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Saturday, 5 March 2011

M.J.Akbar's comments on the week past

One of Akbar's stronger recent pieces, but at the end of the day, what difference does it make? Who takes notice or cares? Rani

Byline for 6th March 2011

I regret to inform you...

M.J. Akbar

Friday the Fourth of March should be declared the International Day of Regret by the United Nations. Regrets flooded Saturday's newspapers, in stories from east to west; it came in many forms, from eyes-lowered-acknowledgment to muted-murmured-sorry to the antithetical no-regret accompanied by a brash to-hell-with-you.

The most creative instance was surely that of Bangladesh cricket fans: they did not quite rue stoning the West Indies team bus after their side was hammered into oblivion; they merely regretted the fact that they had got the wrong bus. What they wanted was to throw some accurately-aimed stones at their own players. They atoned for their mistake by breaking window panes of their captain Shakib al Hasan's home. That should put Hasan in a good frame of mind for the next match. To be fair, Bengalis don't mind defeat; they just can't take humiliation, whether in Dhaka or at Kolkata's Eden Gardens.

The most ingenious example was from the London School of Economics, which had, in its infinite wisdom, awarded a doctorate to surely the most intellectual thug of the 21st century, Saif al-Islam, the second son of Muammar Gaddafi, in 2008. Saif's supervisors detected neither irony nor plagiarism in the Saif thesis on "The role of civil society in the democratisation of global governance institutions: from 'soft power' to collective decision-making?" Don't miss the deliciously academic question mark at the end. The director of LSE, Howard Davies, has resigned, but can probably expect to head the Saif Conglomerate of Universities for Economics and Mercenary Operations just as soon as Saif has reconquered Libya. It was, but naturally, a complete accident that LSE got a 1.5 million pound donation from Saif's dad soon after the doctorate, since British institutions can never be accused of corruption. London must be full of people nostalgic for the old days: this was exactly how it happened during those good old days of the Raj, when the British gave a gong to natives and took the jewels in return. The natives, however, have got cleverer. Saif actually gave only 300,000 pounds of the promised 1.5 million. He must have learnt something about economics at LSE. Regret, though, is not in his DNA; his father Muammar has at various times imagined himself as either the Queen of England or the Prime Minister of India, but is really a French Bourbons who, famously, learnt nothing and forgot nothing.

But the real market for regrets has surely opened in India. There is explicit or implicit regret wherever you look. The disgraced Chief Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas must be seething with them; if he had quit in the first week of December he would have lost his job but not his grace. That is not a bad trade-off. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still has the quality to dignify regret, which is why his acknowledgement of responsibility for Thomas' appointment received such a civil response from the BJP leader of the Lok Sabha Opposition, Ms Sushma Swaraj. But Dr Singh has not revealed what he truly regrets: that his leadership is under question today because he has been misled by his own side. He signed off on the decision, but the choice was not his. He would not have dismissed Ms Swaraj's objections as politics if his own civil servants had briefed him better.

Two points arise. First, is regret sufficient? In the case of Thomas, yes, since the CVC has not done anything to besmirch the CVC's office. The real problem before the Prime Minister is that the list of things he should regret during the tenure of the UPA2 government is slicing off its credibility, day by day, both in sequence and consequence. What he should truly regret is that a man like Hasan Ali Khan, fingered by Indian police for stashing away 8 billion dollars in Swiss and other banks on behalf of an elite bunch of crooks, is still breathing free air. Khan has the mysterious ability to fall ill whenever the police want to question him; and the police have the even more mysterious desire to accept Khan's word for it. Khan used this excuse again about an hour of his latest meeting with the Enforcement Directorate, and the very solicitous police officers agreed. There is something deeply rotten in the system.

The saddest non-regret is surely from those leaders of Pakistan who have chosen silence as their response to the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the Cabinet, killed for his views on the blasphemy laws. According to Ahmed Rashid, the doyen of Pakistani commentators, army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani refused to condemn the killing of Salmaan Taseer, former governor of Punjab, for similar reasons, because there were too many soldiers under his command who sympathised with the assassins.

That is the transition of regret to fear; how long before fear mutates into dread?

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