on their 20th wedding
anniversary. She was expecting a romantic dinner instead. If you believe
that story, then your library hasn’t progressed beyond Mills and Boon. But
if every American wife whose husband has forgotten an anniversary goes out,
possibly with a small lump in the throat, to vote for Obama he will win by
a landslide. Women are his core constituency.

Television, for selfish reasons, has promoted a myth that it can determine
the fate of elections. The dark stubble of Richard Nixon, during the first
televised debate in 1960, has been turned into an iconic reason for his
surprise defeat. John Kennedy won not because Nixon forgot to shave, but
because he represented the young America which would go on to shape the
Sixties. Since television also claims to have determined the course of the
Vietnam war, it is pertinent to note that it  was lost in the rice fields
of Indo-China, not the studios of CBS. Television brought the bad news back
in technicolour and widened the dismay; but if the Pentagon had been
winning battles, it would have also led the hysteria for greater violence,
since hysteria contributes to higher ratings. Media tells the story, but
only very  rarely can it change the ending.

How will the Obama-Romney election end? Will that half of America which
believes that Romney is the candidate of 1% change its mind because Obama
was asleep at the microphone? Will women who know the punitive and invasive
Republican agenda for abortion turn away from Obama because he lost his

In the Indian general elections of 2004, BJP-led NDA had the better
argument, but Congress-led UPA had the better facts. In 2009 Dr Manmohan
Singh was in control of both facts and argument. Since then his arguments
have been waylaid by the corruption of colleagues, and facts have lost
touch with daily life.