Saturday, April 27, 2013

The will and won’t of corruption


The will and won’t of corruption

M.J. Akbar

A neuroscientist of Indian origin, V.S. Ramachandran, has noted that the human brain might get lost in variations of “free will”, but can certainly be clear about a “free won’t”. Mr Ramachandran should start classes for powerful Indian politicians. Dangle a temptation before them, and stick to “will”, rarely opting for “won’t”.
One sign of the march of Indian democracy is creative progress in the science of corruption. In the shoddy old days, someone took a bag stuffed with cash, a flunky counted the rupees and took it to the master’s bedroom. A high dignitary like a Prime Minister would get more respect; his cash came in a proper suitcase. A bull operator on the Mumbai stock exchange claimed in the early 1990s that he had gifted P.V. Narasimha Rao with a suitcase packed with Rs 1 crores in neat bundles. These days, of course, such a pittance would be below the dignity of even junior Cabinet ministers. You will recall that last year Beni Prasad Verma, a proud member of Dr Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet, laughed when his colleague was accused of skimming Rs 70 lakh. Too small a figure to be credible, Verma chortled. Did Dr Manmohan Singh frown? Not at all. Verma is still a Cabinet minister.
Perhaps suitcases are passé, perhaps not. More sophisticated politicians use a brilliant variation. They pick up loot through a relative, as payment for services rendered. And so a minister’s wife gets crores in legal fees for a transaction worth possibly lakhs, if worth anything at all. How can you argue with that? Value, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. If a chit-fund businessman treats your wife’s legal acumen at such worth, who are we to argue? Has Dr Singh done anything? Silence remains his only answer.
One great illusion of the last decade has been our belief that Dr Manmohan Singh would ensure corruption-free governance since he himself was above board. The latest expose in the spectrum and coal mine scams proves beyond any argument that his personal reputation provided cover for massive theft by his ministers. He knew, and did nothing about it, because his own survival as PM was at stake. The CBI affidavit to the Supreme Court in the coal scam is a devastating indictment of his government. It proves that CBI and law officers lied to Court earlier to protect the government. It admits that its affidavit was vetted by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Law Minister, Ashwani Kumar. The explanation that Kumar was making only grammatical corrections is not only stupid, but also arrogant. It assumes that the rest of us, including justices of the Supreme Court, are fools. The joint secretary in PMO, who got in touch with CBI, reports directly to the Prime Minister. Dr Singh made Ashwani Kumar Law Minister not because he delivers zillions of votes to the Congress, but because of his proximity to the PM.
Mrs Indira Gandhi once dismissed corruption as an international phenomenon. She was right. The nexus between politicians, big business and a few useful friends in media is also an old story. Witness this report, datelined Berlin, first published exactly 100 years ago and reproduced in the International Herald Tribune of 22 April 2013: “The charges of bribery of Government officials by members of the Krupp firm have momentarily sunk into insignificance compares with new charges launched against German armament interests of fomenting international rivalries and ill-feeling. Selecting France as a fertile field for these machinations, the armament interests endeavoured to circulate false reports in the French press with a view to frightening Germany into buying large supplies of arms. The false announcement that the French army intends to double its supply of machine was evidently intended to spur the Germans on to double their own supply.”
But neither age nor global expanse makes corruption a virtue. The difference between Europe and India a century later is that Europe reveals names of those who hold secret accounts in Swiss banks. In India we specialise in creating escape routes for the unlucky few who are discovered with their hands in the nation’s treasury.
There is a saving grace. India is a democracy. When Indians get angry on an epic scale, they rise with a fury that ravages the ruling party.
Whenever corruption tops the voters’ agenda, the establishment is reduced to roughly half its previous strength in the Lok Sabha. In 1974, the late Jayaprakash Narayan led an unprecedented stir against corruption. A desperate Mrs Gandhi was forced to declare an Emergency in 1975. In 1977 Congress lost over 200 seats, ending up with only 150 MPs. In 1989, Bofors allegations slashed Congress from 420 MPs to less than 200. Narasimha Rao, who had more than corruption to worry about, was similarly mauled in 1996. If the pattern persists, Congress could drop to around 100 after the next general elections.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Birnam wood is not moving, yet


Birnam wood is not moving, yet


Macbeth, Shakespeare’s most self-destructive politician, was confident that he would never lose power until Birnam wood began to move. Since it seemed highly unlikely that a whole forest would trot across towards his fortress, he lived in the complacent world of invincibility.
Every government in Bengal is equally certain of survival till the Muslim vote begins to move against its citadel. The largest Muslim concentration in India is in Bengal; they constitute 28% of the population, or twice the national average. The effective percentage is higher. Muslims, conscious of the strategic value of their vote, poll in higher numbers. Second, geography is on their side. They are concentrated in an eastern arc that rises from South 24 Parganas and develops demographic momentum in districts like Murshidabad, Malda and Dinajpur. They make the difference in at least half of Bengal’s seats, if not more.
Quiz question: what is the Muslim vote in President Pranab Mukherjee’s former constituency? Above 65%. Rub your eyes again at the next fact. Barring one instance in the 1950s, neither the Congress nor the Marxists have put up a Muslim candidate from this constituency, until the Left did so in last year’s byelection.
Being a forest, this vote moves slowly, almost imperceptibly, but when it shifts the impact is decisive in Bengal. Till 1967, it supported the Congress. When the mood changed, United Front governments came to power. In 1971, it went back to Congress because of Mrs Indira Gandhi, but from 1977 it veered towards the Left and kept Marxists in power for over three decades. It now forms the vanguard of the Mamata Banerjee insurrection.
The decline in Mamata Banerjee’s urban popularity is evident to anyone who lives in or visits Calcutta. Calcutta has not returned to red yet, but the mood is belligerent. There is incipient nostalgia among the genteel bhadralok in particular for the last Marxist Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who had the kind of soft public style that is considered good manners.
Mamata Banerjee is too interventionist, a one-woman occupation force rather than a government. She has not understood the art of surrendering space to colleagues, if for no other reason but to share the blame when things go wrong, as they always will. If you hog the spotlight, warts from elsewhere will drift onto your face. Her nature is confrontational. This wins applause when she dares a Goliath called Delhi. It seems shabby when her ire descends upon little men from Lilliput who crowd the media.
But slip outside the metropolis and you can smell and see the change in mood along with the environment. Rural Bengal, on either bank of the Hooghly river, is as serene as urban Bengal is squalid. As we drive up towards Shantiniketan, where Bengal pays homage to the memory of Rabindranath Tagore, there are only a few patches of the potholed past. On one short stretch, a 20th century road was still being laid over a 19th century surface through 18th century methods. But these villages and small towns that echo through the early phase of East India Company history, remain Mamata territory. The devastation of famine, which came with the British, may have become a nightmare of the past but poverty remains pervasive, visible in the low wages and darned lungis of labour.
It is this constituency of the poor that gives Mamata her political strength. A recent opinion poll by the TV channel Times Now gave her 27 seats out of 42. Calcutta sneers at such projections, and believes that Mamata Banerjee will be, or should be, defeated. But these voters still trust her. She has raised minimum wages. This may not have had a radical impact on the largest employer of the poor, the domestic sector, but it has raised the poor’s bargaining power. The numbers are not ecstatic yet, but the percentage of Muslims in police recruitment is rising. Mamata Banerjee is also sensitive to any problem in Bengali madrasas or Urdu institutions.
But her true opportunity lies in an area of decision-making which is rarely discussed. Both Congress and Communists never lose a chance to claim secularism as their bread-and-butter creed, but neither has ever empowered Muslims when in government. In any other state a community with a minimum 30% vote would have claimed the chief ministership. Forget that thought in Bengal. Neither Congress nor Communists have even given a Muslim an economic portfolio like finance. As a senior Marxist once told me, Bengali Muslims are considered good enough for only livestock (he was referring to animal husbandry, and in any case the remark sounds fare more interesting in Bengali with a rural cadence).
So far Mamata Banerjee has remained within the conventional pattern. She has raised the political profile of some Muslim colleagues but that is not going to be enough for a community that is beginning to understand its power. If it continues to be taken for granted, fed with occasional tokenism, the forest will move much faster than before. Mamata Banerjee still has time. And time shall tell if she also has the will to be different.

The centre can indeed hold

The centre can indeed hold
M.J. Akbar

Aspirant prime ministers often forget the first rule of Delhi: the Centre can only be ruled from the centre. Even in an age when ideology no longer sits on certain ground, there is still broad separation between ‘left’ and ‘right’. It may be only as thin as a comparison, but it exists. A finance minister can lean left or tilt right, but a prime minister must have the flexibility to take whichever lane offers a solution.

Left and right are European terms with no equivalent resonance in Indian economic or political thought. They came into currency only in the late 1920s, when Communists and semi-socialist Congressmen like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose began to dominate the discourse. Mahatma Gandhi was outside such categories.

There had been no leader in many millennia with a deeper commitment to the eradication of poverty and that hateful curse, caste oppression, but was Gandhi a leftist? Not by the logic of Marxists and their fellow travellers, who were convinced that the means must justify the ends, rather than the other way around. The Left has rather lost out on historical determinism in free India. Instead of striding along a shining path lit by dialectic debate, it became hopelessly tangled in that powerful British invention called a file-stricken, deskbound bureaucracy. The Indian right, untroubled by either doctrine or morality, placed its faith in the simplicity of greeddriven enterprise. It was naïve and self-defeating, particularly in a land diseased by poverty, but never waste your time arguing with the rich. Every morning their money whispers in their ears that they are always right. Even a self-made billionaire who started by asking splendid questions, switches to sermons with success. Money is an intellectual laxative.

Gandhi, an uncompromising bania from Gujarat, created the wide Indian centre of politics. There was, alas, something deeply unfashionable about it, but the only fashion that Gandhi needed was a loincloth that sometimes exposed more than he had bargained for. This sanyasi-alchemist authored an essential, if only partially acknowledged, philosophy for India: that economic liberation for the poor had to be preceded, or at least accompanied, by a social revolution. The toxic ruts of this country did not run along merely the deep divides of wealth. Oppression also had a cruel cultural sanction in the birth-re birth karmic cycle, which makes human beings with a right to equality, touchable or untouchable.

Marxists never really understood caste, which is why Indians never really understood Marxism. However Indian Marxists did eventually accept the virtues of pragmatism. Just as Hinduism became elastic enough to absorb the threat from Buddhism, Indian Marxism stretched its frontiers to accommodate religion. One of the more complex consequences was the manner in which as theist a community as Muslims began to vote for an officially atheist party like CPM. But the tensions were never resolved. Our Constitution followed Gandhi in its positive discrimination programmes. Its breathing lung was designed through the Pune pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar in 1932, which began the process of empowerment of Dalits through a politico-economic commitment.

The trauma of 1940s forced Gandhi to leave economic planning to the grandiose schemes of the Congress left. But we must flag a question that can never be adequately answered: what would have been Gandhi’s influence on economic policy if he had not been assassinated in January 1948? Leftists caricatured Gandhi after his death by making the charkha into the sole symbol of Gandhi’s legacy, but that is nonsense. For Gandhi the charkha represented a fundamental model: growth must mean something to the poorest individual or it is worthless. Gandhi had the extraordinary ability to invent and adapt with time, and it is possible to argue that if he had been around he would not have tolerated a policy framework that got mired in stasis by the early 1960s. Nathuram Godse did incalculable harm to India when he shot Gandhi; Godse may have also stolen three decades from economic reform.

Rule from the centre pre-empts the biggest danger to India, civil wars along the frontlines of caste and religion. As swadeshi saffron and communist red march shoulder to shoulder against FDI, nomenclatures inevitably escape from the single cage of economics and get defined by competing views on secularism. The competition is creative. As BJP shifts, as inconspicuously as possible, towards the social centre, Congress tries to shift the centre away from an encroaching BJP. A radical move in this bidding war has been made by Narendra Modi, through the Gujarat government’s appeal for harsher punishment for those convicted of fomenting communal riots. This is unprecedented. Modi will doubtless compare this in public speeches to the upward mobility within Congress ranks of Jagdish Tytler, an instigator during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

Indian politics is moving towards the centre. It began with elephant steps. There is nothing like a general election to turn it into a jog.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Off with his head? Hardly

Off with his head? Hardly
Times of India
At long last we have an Indian Marie Antoinette. The Bourbon queen before the French Revolution of 1789 began to dislocate royal heads from their shoulders , imperiously asked citizens hungry for common bread to eat cake instead. Ajit Pawar's recipe for Maharashtra's farmers suffering from the worst drought in decades is not quite as delicious, but it has already earned pride of place in the political thesaurus of memorable insults. There is nothing like bodily fluids to stoke conversation in a thirsty teashop.
Ajit Pawar is no fool; far from it. Why would he taunt stricken farmers who have loyally voted for his party with an analogy one would be loath to suggest in the privacy of a drawing room? No one in his senses tells a public rally, not to mention subsequent multitudes on media, that he can do little about falling water levels in dams since peeing into them won't help.
This sort of intemperate outburst speaks of some deep frustration. What made Ajit Pawar stupid on such an epic scale? As he pointed out, rationally , he could not be blamed for dry skies; he is merely deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, not deputy chief god of Heaven. The reason for this rant lies elsewhere: guilt.
Over the last decade, Ajit Pawar has ripped through a cumulative fund of Rs 70,000 crore - yes, you read the figure right - meant for irrigation projects designed to protect the state's farmers from such vagaries of nature as drought. Much of this money disappeared in the usual dark hole through which cash is siphoned off: project cost escalation. The water saved through the dams that were built did not reach farmers. It was diverted to industries.
This manipulation became news when Pawar's own chief minister Prithviraj Chauhan asked a simple question: what happened? Those with fewer constraints than the CM accused Pawar of corruption. Ajit Pawar sulked and resigned from government. There was a brief media and political flurry, which soon evaporated. Coalition compulsions, the contemporary justification for fiscal appeasement, enabled Ajit Pawar to return to his old office. Story over.
Or not quite. You never know when anxiety, lurking in some shadow of the subconscious, is going to leap up and distort your tongue. The deepest wounds in politics are self-inflicted . When Pawar addressed that rally, he must have seen votes being lost on the face of his audience. Then he lost it.
The pundits of Mumbai are already doing long division on their calculators to assess the political cost of Ajit Pawar's urine therapy. One measure of the damage can be gauged from the flurry of apologies. Ajit Pawar did not actually hold his ears, put on a dunce cap and stand in the corner, but he did ruefully admit that this was the biggest blunder of his career. Contrition rarely compensates fully for injury; Pawar's impulsive snarl was thought, regret was very much an afterthought. His dilemma is compounded by the fact that the shadow of this drought falls across party strongholds. Almost 75% of uncle and patriarch Sharad Pawar's constituency , Madha, is affected and there is already talk of destitution suicides. Insensitivity in times of distress is not easily erased from voter memory.
The conventional analysis was, till recently, that even if Congress suffered because of rising prices and corruption in the next general election, Sharad Pawar would minimise his own accountability by some nimble footwork. That certainty has been punctured. It is not beyond repair, but Pawar will require a very long needle and some strong yarn to stitch this one back into shape.
Sharad Pawar does not slip easily in Maharashtra . He has worked hard in his state and been astute in Delhi politics, sliding alongside BJP when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Prime Minister and standing solidly by Dr Manmohan Singh when fortunes shifted. Parties come and go; Sharad Pawar stays in power forever, thanks to his fine nose, which can smell the wind from afar. But when you have been too long in office you can miss something far closer, the straw piling up, strand by strand, on the camel's back. An insult can so easily become the last straw.
The French Revolution, like any historic occurrence , offers more than one instructive anecdote. Marie Antoinette's husband, Louis XVI, who lost his mind long before he lost his head to the guillotine , heard the mobs in July 1789, when Paris stormed the Bastille prison, and asked his courtier Francois Alexander Frederic, duke of Liancourt and grandmaster of the wardrobe, "So what is it? A riot?" The duke replied, doubtless in silken tones, "No sire, it is a revolution." But Louis' diary entry for July 14, the day Paris changed the world, consisted of just one word: "Nothing." The heights of power are not always the best perch for a cool look when anger is sweeping past your door. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Ghosts do not die


Ghosts do not die

M.J. Akbar

Check with the haunted: ghosts do not die. Since this sounds like the ultimate paradox, some explanation is necessary. Ghosts are not happy spirits. A ghost is spectre of justice denied, a moan from beyond the grave, revenge that has survived burial. A ghost does not leave judgement to God; it seeks its target while the assailant is still alive.

Many of those who instigated mobs in the anti-Sikhs riots of 1984 are dead; some have slipped, with age, into decrepitude. Legal justice has been tawdry, because the establishment has protected the guilty. But there are at least two VIPs who cannot shake off their ghosts despite 29 years of protection and promotion, offered by Congress, which has been in power for 21 of these years. Sajjan Kumar was an MP and would have remained one till now but for an accidental burst of anger by a Sikh journalist in 2009. Jagdish Tytler is a senior Congress leader, with a seat in its highest committee.

The ghost chasing Tytler is relentless. Each time Tytler becomes complacent, it pops up. Tytler has reason to be complacent. It took India’s premier police unit, CBI 23 long years to produce its final report for the courts; it concluded that there was no case against Tytler. The court was sceptical. Two years later, in 2009, CBI repeated its charade, despite the fact that the Nanavati Commission had held Tytler culpable. India, thankfully, is not a police state. A sessions court has again thrown Tytler back into the public limelight.
Tytler behaves likes a split personality when he appears on television to defend himself, half anxious, half smug. His central argument is equivocal: he does not challenge the Nanavati verdict, but adds with a shrug that it is hardly his fault if CBI did not find any evidence. The smirk is almost too much to bear. What Tytler, his guardians and acolytes do not quite understand is how much India has changed. There are many reasons obviously, but it can be said that one of the catalysts was the Gujarat riots. A cover-up is no longer possible. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi read out a speech written by an over-smart bureaucrat justifying the violence with the metaphor that when the earth shakes, a banyan or two is bound to tremble. No one would suggest this today. The Gujarat riots have been followed by unprecedented media investigation, and judicial scrutiny supervised by the Supreme Court. VIP politicians are in jail. The process is exhausting and exhaustive, but it will separate the guilty from those who were not directly responsible.

No politician ever went to jail for riots before Gujarat; in fact, hardly anyone went to jail at all. Take a count of major incidents in the last five decades: Jamshedpur in 1964, Ranchi in 1967; Ahmedabad in 1969, when some 2,000 died; Nellie in Assam in 1983, where 5,000 Muslims were estimated to have been killed [I shall never forget the rows of dead babies I saw when I went to report that story]. Hiteshwar Saikia of Congress was Chief Minister of Assam then, and Mrs Indira Gandhi Prime Minister. No one demanded his resignation. Instead, Saikia was often lauded as an astute political craftsman. In 1989 came Bhagalpur, when over a thousand died. Let alone Congress CM Bhagwat Jha Azad being held responsible, even the police chief was not shifted. Sudhakar Rao Naik was CM of Maharashtra during the three months of riots in Mumbai following Babri in 1992-93; the guilty named in the Srikrishna report have been left free. Narasimha Rao was PM then. It is a depressing list.

Public accountability, spurred by popular will, is principally responsible for the reduction in the scale and frequency of riots. Politicians may be worried about courts, but they are terrified by voters. The mood of the country has changed visibly. The young, who are in the forefront of this change, want to leave the past behind; for them governance is measured in economic growth and jobs. It is self-evident that violence and development cannot co-exist. Investment in Gujarat will shrink if there is another riot. The young want to vote for jobs, not for the problems of 1947.

If you want to predict election results, an astrologer may still be of some use; but it is far more useful to look at unemployment figures, followed closely by an examination of corruption levels. Voters resent corruption because it is theft; what makes them apoplectic is that it is theft of their money, or the nation’s resources. A nation belongs to the voter, not to a government. Governments are only temporary custodians.
There is no truth about politics, which is totally true. But that which is largely true determines the fate of elections. Caste and creed have not disappeared, but pillars of the old life are fading as another new age begins to rise on the Indian landscape. And when they are finally buried, they will not beget any ghosts.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The labyrinth beckons its generals, again

The labyrinth beckons its generals, again
M.J. Akbar

Old soldiers, goes the saying, never die; they just fade away. Unless their career includes a spell as dictator of Pakistan, in which case they fantasize about a Napoleon-style comeback, cheered on by an adoring public now deeply regretful about having thrown the chap out. Pervez Musharraf, who ruled for nine years like an unforgiving sultan, has returned from self-sought exile because he wants to “save” Pakistan.

This seems odd to those who hold him responsible for ruining the country, but there is no restraining an egoist summoned by his imagination. “I cry when I see the state of Pakistan today,” lamented Musharraf to a motley crowd, evidence that there does not seem much of a market for his tears. Crocodiles rarely get handkerchief sets for Christmas.

Delusion is a curious disease. It does not affect the afflicted, since they are unaware of their condition. Musharraf cannot recognise an irony: In 1999, his coup succeeded because Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would not let his plane land in Karachi although he was serving Army chief. In 2013, he was given permission to land, but departure will be another story. He seems condemned to wander through courtrooms disguising humiliation with a false smile. Perhaps there comes a time in the evening of life when even the prospect of prison at home seems a better option than meaningless speeches abroad.

But what precisely does Pakistan need to be saved from? The easy answer is chaos. The difficult bit is to define the origins of this impending chaos.

A new public opinion survey by the British Council does not suggest that Musharraf is quite the man for the job, but it does confirm that Pakistan is in serious need of some sort of saviour. The research was conducted within the 18-to-29 age group, which makes it more important . Youth shape a nation’s future.

Briefly: in 2007, 50% of the young thought that Pakistan was heading in the wrong direction; after five years of democratic rule, the figure has shot up to 94%. What is their preferred solution? The largest bloc, 38%, want sharia because they believe religious law will improve moral behaviour, end corruption and ensure electricity, water, education and healthcare. This number can only go up: 64% of young men and 75% of young women described themselves as religious and conservative. Such is their disillusionment with a corrupt political class that 32% have begun to yearn for the restoration of military rule. Only 29% have faith in democracy. Their most powerful memory of the last five years is painful: Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the great flood, or the earthquake. A quarter have witnessed some act of violence.

When Pakistan tired of civilians in the past, it turned towards generals. When it got fed up of despots, it rallied behind politicians. Disillusioned with both, the country seems to be searching for some kind of “Islamic autocracy”.

There was one general, Zia ul Haq, who thought such a hybrid was the answer to Pakistan’s prayers. But he never made the mistake of testing this proposition in a free vote; he rigged every election held during his regime.

Would Zia have won the elections of 2013? The dangerous answer is, probably. The country seems poised on a tipover wedge. Some officers deputed by the Election Commission are measuring the qualification of candidates on the basis of their ability to recite Quranic verses; the fact that one nominee of the Jamaat-e-Islami fumbled might make you laugh but only if you are fond of black humour. One well-known columnist was rejected because he was deemed to have written against the “ideology” of Pakistan. Next step: filing a case against his editors for treason? Someone has objected to the candidature of Shahbaz Sharif, former CM of Punjab, because he does not wear a beard. This is what elections in Afghanistan are going to look like if the Taliban take over and think democracy is a good idea. Descent into absurdity can be quick and steep. A week ago, anyone predicting such behaviour would have been dismissed as a sceptic, or worse.

Take one statistic seriously: 32% support for military rule. This will surely raise morale in the cantonment, but that is not the relevant point. Nothing dramatic will happen before the elections. But in case the May elections produce a dysfunctional Parliament, generals could be tempted to step in. Liberals, who have been unable to stem the tides of fanaticism, would probably welcome them as the better option.

Politicians, headed by Asif Ali Zardari, having turned Pakistan into a sleazy mess, will surrender or flee, hoping to take their loot with them. Thoughts such as these may have encouraged Musharraf to return. However, the next generalissimo will not need an ancestor to show the way to the Chief Martial Law Administrator’s office. The local tank commander knows the route.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

When spin meets reality TV

When spin meets reality TV

M.J. Akbar

It is a long way back to zero point. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was re-elected in 2009, almost the first thing he did was to offer Rahul Gandhi his job. It was a public pledge, made through a press conference; since then he has repeated the offer whenever asked. Five years later, it is Rahul Gandhi who is ducking the question even as Dr Singh has begun to philosophize about a third term.
As we enter another election season, the Congress, with its discordant chorus over a prospective Prime Minister, has made one significant Opposition weakness irrelevant. Both camps will now leave the answer to circumstance rather than intention.

The much-awaited contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, hyped by TV news stations anxious for ratings, could well be the non-event of this teenage century. Rahul Gandhi is uncertain in his mind. Modi is uncertain about the partners BJP needs to form a possible government. Nitish Kumar has made it clear that he wants a BJP without Modi at the top; indeed, if he was going to part with BJP there would be no need to harp on this subject. Naveen Patnaik in Orissa or Mamata Banerjee in Bengal or Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh do not make a statement a week on Modi.

The Congress has not given up on Rahul Gandhi; it cannot, but he seems to have evolved into a long-term project. All his sympathisers point out that he has time; in ten years the latest Gandhi will be only 53. Does this leave Congress with a short-term problem? The party has reconciled itself to the fact that the interim will be fluid. Its fondest hope is that the worst-case scenario, defeat in the next general elections, will blossom into a best-case opportunity if the next non-Congress alliance flounders in the manner that the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar governments did between 1989 and 1991.

In the meanwhile, it is the job of party spin doctors to maximise the positive side of whatever Rahul Gandhi chooses to do. But spin has a problem when it meets reality television. The audience of industrialists at the CII convention, where Rahul Gandhi projected India as a beehive — possibly with a Queen Bee at the helm and drones alongside — was far less important than the audience outside watching this performance live on television.
Industrialists come to such events pre-programmed. They have learnt that the best insurance is to praise the powerful in public; it may not help, but it cannot hurt. It does not matter who is in power. If L.K. Advani becomes Prime Minister they will sing paeans to the wisdom of grey hair. If Modi becomes PM, they will turn Gujarat into an economic model for every nation from America to Zaire. And if Rahul Gandhi is PM during the next CII convention, all those who rooted for Modi in the elections will wear a badge saying “India is safe under Rahul for 50 years”. Don’t blame industrialists. They lead a tough life.

The popular reaction is what matters. A daily newspaper which is reasonably sympathetic to Rahul Gandhi polled its readers on the impact of his CII speech. An astonishing 85% thought he had not addressed concerns about his leadership abilities; only 10% were positive. This probably reflects, in part, the widespread middle class anger against Congress, but even if that were so what is evident is that Rahul Gandhi is not yet the answer to this seething rage. He could be tomorrow, but he is not so today.

Perhaps the great dilemma of Rahul Gandhi is that he is less interested in political glory than his supporters are. Leadership in politics is a compelling, consuming profession which demands 18-hour days. Most of these hours are spent in that difficult art of being nice to strangers, and leaving them with some hope that there is something better on the horizon. The rest of the time is taken by implementing policy if you are in government, or offering alternatives if you are not. Politics is a business of detail. Short cuts are an invitation to accidents, and you cannot drive on both sides of the street. If you have been in power for nine years, you cannot give a lecture on systems failure. You have to explain why you did nothing about the system. Curiously, this is one job which does not become less demanding during the fallow phase. Whether you win or lose an election, you have to grind away if you are a serious player.

Rahul Gandhi’s CII speech was heard on TV by precisely those young voters who, buoyed by high expectations, supported Dr Manmohan Singh hugely in 2009. Perhaps such expectations had nowhere to go but down. Rahul Gandhi was perfectly placed to inherit their affections, but they are searching for other heroes in 2013.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

It’s 11 o’clock

It’s 11 o’clock

M.J. Akbar

Arithmetic obviously matters, for democracy is a game of numbers. But there is a smarter way for a minority government to ensure stability: good governance.
Dr Manmohan Singh has the requisite experience, for he was P.V. Narasimha Rao’s finance minister between 1991 and 1996. Rao never had the numbers but survived five years on the trot. He stumbled just once, on 6 December 1992, the day Rao deliberately sleepwalked through the destruction of the Babri mosque, inducing a minor Congress revolt. Rao understood Congress far better than Congress understood him. He purchased Congressmen in the only currency they recognised: power. The pseudo-rebels happily clambered over Babri’s stones and into ministerial office.
The broad rule has not changed. BJP has held on to numbers in Karnataka, but poor governance has left the party broken and aimless in Bangalore. It will pay a price in the next Assembly elections.
The present UPA coalition did not spring a leak when Mamata Banerjee punctured its hull a year ago, or when Karunanidhi punched a hole a fortnight ago, or Mulayam Singh Yadav began to sneer a week ago. This ship of state was lost when corruption drove it off-course, beginning with inflated Commonwealth Games’ bills and then onto telecom handouts on a spectrum scale, Robert Vadra’s cosy land deals, sleazy coal-mine allocations and Italian helicopter bribes. Karunanidhi used alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka to distance himself from Congress, but the real reason is that he believes Congress has become an electoral liability.
Mulayam Singh Yadav has shifted from proximity to uncertainty for similar reasons. Veterans like Yadav and Karunanidhi are graduates of the old school of demand, barter and concession. You never quite know which of the three is in the air. They can drag out a decision, maximizing space for manoeuvre in marriage and insisting on heavy alimony in divorce. Even when you think you have heard the final word, they leave a little wiggle room for a flexible narrative. They can make the process acrimonious.
Karunanidhi’s intentions were clear when former Telecom Minister A. Raja publicly sought to give evidence before the Joint Parliamentary Committee investigating the 2G case in which he is principal accused. Congress stopped Raja because it knew Raja would accuse the PM and then Finance Minister Chidambaram of being party to his decisions, generating unwelcome headlines. Raja had clearance from Karunanidhi.
Congress policy towards allies has so far been cool. It acts on the assumption that since they cannot ally with BJP, they have nowhere else to go, and will therefore accept any terms set by Congress. This increases their options, without raising their liability. If Mamata leaves, Mulayam arrives; when DMK creates trouble, Nitish Kumar can be brought into play. But polygamy can save you only up to a point. The problem is that partnership has lost credibility, even as a clock reminds you that the countdown has started and risk has begun to outweigh reward.
Dr Manmohan Singh, an astute reader of moods within the Lok Sabha, may well be right when he says that his government will last till its appointed hour. What is more to the point is that it is 11 o’clock already. As Yadav remarked, “Why withdraw [support to UPA] and make the government fall when it is just a matter of eight or nine months?” He is right. If UPA is defeated in Lok Sabha, the elections will be held in December; if this dead government is permitted to continue walking, elections will be held in March. Not that big a deal. Withdrawing support only adds an unnecessary controversy to an election which will be fought on corruption, inflation and poor governance. Bringing the UPA down now is tantamount to doing Congress a favour.
Congress has no reason to worry about a vote in the House. It should however be worried about the war of attrition that has already begun. Congress cannot dismiss Trinamool, SP and DMK as generically hostile, like the BJP; Mamata Banerjee, Yadav and Karunanidhi had inside seats in this circus. The Congress problem in the run-up to 2014 will not be the BJP, but allies who have drifted into negative territory. Congress spokespersons have developed a well-honed combination of loud counterattack and sneers whenever they are attacked. This will not be effective against parties which kept Congress in power through the trauma of corruption charges and the rough passage of decisions like FDI.
The story of the past year has been the isolation of Congress, a dramatic reversal from the situation in 2009, when parties were offering support without getting their ratio of office space in government. However, it is not very difficult to diagnose what is happening in Delhi now. Congress is engrossed in how to survive till March 2014; its allies are worried about how to survive after the next general elections. Very simple, really.

The other half of murder


The other half of murder


Could death be a half-truth? This question is obviously a killer’s last hope and best alibi. There is enough truth in that great genre of mystery fiction to suggest that murder can often be an open debate. This does not help the dead, for there can be no murder without a victim; but this remains a serious concern for the living. Whether murder is committed in cold or warm blood, there is no legitimate end without justice.
The pictures depicting the killing of a 12-year-old child, Balachandran, in Sri Lanka, were stark. The chubby innocence of his face was a further torture to the imagination. His only mistake was being son of the wrong parents, as far as his killers were concerned. His father was Prabhakaran, the defeated and slain dictator of the LTTE, who spent his life trying to partition Lanka and create a separate country for its Tamils. No war is pleasant, but this one was especially ruthless. Balachandran became a hostage after LTTE’s annihilation in the winter of 2008-09. Channel 4, the British TV station, which has been running a campaign against human rights violations by the Lanka Army, aired footage of this murder and alleged that orders had come from the very top.
The official Lanka Army reaction, through a spokesman, called the story “lies, half-truths and…speculation”.
If that is only half the truth, then what is the other half?
The only speculative part is the bit about orders coming from the very top but that is common sense even if the source has not been identified. No officer would risk elimination of such a high-profile prisoner without clearance from the highest in the land. Twenty four hours later, someone more intelligent in the Lanka government added that the visuals had been morphed. The channel explained that it had verified the images.
But there is a simpler answer. If the pictures are a lie, then the child must be alive. If he is alive, he is in Lanka government’s hands. All the authorities have to do is produce the child. That would be the ultimate habeas corpus: produce the body, in this case hopefully alive.
That is unlikely to happen. What will follow is silence, tons of it, in the quiet confidence that media stories cannot be repeated forever. This silence is being, and will be, supported by the three major powers with an interest in Sri Lanka: India, China and the United States. No one will seriously question Colombo at a Geneva human rights forum, or weaken relations with the present government which took the decision. They will endorse the logic of this murder. Colombo has killed the child for one reason, and one alone: that he should not survive to wear his father’s mantle ten or fifteen years later. An extra-judicial exit was the only “solution”. Delhi, Beijing and Washington are not terribly squeamish when it comes to present or future terrorism. One false word and their own skeletons will clang noisily, awakening all sorts of demons in Geneva and elsewhere.
As in any conventional murder mystery, the killers did overlook an obvious detail, the sort of clue that sets the grey cells of a Hercule Poirot whirring at a frantic pace and opens up the path of discovery. Colombo’s wise men missed one of the great new facts of the contemporary age, the rise of the mobile phone.
All the mass manufacturers of such phones are as much camera makers as communication specialists. Everyone is now a walking camera. We are still groping through the full implications of this mobile phone revolution, but one thing is already clear: justice has moved from the time of eye-witness testimony to camera-witness evidence. We are undecided about CCTV surveillance. When there is a terrorist attack we want them everywhere. In calmer times we worry about government snooping into our private lives. Perhaps there is no such thing as privacy anymore already. Telephone conversations are routinely taped by secretive agencies. Governments have other worries. Any official today can take out his camera phone and copy a file in a second, exposing corruption if he so wishes, or simply waiting for the opportunity to indulge in some supplementary blackmail of his superiors on the side. Almost every event is being recorded, sometimes with a sense of celebration, sometimes out of a sense of grievance. We get antsy at the thought of a barbarian government assaulting our privacy. But the anonymous individual can be a greater danger.
There are two ways the footage of Balachandran’s killing could have reached media. Someone could have leaked it from government records. Or it might be a soldier in the death squad who thought he wanted a gruesome but historic memento, and then began to grapple with his conscience. We do not know, yet. But something slipped through that security net, and it was not a lie.

The prologue to war

The prologue to war

M.J. Akbar

Is America planning to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the war which eliminated Saddam Hussein and destroyed Iraq with an intervention in Syria?
Jaundiced Arab eyes are asking a cynical question: if Lady Camilla and Prince Charles drop by to see war refugee Syrian children at a camp in Jordan, as they did on 13 March, can Nato troops be far behind? Observers are adding 2 plus 2, and perhaps getting 5. But they note that when Republican Senator John McCain puts on his best stentorian manner and claims Bashar Assad is committing genocide against his own people, something is beginning to cook in Washington. Across the Atlantic, Britain and France have urged the European Union to lift a ban on weapons for Syrian rebels.
Little flakes point towards a storm. This clamour, half official and half unofficial, seeks to suggest that only Nato can rescue a crucial nation on the geostrategic map from the despotic and dynastic rule of the Assad family. So far, the war in Syria has been an uneven contest between a Russian-backed authoritarian regime and disparate rebel groups.
International intervention means nothing without American involvement. Britain and France have neither the stomach nor the wherewithal for unilateral action.
Barack Obama is not a pacifist, as evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen proves. But he is too smart to repeat the foolishness of George Bush the Younger. He will not use lies as justification for war. He has laid down a “red line”: the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime possesses. A flutter went up this week when both government and rebels accused each other of using chemical weapons. Washington reacted calmly, ordering its intelligence analysts to check the allegations. At the moment of writing this is still in progress. If Obama does go to the United Nations it will be with solid evidence, not hearsay manufactured in the neocon imagination, as Bush did.
Bush made unforgiveable errors. His target was Saddam Hussein, and he went to war against the whole of Iraq. Obama will choose his enemy more carefully. He will more probably concentrate his military attention on the elite that controls Damascus, and avoid battle to the extent he can with the Syrian army. This would mean maximum use of missiles and warplanes, and minimal use of infantry. The official Assad palace in Damascus is atop a high hill and very vulnerable to air assault, but the Assads understand that and have moved out. But dominant air cover will be invaluable to rebels who have already reached the edge of Damascus.
Obama is unlikely to risk American boots on the battlefield. The heavy lifting on the field would probably be left to Turkish troops; Turkey is a member of Nato, and has provided refuge and sanctuary to both civilians and fighters. It has an important national interest in the outcome of this conflict. Nor can Assad hope for popular support in his own country. His Shia sect, the Alawites, who form only 10% of the population, have alienated the Sunnis. Foreign intervention will get just that touch of local support that makes its efforts credible.
The tough part may not be the big war in the beginning, but the small wars of succession that will plague Syria in the aftermath. The rebels do not ride under a single flag. Their motivation varies. Some of them are Islamists; others dream of becoming regional warlords. They could turn Syria into another Lebanon. Afghanistan may be an extreme case, but it is always worth noting that three decades after the Soviet troops were driven out the wars of succession are not over. It is easier to end a war between nations than calm the consequences of an insurrection.
Whatever the eventual price, it is obvious that the present order in Damascus is no longer sustainable. When the conflict was still in its incipient stage, Turkey advised Assad to accept a compromise and lead the change rather than defy it and invite bloodshed. Bashar Assad had seen his father Hafez contain and defeat one challenge after another, and thought he could do so as well. But Hafez Assad lived in an age of dictators and comparatively settled internal and external relations. Bashar Assad rules at a time of turbulence on the Arab street and massive flux in the neighbourhood. He could have been an exemplar of transition. He chose a worse fate. Russia, and China to a lesser degree, will continue to back Assad, if for no other reason than to rebuff America, but not at the cost of their self-interest. Iran is a far more reliable ally, but its ability to protect Assad against a carefully constructed, UN-authorised American-Turkish operation must be in question.
This is a war whose opening stages have become a prolonged prologue. Every war is unpredictable, and no one can say how it will end. But once they start, the middle and end games will be quicker.

A Latin response to Latin America

A Latin response to Latin America

M.J. Akbar

Karol Jozef Wojtyla, the first non-Italian Pope in more than four centuries, did not get elected to the throne in 1978 merely through a throw of electoral dice. The central purpose of his papacy was not advertised when he became John Paul II, but has become a proud part of the official narrative today.
He rose to prominence in 1964, when he was named Archbishop of Krakow: three years after the Berlin Wall cemented the partition of Germany and two years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world as close as it has come, before or after, to nuclear devastation. It was the coldest period of the cold war, and John Paul II was assigned the most difficult job of his era; as shepherd to his Catholic country, Poland, through the dictatorship and depression of Communist rule. His mission was upgraded when he reached Rome: to destroy the Soviet Union from within, through the subversive influence of the church and its allies.
Through an exquisite paradox, the workers’ paradise of Lenin and Stalin was blown apart by men like Lech Walesa and their trade unions. Even the normally discreet CIA has let it be known through friendly authors that it worked in partnership with the papacy against the Soviet empire. John Paul lived on till 2 April 2005 but his principal mission was complete when the Soviet Union lay in smithereens by 1992. The Vatican did not wait for the minimum five years to begin the process of his beatification, which took only a fast four years. One requirement is performing a miracle. Officially, John Paul is said to have cured a French nun of Parkinson’s disease. This does seem a bit far-fetched given that the saintly Pope could not cure his own Parkinson’s; but John Paul’s real miracle was to help bring down the seemingly impregnable Soviet dispensation.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina has not become the first non-European Pope in 12 centuries through accident either; or indeed because his genetic origins are Italian. The most powerful religious order in the world has not survived by being sentimental. The 115 cardinals of this year’s electoral college displayed a sharp understanding of geopolitics and assessment of where they believe lies their true challenge in the foreseeable future. Observers, including sympathetic ones, tend to transfer their own concerns to the Vatican. It was thus widely inferred by the commentariat after the sudden abdication of Benedict that the new Pope would be chosen on the basis of his ability to address contemporary concerns like the ban on abortion, or gender equality in the clergy, or the horrifying abuse of children by priests who are required to be celibate. Instead, we have a Pope who is deeply conservative on such social issues. The Vatican views child abuse as a problem, not a plague. As defenders of the status quo point out, this crime is limited at best to just 4% of the priesthood. It is therefore something that the church can deal with without upgrading a dilemma to a crisis.
The Vatican, in my view, sees the coming decade as a historic opportunity to negate a far greater threat.
Latin America is home not only to the largest bloc of Roman Catholics, but has also seen the rise of a radical New Left. The old Left has been in retreat after the Soviet Union’s collapse. China has preserved some important elements of traditional doctrine, principally atheism, but has escaped economic implosion by converting state socialism into state capitalism. China is a story that awaits denouement.
But, quite surprisingly, Cuba defies the odds, and shows no signs of changing its colour. It has discovered strong allies like Venezuela, whose pugnacious Hugo Chavez has been transformed into some sort of secular saint after his recent death. A subcontinent tortured by vicious military dictatorships continues to nourish leftists through democracy. Would it be a stretch to assume that the first Latin American Pope’s true calling is to destabilize Cuba and challenge the Left in Latin America?
The Vatican does not camouflage antagonism. When critics questioned the new Pope’s record during the junta days in Argentina, Federico Lombardi, its spokesman, said, “There has never been a credible, concrete accusation against [Francis I. His accusers are] anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the church.” The church has fashioned its response. If Cuba crumbles, then the barricades are breached.
Pope Francis is being promoted as “pro-poor”; this is obviously essential if he wants to wean the Latin poor away from the Left. John Paul used trade unions; Francis could use slums. Barack Obama has done his bit by describing Francis as “a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us”. The first stories about him talk of simplicity. This is not to suggest that the stories are untrue; merely that this is the ideal profile in the Church’s coming confrontation.
What odds that the first Asian Pope, perhaps in the 2020s, will be from China?

Real story is the Tale of a Raja

Real story is the Tale of a Raja

M.J. Akbar

Conspiracy is a natural morsel in the media diet, a vitamin that adds energy to a news meal generally more flat than nutritious. It also works because the audience loves it. In theory people want news because it is vital for the health of democracy; in practice, they like information because it is fodder for gossip. It is much more necessary to rescue a dull afternoon than to save the nation.
There is no electricity therefore in a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and patriarch L.K. Advani. No one believes that either will switch sides, or be quietly helpful to the other. The verdict is similar on a PM-Prakash Karat meeting, if indeed there was any chance of the two getting together. Our PM exhausted everything he had to say to Communists during UPA1. BJP and Communist MPs are actually quite friendly when they meet off-screen in Parliament’s lobbies, but there is no dialogue. Everyone, and everything, else is up for virile media speculation.
The number of times, therefore, that Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has been sent into the waiting embrace of Congress is legion. All he has to do is be polite and the drum roll picks up cadence in the background. Less musically, for the discourse is more strident in Chennai, every consonant in DMK supremo Karunanidhi is analysed for proximity or distance towards his partner in Delhi.
This is good enough as a game, but should not be confused with realpolitik. There are always pressures in any alliance, for different parties would not be different if they did not differ on policy. This does not necessarily make them adversaries. If Karunanidhi could swallow, however painfully, the incarceration of his daughter Kanimozhi in Tihar jail on a corruption charge, then he is hardly going to bring down the government over human rights violations in Sri Lanka. DMK and Congress have much larger domestic interests to protect. There is nothing personal in politics.
The relationship between Nitish Kumar and BJP will also be measured purely by electoral mathematics, not ideological purity or the lollipops offered by Delhi. The only time this equation was under serious threat was when Nitish Kumar thought that he might be able to win an election alone. Wisely he refused that temptation, and that moment has passed. There can never be any guarantee against miscalculation, but Nitish Kumar is no longer in a position to risk a lone battle against his nemesis Lalu Prasad Yadav. The sap is rising in the enemy camp, as the growing multitudes at Lalu’s rallies indicate. Nor is the BJP likely to provoke its most consistent ally by projecting Narendra Modi beyond a point. Nitish needs Muslim votes and BJP needs Nitish. This is arithmetic, not algebra.
The wonder is how the siren charm of speculation can drive out a legitimate story, or bury it in a secondary plot. If there is any future instability in the DMK-Congress marriage it will be because of A. Raja, principal accused in the 2G scam and rockstar presence in the Radia tapes, not foreign policy. Raja is suddenly eager to depose before the Joint Parliamentary Commission on 2G. The Congress is anxious to stop him from doing so, which at the very least is amazing. The bridegroom wants to confess exclusive details about the huge, illegal dowry he received, and the chief political prosecutor is telling him to keep quiet. Opposition MPs in the JPC want to hear Raja, but not Congress. Is Congress worried that Raja will expose the part played by its leaders in the 2G scam? CBI, surely acting under instructions from political masters, has deftly eliminated the Radia tapes from attention: it did not have time to transcribe the thousands of tapes it seized.
Many questions. Why has Raja suddenly decided to sing? He knows surely that any warble will implicate him as well? Has he decided that he is done for, and that he will bring the house down in the process? Has he taken Karunanidhi’s permission? He is known to be close to his leader; would he have acted without consent? Is Karunanidhi setting in motion his strategy for the next election after having gone by the script to protect the government for four years?
Can this impasse be resolved? A friend suggested a neat solution. The Supreme Court should step in and ask Raja to depose before it, since Raja was being blocked by elements within JPC. The court’s credibility has been strengthened by intervention whenever it has acted in the national interest. Here is an obvious and public case of obstruction. Perhaps Raja can make it easier for the court by seeking to place his version in the court records. That should provoke a flutter or two.
There is always the media as a last resort. Let the speculation begin! The afternoons are getting dull.

A hole in the heart of the budget

A hole in the heart of the budget

M.J. Akbar

A Union budget can help a ruling party win a general election, but only if it is a first budget, not its last. Voters understand the difference between a policy and a promise or an alibi. We are so conditioned to think about a government as either stable or unstable, that we ignore a more familiar fact: in its last year, every government in a democracy enters the zone of uncertainty, for no one dare take re-election for granted. UPA2 looks a shade worse than uncertain; it already looks depressed. The years of fluff and flounder have taken their toll.
You can place a silk hat over P. Chidambaram’s head, and a flute between his lips; he will become neither magician nor god. There is no point blaming him for doing little, for there was little that he could do. He is finance minister of a government that has run out of finance.
Chidambaram cut spending with quiet and perhaps even courageous will over the past few months in order to reduce the punishing fiscal deficit. He has slashed plan expenditure by some Rs 91,000 crore. That is not enough, because politics has forced him to make obligatory allotments, as for instance in the rural sector. He hopes to reach February 2014 on hope. For starters, he hopes that ministries like rural will not actually call for the money he has slotted on paper, because they have not devised the means to spend it.
But his biggest hope is that the economy will grow by 6%, raising revenue, rather than the projected 5%. If the past is any evidence, actual figures could be way below. In 2011 the economic survey predicted 7.6% growth; we got 5%. There is no visible reason why a gloomy economy should shift into an optimistic curve, particularly since the government has entered the zone of uncertainty. Investors might find it more reasonable to wait to see what the general election brings.
Those who cheered the finance minister, both journalists and politicians, consistently argued that this was the best he could do in the circumstances. But no one seemed interested in logic: who created these circumstances? UPA has been in power for nearly a decade. It can no longer blame anyone else for mismanagement.
A sort of forced cheer went up because Chidambaram did not succumb totally to the siren of populism. Once again, whose populism did he save India from? He was not under pressure from BJP, Marxists, Mulayam or Mamata to rig his proposals with handouts. Populism was a Congress demand. The party was eager to contest the next general elections armed with a National Food Security Bill, and credit had already been given where it always is in such situations, to Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Has Chidambaram then saved his budget from Congress?
Chidambaram’s memory is not short. He knows, even if he does not discuss, the price paid by India when in 2008 he wrote off rural debt, introduced NREGA, and raised government salaries. Today’s crisis began with that spending spree. The fiscal deficit rose to 6% of GDP from 2% the previous year; and kept rising to the point where India is threatened by junk status.
Conscious of history’s judgement, Chidambaram will not allow that to happen. This may require a heavy axe by next August or September. An axe is the politician’s biggest enemy on election eve in the kind of handout democracy we have become.
The hole in the heart of this budget was the absence of a big idea. Chidambaram desperately needed a radical spine in his speech; even a minor bone would have helped, anything to electrify the business environment, and inspire a resurrection of pro-growth sentiment in a way millions of bureaucratic words can never do. Here is a thought.
The finance minister hopes that disinvestment will fetch Rs 55,848 crore. He could have begun by putting Air India on the block, at whatever price the market was ready to pay. Instead he added Rs 5,000 cr for this mismanaged airline, after handing out Rs 6,500 crore last year: and the estimate is that it will bleed for at least a decade at a cost of some Rs 30,000 crore of taxpayers’ money. Here is a better idea: shut down the civil aviation ministry, leaving only a department for aviation safety headed by a professional. If Kingfisher can be grounded by market forces, why not Air India? The cynical answer is that Air India is the only airline ever ready to upgrade politicians and bureaucrats. This may even be true. The concept of a “national carrier” is surely as outdated now as nationalised steel mills and indeed Maharajahs. If the Prime Minister needs an aircraft, we should get one for him; why keep an airline alive just to keep a Prime Minister in thin air? We persist in what might be called an Aeroflot mentality.
A government on its last legs can only totter its way through the last mile.