Sunday, June 30, 2013

Privacy: time to kiss it goodbye

Privacy: time to kiss it goodbye
M.J. Akbar
Shakespeare, being a genius, got most things right. But, being human, he also got a few things wrong. A rose by any other name does often smell like a weed.
One dangerous misnomer is this entity called an intelligence agency. These organisations, a consistent growth industry in every nation whether times are lean or prosperous, are information accummulators. Intelligence may or may not be a by-product of their endeavours. Look no further than the case of the latest American whistleblower, Edward Snowden.
America's spymasters lost this plot long before Snowden broke cover and revealed massive incursions by US and British agencies into private lives. Their rage reflects the fury of impotence, or perhaps incompetence. Snowden did not hit and run. His sting took much preparation: he copied data, and then established contact with Julian Assange's Wikileaks and China, at the very least. Directly or indirectly, China, Russia and Ecuador knew what he was going to do before he moved. CIA, NSA and FBI were blindsided. America's intelligence was shipwrecked in an ocean of information.
One would assume, after the Wikileaks fiasco, that there would be alert mechanisms to track any unauthorized transfer of secret data by an insider. Wrong. Neither was there any security firewall between Snowden and either a pest like Wikileaks or a foreign power like China, although both must be equally high on CIA's watch list. If you imagine Snowden landed in Hong Kong by flipping a coin, you must be in kindergarten, still reading fairy tales. Conversely, if you believe China ignored the US demand for extradition because of a typing error in the application, your sense of humour is almost as nuanced as the Chinese official who thought up that whopper. The Chinese ran this operation for precisely as long as they wanted to, or Snowden would never have left Hong Kong, even if he had managed to enter this semi-liberal enclave of an authoritarian state. Snowden's story got top play in local media; and he was accompanied by a Wikileaks executive on his ride to Russia, both impossible without a silent nod from Beijing. Snowden went to Hong Kong because he was certain of a Chinese umbrella. And in Moscow, of a Russian shield. Try boarding a flight a Moscow without a valid visa on your passport. You won't get beyond check-in. Absolutely do not consider making Moscow airport a temporary residence, unless you are certain local police won't put you on the next flight to anywhere. Nor will Ecuador's friendly diplomats drop by to say hello without Kremlin's permission.
At the moment of writing, Snowden is discovering a few facts of life. Heroes have limited uses when playing cloak and dagger; the dagger can change direction in the switch of a blade. China, Russia and Ecuador were happy to use Snowden in the secret wars that continue below the surface of good relations, but reluctant to damage bilateral business with Washington beyond a point. Big boys like America carry aces up their sleeve when they sit at any table.
For some time now America has been ratcheting up an international offensive against China's invasion of cyberspace. This was high on the agenda of the summit between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in California earlier this month. China's President kept an admirable straight face while his shadow-security infrastructure timed this double-whammy to a nicety, producing Snowden just when American protests hit a crescendo.
While spy fact imitates spy fiction, the world must come to terms with a difficult truth. Privacy, a cornerstone of individual liberty in a free society, now belongs to the past tense. America, the world's largest people-friendly democracy, and China, the world's largest people-friendly dictatorship, have used war as the excuse and technology as the means to monitor the language, and through that the thought process, of any individual they want to target. If other nations, including Russia or India, have not succeeded as spectacularly, it is not for want of trying.
Governments know something that idealists are loath to admit: the argument for liberty does not travel very far with the populace when it is positioned against terrorism. The progress towards a free society has been led by a liberal elite that flourishes in the calm of peace, and bends before the hurricane of conflict. Barack Obama turns into George Bush. Obama knows that total information is the dream of every totalitarian, but will not intervene. He is in politics. Politics is about survival first and consequences later. For every Snowden briefly on the front page, and in limbo for the rest of his life, there are dozens defeated by helplessness. That is how a state defines victory over the individual.
Obama invited Xi Jiang for their summit in California to a place called Rancho Mirage. What an excellent title for a sequel to George Orwell's 1984.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The business of politicians is politics


The business of politicians is politics

M.J. Akbar

Very curious. When Barack Obama suspended his campaign for re-election to supervise relief for victims of a terrible hurricane on the East Coast, there was applause even from his opponents. Republican strategists later suggested that this intervention provided the momentum that ensured an Obama victory. But when Narendra Modi stepped into Uttarakhand, very hurriedly followed by Rahul Gandhi, voices rose in protest and some columnists brandished a long pen to call them ambulance chasers.
Obama wanted votes. So do Modi and Rahul Gandhi. What is so terribly wrong about persuading voters that you can govern by proving you can deal with a crisis? What is so venal about politicians wanting to indulge in politics? There is a very welcome downside to this: if you leap into the fray without knowing how to jump, the negative backlash will be ferocious. Accountability is every democracy’s insurance policy against incompetence.
A few elements in media, quite unable to resist pomposity, slipped into stupidity — fortunately they were marginal. The news website for Hotmail, owned by Microsoft, framed a “Yes or No” poll in cringe-inducing terms that bashed the whole community of Indian politicians. It offered a choice between “Yes, it is natural for selfish politicians to take credit” and “No. Politicians must not stoop to such low levels”.
May I suggest a similar poll about Microsoft? “Yes. Microsoft is a multinational which would never dare to describe an American politician as selfish because he or she tried to help citizens during a natural calamity”. And: “No. Pompous amateurs like us must never reduce webspace media into a heckling circus with the IQ level of a garrulous judge on a reality show”.
What did we expect those in charge of governments to do? Go off on holiday while their citizens were in danger? Did some pundits carp because Modi, always a favourite lightning rod, got the idea first? Would they have queued up to applaud if some other Chief Minister had led the way? There is no adequate answer to such questions because the truth is often hidden in the subconscious.
Rahul Gandhi, to his credit, understood what some journalists did not, that the people’s view would not be swayed by media pulpit oratory, but by the quality of relief work in affected areas. He may have even tested this proposition with a quick opinion poll, which is now almost obligatory in any serious campaign process. People are not silly. They do not blame politicians for an act of nature. But neither do they forgive governments that are unable to respond to the administrative challenge which comes in the wake of such a tragedy. If the Congress is in trouble in Uttarakhand it is not because Gujarat or Punjab officials rushed to fill their portion of the vacuum, but because the state government was missing from action.
There has always been space for tension in the wide territory over which the paths of media and politics criss-cross. This is perfectly normal, and should even be encouraged. What is fascinating is the constantly evolving dynamic of this relationship.
Politicians have always got upset at honest journalism: which, primarily, is placing in the public domain information that those in power would prefer to keep concealed. Exposure hurts their prospects of re-election. Uttarakhand, like any crisis, offered an opportunity to expose. The highest circles of UPA, for instance, must have squirmed at the news item that relief trucks organised by Congress and flagged off by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were stranded because drivers were not given sufficient money for fuel. This is the kind of story that travels well through public chatter.
In an innovative reversal, journalists are now beginning to lay down rules on how politicians should do their job. We are not talking corruption here, but the rather more vague “moral ambience” of decision-making. Both politicians and journalists once set standards for themselves; we now seem intent on setting standards for each other. Judgement is so much easier than introspection.
We shall see how this plays out, particularly with an election season underway. Tensions will peak as politicians seek to rise in the estimate of voters, and journalists try to puncture them. With so much at stake, it is almost inevitable that “facts” will sometimes be twisted for partisan ends, and that “truth” will be manipulated to defame opponents. This is going to be a particularly tough election, because power is neither gained nor surrendered easily.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court of both professions is the citizen. Wherever ego might lead a journalist, or an exaggerated sense of power take a politician, the true measure of worth is determined by the court of public opinion. There is no journalism without an audience. There is no political office without a voter. This is the balance that keeps our system sane.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Look, there’s a new caste in the cauldron

Look, there’s a new caste in the cauldron
M.J. Akbar

Byelections are far more dangerous for political parties than elections. An election can merely kill you. A byelection can disorient you. On any rational day, comatose is a better option than frenzy. There is always a chance that some prophet will turn up one day to resurrect a corpse, but to restore balance to a destabilised organization requires many preconditions, including recognition that there is indeed a problem. Political leaders very rarely admit a mistake. Instead, they blame circumstance, and justify any downward spiral of error with self-defeating logic.

Hence, the last people to recognize change are those who should be leading it. The immediate is so overpowering that it fogs perspective. What is obvious to the child is never evident to the emperor. India has changed more in the dozen odd years of the 21st century than the last quarter of the 20th, but prescriptions still seem stuck in that age when today’s new voter was not even both. A dab of lipstick here, or a pinprick of botox there, does not make politics modern. Traditional categories of sectarian difference are reassembling into a new dynamic, as far as the young are concerned. Economic aspiration is crystallizing from the caterpillar of government-serviced caste and creed to the butterfly of non-denominational upward mobility. You cannot even sell Mandal’s preferential promise with the vigour that it engendered in the 1990s.

There was a very good reason why Indian democracy opted, in the 1950s, for demographic difference instead of class conflict as the basis for identity mobilisation. Class conflict would have justified Marxist theory and encouraged a natural gravitation by the poor towards Communism and its tendencies towards dictatorship. This trade-off was welcomed by a country that clung to religion and social inheritance as its distinctive profile. Even our independence movement favoured the metaphors of faith to slogans against colonization; we wanted India to remain Indian, and if the British had become Anglo-Indians instead of insisting on ‘home leave’, British rule might have hung around longer; or metamorphosed into Indian rule.

The downside was that economic development in independent India flowed towards the political bisects or trisects of sectarian democracy, rather than responding to the gravitational pull of poverty, wherever it might exist. And so vast deserts of the poor, whether tribal or Dalit or within the principal minority community, remained arid because they were not able to convert their political clout into economic reward. Their vote belonged to identity, not poverty. After more than six decades of such democracy, each section of the dispossessed has acquired a different history. The Dalits eventually learnt assertion, through leaders like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. The tribals, desperate, have sought some form of an answer in Maoist desperation.

Muslims have been the most static, although there is evidence emerging that some groups have begun to recognize that their real problem is the politics of fear, with prejudice possibly a parallel but subsidiary fact. Fear drove them repeatedly into the false comfort of the Congress embrace. Congress was delighted; if fear was sufficient to deliver the vote, there was no reason why Congress should waste jobs on Muslims. In the last nine years, using the platform provided by the Sachar commission, Congress has repeatedly promised Muslims job reservations, once even raising the threshold to a fantastic 18%. In line with previous experience, not a single per cent has become reality. Marginal handouts, heavily advertised, are used to bluff the community, while fear plays on at orchestra strength in the background. Fear, rather than economic benefit, has become the template of secularism. Instead of doing their own thinking, some smaller parties have decided to imitate Congress.

So what is new?

The skies in which the powerful reside may still be clouded by false illusion, but ground reality has shifted. The people have, with good reason, lost faith in the government’s ability to lead economic change or provide the exhilaration of opportunity. They know that only the private sector can do so. The successful chief minister is no longer someone who promises to expand the public sector job base, but one who can open the private sector job market.

Bihar’s Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, rattled by defeat in the Maharajganj byelection, thanks to a rising mismatch between hope and delivery, has returned to an antique formula on the assumption that Bihar is still stuck in the 1960s culture of sectarian competition and notional appeasement. His answer should have been economic aggression; he chose political regression. Bihar’s economy may not have evolved as much as we would all wish, but Biharis have. The young are beginning to abandon the quagmire in Patna and Muzaffarpur as much as anywhere else in India.

On The Special Joys of Airport Trash


On The Special Joys of Airport Trash

M.J. Akbar

The joys of an airport book may not quite meet the escalating demands of an upwardly liberal sensibility, but who can deny it is liberating? Environment is the daddy of content. You won’t get many books at an airport store on the vagaries of civilisation, but you will discover a hundred ways in which to turn your boss into a vegetable, and yourself into a sex symbol. But the best trash is not about changing the world; it is about saving it from dark satanic forces controlled by a mastermind. Nothing has changed since Superman, except that Superman now reads Dante instead of the Daily Plonk. Dan Brown is back at the airport with a thud that can be heard at the cash register.
I discovered Dan Brown when I joined the long line of suckers who made him a billionaire, and realised why precisely it was such a long line. The Da Vinci Code was an exotic tale of a power-thirsty Catholic cult which wanted to destroy something or the other before it was stopped in the nick of time by Brown’s alter ego, a Harvard professor who, naturally, did not waste too much of his time on teaching. The hallucinations worked well through my pliant brain about a decade ago. I am pleased to inform you that both the Vatican and the world survived Dan Brown’s assault. It is, however, a tribute to this master chef of potboilers that he did, for a brief while, make the Vatican wince.
The trick is to perfume rubbish with a bottle of incense hidden beneath the pile. Brown’s bottle is artfully shaped, with secret sub-containers for clues and questions that persuade you to suspend rational judgement. But, contrarily, this would not work without a writing technique that is so stupid it can only be described as courageous. The latest Dan Brown, Inferno, exhausts the reader with some serious heavy breathing in punctuation. There are more dots separating words with simulated tension than in an optical illusion graphic. Words appear in bursts within sentences; sentences stutter through paragraphs as short as summer underwear. Chapters are as flimsy as a negligee. We are playing peekaboo with destiny, so why not?
But recognise the paradox: the tension must be both real and fake, for we know that while everyone from a slick lone ranger working for a deadly consortium to the whole of the Italian police is trying to kill the hero from the opening page, the hero cannot die, for that would effectively end the book. This is therefore precisely the opposite of crime mystery, where anyone can die. If you think it is difficult to read such deathless, breathless prose, consider how difficult it must be to write it. Events must consistently outpace credibility. But that’s okay. Dan Brown wants readers, not the Nobel Prize. The Nobel fetches far less money.
The problem may be that Brown has run out of incense, and is now using the kind of cheap deodorant advertised on music channels. Our Harvard Hero’s mission this time is to stop a dead genius from killing one third of the world’s population through some kind of plague, which is about as original a thought as the Son of King Kong. Most of the action takes place in Florence, but the dramatic revelations can be picked up from any good city guide book. Maybe that is why tourists like the stuff. Why bother to stretch facts when it is so much more lucrative to stretch the imagination?
The inducement to buy the book is born of a genetic fascination for the pleasure of prurience during the idle wasteland of an airplane trip. A holiday gives the body a rest; Brown gives the mind a rest. Junk is only as good as it is bad. I fear, however, that Brown may be in some danger of taking himself seriously, which would be fatal to his craft. Every once in a while, possibly tortured by the need for self-respect, he introduces some inexplicable word into the text. Do you know the meaning of “chthonic”? I didn’t. Do you care? I don’t. But just in case you want to word-drop, the “ch” is silent.
Here is a tip from a concerned if occasional reader. Brown should never leave London out of his books. The British Museum is a treasure house of clues from here to eternity. Take, for instance, the stark Egyptian black slab with a hollowed square at the centre, with ten lines stretching away like rays from a little child’s sun? It was probably done by a Pharaoh’s imbecile toddler, but who is to stop a Harvard professor from calling it the first instance of modern art laden with the deep warning that neurons would destroy matter ten centuries after the 8000 BC. Whoa...wait a minute...THAT MEANS NOW!

Maybe Dan Brown has reserved this symbol for his next book, Deferno.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Shifting sands make for shifting stands

Shifting sands make for shifting stands
M.J. Akbar

Margaret Thatcher, who led Britain’s Conservatives from confusion into the promised land of three election victories, believed that a political party must serve as a vehicle to capture power, not limp along as a platform for views. Ideas were a mirage unless anchored in the oasis of government. 

The BJP is in search of its Thatcher. Transformative change often needs the gloom of a crisis . There are two models for revitalisation. In 1969 Mrs Indira Gandhi split Congress because it had become a hippopotamus, wallowing in its own quagmire. Thatcher, straddling the same span between collapse and opportunity in 1975, did not wield an axe because she was confident that her party could accommodate the past without sacrificing the future. Both Mrs Gandhi and Thatcher were called divisive, but they understood that they had to be on the positive side of the dividing line. They had to offer solutions to a despairing electorate. 

It has taken about a quarter century for a generational challenge within BJP to rise from simmer to surge. The party became a credible force in 1989, when it won 85 Lok Sabha seats. Under AB Vajpayee and LK Advani, BJP climbed to 180 MPs and deftly crafted the NDA to fashion a stable alliance. But questions inevitably arise during the forlorn years of defeat, when fusion unravels into confusion. 

Alliance politics also has two models, informal and formal. Mrs Gandhi launched coalition culture in Delhi with a breathtaking swivel in 1969. She grasped the hand of Marxists who had been imprisoned by her father Jawaharlal Nehru for suspected sedition just seven years before, during the epochal war with China. But she would not let them into her Cabinet. Narasimha Rao survived through informal relationships. Atal Behari Vajpayee preferred formal partners. UPA has managed a decadelong coalition with both formal and informal allies. 

There is nothing sentimental about power. Mrs Indira Gandhi kept the Left onside only as long as she needed them, for either domestic or foreign policy. (The Left was very helpful in forging her alliance with the Soviet Union before the Bangladesh war.) Smaller parties have drawn their own lessons. The principal one is unsurprising. They can maximise their benefits only when a Congress or BJP is vulnerable enough to listen, but not weak enough to die.
The present impasse is more complex. Both government and opposition have disappeared, the first replaced by aggressive paralysis, the second by rampant turmoil. A Congress that cannot pass an ordinance on food security is a passenger stranded on a platform long after the train has passed. A BJP torn by internal and external dissent is a train that has not left the station. 

History is never so silly as to repeat itself, but there are echoes. We are in a phase similar to Rao’s last year in office. Both Congress and BJP seem as friendless now as they did nearly twenty years ago. When circumstances become so fluid, small parties test how far they can swim, and look for a port only after having measured their strength. Ambitions rise, for they know coalitions will emerge after elections, not before. Both NDA and UPA were post-election formations. For every Deve Gowda waiting for an astrologer’s prediction to come true, there are three Gowda advisers waiting to become finance minister of India. The pressure to buy a lottery ticket becomes huge.
Politics becomes a siren. Ideology is tailored to opportunity. The BJP-Janata Dal (U) marriage developed eczema long before divorce, but convenience camouflaged differences. Nitish Kumar wed BJP when the Ram temple was at the top of BJP’s agenda, and remained in Vajpayee’s Cabinet after the Gujarat riots because he needed BJP’s help to become chief minister of Bihar. And BJP had no problems in Bihar with what it described as “minority appeasement” elsewhere. 

The casino is being cleared once again. Old bets are off. But politicians can only come to a new table with chips loaned by familiar vote banks. 

Alas, if you depend too much on past arithmetic, you could miss emerging algebra. Politics as usual is insufficient for an India in churn. Old constructs have weakened visibly. Marxists are no longer principal guardians of “Left-secularism” ; for Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee will do very nicely instead. The Third Front is not what it was in 1996 and 1997, when it could elect a PM. It is a bargaining instrument to maximise the cash flow to Bengal, Bihar and Odissa as price of support to the next Union government. 

Who will form it? Simple, again. Position play will surrender to numbers. When Vajpayee got 180 seats, the BJP did not look as saffron as it did when it had only 85 MPs. Which party will get the MPs? Whichever understands the mood of the moment. As another successful vote-winner , Bill Clinton, told his opponents on his way to the White House: It’s the economics, stupid.

The calm eye of an expanding storm


The calm eye of an expanding storm

M.J. Akbar

Amman: Jordan is as calm as the eye of a surrounding storm. As residents smoke shisham in cafes, and tourists trot out complaints without which no holiday is complete, you would never guess that an epochal civil war is devastating Syria, an hour’s smooth drive from Amman.
On the map, Jordan is a geopolitical fortress, still secure despite declared and undeclared conflict on every side. To its east is Iraq, the land of ceaseless violence ever since George Bush and his dark conservatives decided to destroy Al Qaeda in a land where it had never existed, through a war that Washington and London knew how to begin, but no one knows how to end. To Jordan’s west is Israel, where war has become a state of mind; where every citizen is on permanent alert; and history wanders through limbo, searching for a settlement that may or may not bring peace. To its south is Saudi Arabia, struggling with itself, unable to come to terms with the display of a woman’s face, struggling to find some way out of a time warp. Jeans flourish in Amman, whether worn by men or women, and the only veil you might see is probably worn by a tourist. To Jordan’s northwest lies Lebanon, which has given a new meaning to that old term: permanent war.
Conversation, inevitably, drips with the acid dew in the environment. Syria, claims one voice, is the latest victim of the oldest faultline in modern history: oil and gas. This must be at the very least a partial truth. No one was interested in West Asia’s vast deserts before Europe’s colonists began to sniff oil in remote spots like Masjid-e-Suleimania, and brought it home to Britain and France at cottage cheese prices to lubricate their navies and their commerce. I suggest that Army-based secular autocrats like the Assad family have also passed their sell-by date, but that invites a cynic’s shrug in a region where dictators are more familiar than democrats. It does not quite measure up against the fact that the oil and gas discovered in Syria, Lebanon and Israel could soon make them very rich indeed.
You cannot argue with some facts. Iraq’s oil tankers do not seem to face a violence problem. Nothing else may function in Libya but its oil industry is up and about. Did you say there were international sanctions against Iran? Tell that to the birds, or at least to the birds who will listen. Its oil flows into Iraq where it becomes, with the scribble of pen on invoice paper, Iraqi oil.
In yet another instance of unintended consequences, sanctions are helping Iran to develop the potential it has, much in the way that a protected economy enabled Indian industrialists to manufacture products that India could not import. Iran has ten automobile factories now. Sanctions do punish; one is not being romantic about them. But they can also prevent you from bloating on foreign fast food, or teach you to make your own soap instead of becoming addicted to multinationals. Local industry can co-exist with multinationals as equals, not as vendors for their products.
Israel is militarily strong enough to protect and exploit its natural resources. Other nations are not. There is a lot of hidden depth to the games afoot in Syria, including the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, tinged with ideological conservatism, that has become a sub-text of the region. These are games played with real weapons.
There has to be some reason beyond the urge to sell arms, or play geopolitics, for Russia to send sophisticated arsenals to Syria’s establishment, and for America to step in on the rebel side. This war has escalated with incremental intervention. The United Nations is not even pretending to show up. If Russia, and China from a discreet distance, cannot afford Assad’s defeat, then America too cannot afford the collapse of rebellion.
There are contradictions on both sides. Russia does not believe that the Assad family should be part of the long-term solution. And Washington understands that many rebels are extremists who will ravage Syria’s minorities and then turn their attention westwards if they ever come to power in Damascus.
When you think of minorities, include women. Some of the support for the rebels is coming from revanchist elements, whose stockpile of carbon cash keeps searching for ways to destroy a modern social order.
The ideal is not in formal dispute: Syria should have what it deserves, a secular democracy. This is the promise that made the Baathist party guardian of Syria’s destiny. Baathists veered away from democracy through an unsustainable alibi, and in the process have endangered the society they once nourished.

The present status quo is as unacceptable as the dangerous fringe in the alternative. But if war expands, it will blow out of control. Cease fire and talk, before there is no one left to talk to. There will be no calm left either.