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Monday, 27 September 2010

MJ on Pakistan

Déjà vu: Back to Army in Pakistan
M.J. Akbar
A reservoir of hatred has to be very deep for Pakistan to reject Indias aid at a time when desperate, flood-affected, marauding men snatch precious food from wailing, helpless women; when advertisements for donations are appearing in British and American newspapers; when the United Nations has stepped in to lead a rescue effort; and when the World Bank has offered two billion dollars over the next two years to ameliorate the consequences of an unprecedented national calamity. It took an American rap across the knuckles before Pakistan accepted Indias five million dollars.
Dr Manmohan Singhs response to this gratuitous insult was a testament to his faith: he offered more. The best answer to visceral animosity is surely a civilised handshake, even if one may have to count ones fingers after the hand has been shaken.
A caveat is essential. We must not confuse the Pakistani people with the Pakistan government. The government was playing politics with a crisis. The starving have no time for cynicism. The true victims of any such calamity are the poor, for the rich live above water. No poll has indicated that Pakistans flood-displaced would rather go hungry and roofless than eat wheat or take shelter under a tent purchased with Indias dollars.
Was Asif Zardaris fear of Indian money directly related to his fear of the Pakistan Army?
A natural disaster of these proportions can become a defining moment in history. There were many reasons why East Pakistan broke away to create Bangladesh in 1971, but the Yahya Khan regimes hopeless, and perhaps even prejudiced, neglect of the region after the devastation caused by Cyclone Bhola in 1970 became the conclusive evidence that persuaded Bengalis that they would never get justice in Pakistan. There is already sufficient information from the ground to indicate that Pakistanis are at least as angry with Zardari as Bengalis were with Yahya Khan.
The Khyber-to-Balochistan deluge stretching across 20% of the country, a space larger than Italy has begun to reinforce a resurgent public view that the Pakistan Army might have become a more natural institution of governance than the Pakistan Peoples Party and the democratic organisations now in power. Its chief Ashfaq Kayani mobilised his troops for relief instantly. Zardari, in a display of astonishing, callous indifference, preferred to go on what can only be described as a working holiday in France and Britain, wherein the holiday invited more publicity than the work. The Army also donated, very quickly, a days pay, a thought that did not immediately occur to legislators. Zardari, in sharp contrast, breezed through his expensive jaunt, spending $12,000 per night for his suite in London, and zooming off, with his children and his nominated heir to the Bhutto throne, on helicopters to his chateau in France. A Zardari spokesman explained that this chateau had been in the family possession for 18 years. That then would be around the time when the Bhuttos were in power in Islamabad. Two plus two in Islamabad equals a chateau in France and a lordly estate in England.
Pakistans internet is also in flood. The invective against Zardari has to be read to be believed. Alas, the most exhilarating examples cannot be reprinted in a newspaper. It is safe to assume that the credibility of the PPP has been washed away in this flood, and it remains in office from now for purely legal, rather than politically legitimate, reasons. The reputation of the principal Opposition party, led by Nawaz Sharif, which rules Punjab, has been battered by allegations of corruption and maladministration. The main parties have a vested interest in protecting one another. But the fact is that their incompetence has left a huge vacuum, and the only institution capable of filling it is the Army.
The civilian challenge to political parties comes from a far more dangerous force than the Army. To put this in a single sentence: fundamentalist organisations with a terrorist wing, like the renamed Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, reached the affected people long before the government. The only comforting news from internet chatter is the manner in which civil society in Pakistan has mobilised to fill the gap that Islamabad has left. But there is only so much that impromptu citizen action groups can do. They cannot be a substitute for a nations government.
Zardaris fear is valid. Would a coup be as unpopular today as it would have been a year ago? In fact, a year ago it would have been impossible. It might not have become probable even now, but Kayani is a patient man in a country where elected officials are conducting impatient hara-kiri. Zardari has been cozying up to American VIPs like John Kerry, but Washingtons generic dislike of coups is not so strong as to sabotage its self-interest. America is involved in a borderless war in Afghanistan. Americas strategic imperative demands a strong government in Islamabad, and if that means giving recognition to a future President Kayani, so be it.
Asif Zardaris decision to buy a chateau in France could prove to be a wise investment. It is certainly a far more comfortable address for an ex-President than a VIP jail within a fortress on the Indus.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London

Sunday, 26 September 2010

M.J.on Ayodhya

A walk close to the precipice
M.J. Akbar
It is never easy to walk close to the precipice. The Supreme Court must be feeling very sure-footed to test its vertigo level on Ayodhya. It has put six decades of anguish, turmoil and a legal endurance test on the edge of a calendar. If there is the slightest mishap, and even the Supreme Court cannot claim the divine power of predicting what unknown factors might spin the coming week out of control, the Allahabad High Court judgement on the Babri title dispute could fall into a bottomless abyss. If the judgement is not read out before the end of the month it becomes infructuous since one of the judges is retiring. India does not have the energy to start another six decades of social, political and legal acrimony.
It would of course have been heavenly if time was the solution to a problem that has proved intractable for both the British Raj and free India. Many problems in India do merge and disappear in that glacier called time. Faith, alas, arouses passions that have the resilience to defeat time. There is a view among those who have not experienced the depth of faith that the dispute has faded into unimportance. It was perhaps this assessment that persuaded Rahul Gandhi to claim that other things were more important. A little reading of history would be useful. The Babri-Ayodhya dispute has lain dormant for long spells before erupting suddenly, volcanically, and spreading its lava far and wide into the social streams of our nation. Sometimes it rumbles before bursting, and sometimes it surprises us with its arbitrary vehemence. This is why Sardar Patel, whose understanding of India was unmatched, advised Jawaharlal Nehru to find some way towards immediate closure of the two issues that had become symbols in the Hindu subconscious, the temple at Somnath destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni and the Babri mosque. Nehru was uncomfortable, but did not interfere with the reconstruction of the temple at Somnath, except that he would not allow the project to become a state enterprise. Somnath was comparatively easy, since no one had built a mosque at the site. Patel warned that if the Ram-birthplace dispute was not resolved it would return to haunt India five decades later. It did, in less time than that.
Ayodhya was different because there was a mosque, built during the reign of Babar. L.K. Advani linked the two when he started his rathyatra towards Ayodhya from Somnath, exactly 20 years ago on 25 September. Another two decades of time have not brought any resolution.
Perhaps we are being lulled by the fact that there has been no violence over Ayodhya after 1992. Mistake. Indians, of any religion or denomination, are instinctively repulsed by violence, even if they can, on occasions, get as appallingly murderous as any crowd in history. But there is rarely exultation and always guilt. Even when top-of-mind recall has dimmed, it does not mean that an issue such as Babri-Ayodhya has disappeared from hearts.
The consequences of non-judgement will be horrendous. It is obvious from the statements of their spokesmen that the Congress is, typically, committed to irresolution. Its politics impels it to hunt with the mosque and run with the temple. This fudge was possible as long as the courts were taking their time. Time a chameleon component of this drama has run out, at least in the legal sense. There is at long last a judgement, by a respected high court. Even a stay on its implementation and the reality of an appeal cannot diminish the power of a verdict. The Government would be very foolish to believe that it can bury the judgement in some legal maze, making it untraceable. If the judgement is not read by the court, it will still find its way to the people, through the media perhaps. The happy fact of any democracy is that suppressed information, like water, always leaks through the shackles of Government.
The parties involved are already raising dangerous apprehensions. It is only natural for either, or perhaps both, to feel that the Government is using delay as a tactic to deny them justice. The only salutary outcome of such a situation would be that the two parties forget their bitterness towards each other, and divert it towards the Government in a common cause. Do not laugh. Stranger things have happened in Indian politics.
The Supreme Court has the liberty to hope that something could happen in six days that has not happened in six decades, an amicable settlement. But it has no right to abort the course of justice for reasons extraneous to the law. Tuesday is going to be a tense day, but I have no doubt that the Supreme Court will apply its own means test. It needs an answer to only one question: have the parties to the dispute reached a settlement outside the court? If the answer is no, as is likely, then before the Supreme Court rises it must give leave to its brothers on the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court to deliver their judgement. That is the only safe route back from the precipice.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

MJ scathing on Blair

Fiction? Non-fiction? Just a horror story
M.J. Akbar
The most reassuring aspect of Tony Blairs just-released memoirs was evident in the Reuters photograph of a bookstore shelf stacked with copies on opening day. A red sticker on the hardback cover bore the legend: Half Price. This is poetic justice. A man who sold lies to his nation has been peremptorily discounted by its public. All the oily self-pity that has stained the books pages tears for the dead, alcohol for the living author was placed in perspective by the cold reception that this unapologetic misleader has got from a people disgusted by his malodorous past and continuing hypocrisy.
Blairs problem is not that he was mistaken when, in March 2003, he became a poodle-partner in George Bushs gratuitous war against Iraq. Anyone in office during a time of turmoil will make mistakes that could easily blemish an otherwise favorable record. Blairs problem was and is that he is an unrepentant liar who ordered the fabrication of excuses to launch a war and destroy a nation that had never threatened Britain militarily or shielded Al Qaeda. His foreign minister knew that Blairs thesis for war was a lie, and resigned, but the rest of the Labour Party mortgaged its conscience for power.
It was a coincidence that Blairs story [in the circumstances, an appropriate word] appeared on the day that America officially declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. The formal cessation of hostilities seems to have released many American commentators and officials from pretence. While some analysts struggled hard to justify the war with contorted definitions of victory, Americas defense secretary Robert Gates admitted, at Camp Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, that he no answer to a fundamental question: The problem with this war for any American is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid. Even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States, it will always be clouded by how it began.
Blair knows how it began in 2003: Bush ordered his secretary of state Colin Powell to lie before the United Nations. Powell compromised his personal credibility by arguing that America had discovered incontrovertible evidence that proved Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Blair, never to be outshone in the deception stakes, told his Parliament that they were only 45 minutes away from mass destruction itself.
The natural growth trajectory of a serial liar is to become fantastically self-delusional. And so when Blair is forced, in his book, to admit that he lied, he compares himself with Nelson Mandela! After all, Mandela could spin a fast one along with the best of them, he writes with a smirk. It requires a temerity beyond the reach of mere mortals for a smug middle class lawyer with sharp wits and enormous luck to compare himself with a man who challenged apartheid and a barbaric, murderous regime; spent decades in solitary confinement and then, when he finally came to power, ushered in an age of harmony between the once-enslaved and their tormentors. But hallucinating Blair is not content with comparing himself to a mere Mandela. I bet Gandhi was the same, he squeaks.
He cannot get off this lunatic pinnacle even when he has to concede that he has been a manipulator. Princess Diana was another one, wasnt she, he giggles. So thats all right, then; if you are as good as Diana you can safely destroy the world.
Blair is unable to come to terms with the Great Mystery: why didnt the Iraqis roll over before advancing Anglo-American armies, and welcome the Bush-Blair Viceroy who would lead them towards civilization and McDonalds, whichever came first? Why, after Saddam had been vanquished, did the people resist the onward march of such impregnable armies and air forces? Since his porous intellect cannot find an answer from the behaviour patterns of the world, the reason must lie in heaven: Islam. He writes he misunderstood the hold that extremism had on Islam. Only extremists could fight the toy soldiers sent by Pentagon and Whitehall, carrying chocolates and democracy; moderates would have welcome the liberators while they looted the museum, took over the oil ministry and extended their march to the capitals of other nations on their axis of evil, like Syria and Iran. There are laws of libel; why are there no laws against hypocrisy? Or would that mean the end of bombastic memoirs? One records, with relief, that no Iraqi Arab memoir has, to my knowledge, called warmongers like Blair and Bush examples of extremist Roman Catholicism or American Puritanism.
Bush-Blair had a bizarre sense of humor: they contrived to name Blair a special peace envoy to the Middle East after he lost his job as Prime Minister. When Barack Obama hosted Israel and Palestine for talks on Thursday, along with Egypt and Jordan, he should have explored the potential benefits of amnesia. Alas, he forgot to forget.
An European cartoon shows a puzzled London bookstore employee asking her manager whether she should place Blairs memoirs in the fiction or non-fiction category. It should really be among the horror stories.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Another Akbar

From rage to outrage
M.J. Akbar
Is there a tipping point to corruption, that last straw, or rupee note, on the corrupt camels back that ignites the dormant fuse of public response, and transforms apathy into rage? Will there come a subsequent moment when rage escalates to outrage?
Corruption has found a figleaf cover: everyone is corrupt, so why bother? This is the convenient argument that persuades some watchdogs, including within the media, to join the gang, even if their reward is marginal. Cynicism is a lucrative camouflage. If everyone is a thief, then theft becomes the law. There are no outlaws in a country teeming with in-laws.
The robber barons are too sophisticated to steal from one another. They dont need to. That would also introduce unnecessary conflict into a cozy system. They all steal from the public, and there is so much public money available in the exchequer that even if all of them grabbed enough to satiate their hunger, there would still be something left over.
Robbery has graduated to daylight robbery. The thief of the night is apprehensive about guards, and hence seeks the protection of darkness. The daylight robber has no qualms, because the purchased sheriff is snoring at noon, and the bystanders are impotent.
Here are some facts printed on the front page of the Times of India on Saturday. This, remember, is just one days news; this is not the whole story. The Central Vigilance Commission has scrutinised only 16 Commonwealth Games projects so far, ranging from upgrades of stadiums, road construction, pavements, street lighting, etc., worth Rs 2,477.22 cr. Every quality certificate it examined was either forged or suspect. Each one. There is little point wasting space over details; they will be repetitive. Suffice to say that there has not been undiluted stink of this order for some time.
The odour is multinational, but naturally: this is the Commonwealth Games, after all. There is something called the Queens baton relay, which means that the baton honoured with Queen Elizabeths blessing has to reach Delhi by relay. If there is an event there must be a function, and if there is a function there must be corruption. The British authorities have provided a small glimpse into what is going on. The CWG Organising Committee sent about Rs 1.68 cr, in British pounds, to a company called AM Films UK Ltd [and is still sending 25,000 pounds every month] for video equipment in a deal where there was no tendering, no procedure and no paperwork. The office address of this company shows only the presence of an AM Vehicles Hire Ltd, and on its books it says that it hired cars, makeshift toilets and barriers, not video equipment. Its director resigned, very conveniently, on 14 July. The Organising Committee issued a brazen denial that takes about a minute to tear to shreds.
Sports Minister M.S. Gill has admitted in Parliament that the cost of the Games increased 17.5 times since the tamasha began in 2003. Repeat that sentence 17 times for better effect.
Doesnt Prime Minister Manmohan Singh know what goes on in Parliament? Does he not read newspapers? Is he going to preside over the opening ceremony of the Games in the midst of those who should be on trial for loot? How long can he distance himself from the muck at his feet by silence? There will come a time, if it has not come already, when this silence will be heard at a volume that speech could never match.
Are we heading towards a 1973 situation? In early 1971 Mrs Indira Gandhi was re-elected by margins that surprised her Congress. She reached the pinnacle of her tenure with the military triumph in Bangladesh in December 1971. Within a year, inflation had soured the public mood. By the end of 1973 corruption had deepened the mire in which government was stuck. In 1974 Jayaprakash Narayan, whose own integrity was beyond question, challenged the moral right of Mrs Indira Gandhi to continue in office.
The one great difference is too obvious: there is no Jayaprakash Narayanan in 2010. The corrupt are comforted by the fact that the credibility of all politicians is so low that the public does not have an effective vehicle through which it can mobilise its anger. This vacuum should be of little comfort to the Government. The wrath, real or simulated, of Opposition parties is not the spectre ahead, but the rising discontent of the people. The whiplash of food inflation is harshest on the poor, those who earn around a hundred rupees a day. The poor do not protest too often, for the daily task of earning enough to eat is a demanding physical and psychological responsibility that consumes their time. But their patience is not infinite. They voted in large numbers for the Congress in 2009 because they believed in the sincerity of the party. They are beginning to feel betrayed.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London