Saturday, February 26, 2011

After Kasab, another Pakistani strike ?

There are things you can do with Pakistan and things you cannot. Among the “cannot” is reasoning over the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. Pakistan's stonewalling on this issue has been so relentlessly self-serving that we should now expect a worsening of the situation. In answer to the death sentence confirmed on Ajmal Kasab, Pakistan may now show its defiance by (a) releasing Kasab's handler and the operational leader of the Mumbai attack, Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, and (b) attempting a new 26/11 as quickly as possible.

They have three advantages while India has none. First, the Pakistani military's visceral hostility to India gives it a motivation that matches only Israel's unstoppable motivation to destroy Palestine; even if they get Kashmir on a silver platter, the war against India will continue because the need to justify Pakistan's communal birth will continue. Second, China's unconditional support enables an otherwise emasculated Pakistan to match the economic giant that is India, bomb for bomb.

The third and surprising factor is America's support to Pakistan which is as decisive as China's. America's problem is that it recognises only terror against America as terror. To fight America's war against terror, it needs Pakistan's logistical cooperation. Pakistan cleverly takes the Americans for a ride, extending cooperation one day, denying it another day. In the process, India's war against terror makes no blip on American radar. American military supplies come pouring into Pakistan with user's manuals stipulating that they fire/fly only westward, never eastward.

That's dumb. But what we should note here is that Pakistan, client state though it is, has the guts to stand up against its provider. It did so when unmanned US drones wreaked havoc in its tribal areas. It is doing so right now over a US embassy man (CIA ?), killing two Pakistanis (ISI ?). America has threatened the worst, and eventually Pakistan may yield, but not until it gets its pound of flesh.

Does India ever stand up when it is bullied, challenged, insulted? When Australian racists took it out on Indian students, when American security guards body-checked India's ambassadors because one wore a saree and another a turban, when America put radio-tags on Indian students who had valid visas, when Sri Lankans killed our fishermen, we said gravely each time that it was unacceptable. Then we went on to accept it lying down. Never once did we take action that was acceptable.

The result is : Not one country in the world respects us, to say nothing of fearing us. And fear – of military might, trade retaliation, diplomatic offensive, covert countermoves – is one of the more effective planks of international relations in today's cynical world. Our weight in this world is far below what our size, economy and potential warrant.

Pakistan knows this all too well. Pakistani leadership not only has no fear of India; it has contempt for India. This came out most tellingly when the recently ousted former Foreign Minister, Mehmood Qureshi, brought his full arrogance to bear on S.M.Krishna – with Krishna taking it in stoic silence. Civilised behaviour is wasted on the uncivilised.

Pakistan uses big words like “non-state players” to justify its inaction over 26/11. And why not? India, meak and eminently bulliable as always, is suddenly saying that it is ready for a resumption of dialogue, no conditions attached. So what happened to the earlier publicly stated policy that dialogue was meaningless when terror went unchecked ?

The answer in all likelihood lies in Washington. It does not require inside intelligence to guess that America must be pressurising India to resume normalcy with Pakistan. It doesn't take much pressurising either because Manmohan Singh's India loves nothing more than being in the good books of America.

So Pakistan is free to do what it loves more than anything else – appearing to assist America's war on terror while carrying on its own war on India. Unless India learns how to stand up, we have reasons to worry.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

For real scoundrels, look beyond media

Does the media distort facts? The Prime Minister thinks so. By “focussing excessively” on scam after scam, does the media spoil India's image? The Prime Minister thinks so. For the leader of a government that is neck-deep in scams, it is natural to think as the Prime Minister does. But that does not make it right. In fact the Prime Minister is hopelessly wrong.

Manmohan Singh was in conversation with television editors. A great deal can be said in criticism of news channels. Generally speaking, they are amateurish, childish in their “me first” claims, irritating in their competitive sensationalism, more irritating in their loudness, superficial, repetitive and often plain unprofessional. But, like newspapers, they are essentially mirrors.

News journalism may have its weaknesses, but functionally it merely reflects the reality around it. It does not generate governmental corruption, it only reports it. If scams demoralise the nation and spoil the image of the country, the blame lies squarely with politicians and officials and fixers who produce the scams and benefit from them. The Prime Minister must attack the scamsters, not the mirrors.

Actually, the media is doing an incomparably valuable national service by bringing corruption to public attention. After all, if the media had resolved not to do anything that would “spoil India's image,” what would have happened? The shame of India would have spread anyway as the world would have known that India was a country where a roll of toilet paper could be sold for Rs 4000, and where decisions on spectrum allocations were made in Chennai's Gopalpuram area, and where there were billionaires with more illegal funds in Swiss banks than billionaires in the top five countries put together. It is the people of India who would have remained in the dark about the extent of their rulers' criminalities.

Worse, India would have sunk deeper and deeper into corruption since the corrupt would have been emboldened by the fact that they would never be exposed. The media, for all its excesses, has put the fear of god into the hearts of the criminally inclined politician, bureaucrat and “crony capitalist”. That even their private conversations may someday become public property is one of the best disincentives we have against corruption. The Prime Minister would have been smart to acknowledge this instead of suggesting that the media was negative in its attitude.

It is true that the media also has developed a taste for corruption. It has a long way to go before it can be called mature and creative. But even in its present three-fourth-baked state, it performs the function of a conscientious opposition. Without the media playing this role, Indian democracy would lose much of its substance especially since the formal opposition in Parliament is playing a petty obstructionist's role.

Both in Delhi and in the various states, the Opposition's role is to oppose – oppose for the sake of opposing. If the Government says the sun rises in the West, the Opposition will say: No, it rises in the North. In no other democracy is Parliament's functioning completely blocked as a form of Opposition politics. Even on urgently needed social and electoral reforms, they never show the unanimity they readily bring out when their salary increase bills come up for passing. When corruption cases come up, different parties take different positions as all are entrenched in corruption in different ways.

In such an environment the media becomes the only reliable forum for actionable information and democratic mobilisation. Even those who get the wrong end of the stick really have no reason to grumble. As Ram Mohan Roy explained: “A government conscious of rectitude of intention cannot be afraid of public scrutiny by the Press since this instrument can be equally well employed as a weapon of defence”.

Those who are beyond defence cannot of course use the weapon. But Manmohan Singh should have known that the real scoundrels who spoil India's image are outside the media.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Defiance has become the distinguishing feature of our democracy. Catch a minister in an illegal act, he defiantly claims innocence. Catch a civil servant in a corruption situation, and he defiantly rejects all charges. Catch an MLA in a rape case, and he defiantly accuses you of political motivation. Those in power seem convinced that they are doing us a favour by governing us.

The way Central Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas clings to his chair is typical of this new culture. The point is not whether he is innocent by IAS conduct rules; the point is that he is seen to be not impeccably clean – a fundamental requirement for the CVC's post. Instead of admitting that public perception is important to his post and quitting with his dignity intact, he justifies himself by telling the Supreme Court that 153 MPs are faced with criminal cases. If that is the argument, he should become an honourable MP, not a dishnoured CVC.

Look at Thomas's photographs in the papers. With head tilted defiantly up, he wears a triumphant smirk that seems to dismiss the common run of humanity as inconsequential. The IAS fraternity's expression of support to him has given that smirk an edge that proclaims all is well with the world.

Actually, television enables us to see our netas and babus up close and get a feel of their body language. Who will not be impressed by the defiant, self-important stride of A. Raja even as hefty CBI hands hold him tightly in their grip? Who will not notice the cynicism that plays on Suresh Kalmadi's face as he swaggers up and down in supreme confidence?

In the departments of both swagger and smirk, we have had two astonishing specimens – Haryana police chief S.P.S. Rathore and UP's ruling party MLA Purushottam Dwivedi. Rathore's molesting of a girl led eventually to her suicide. Dwivedi, after violating his helpless backward-class victim, put her in jail on a convenient theft charge. What stood out was the arrogance of the two men. Rathore always had an irritatingly smug smile radiating confidence in his macho prowess. Dwivedi constantly flashed an incredible grin of victory as if to proclaim: Catch me if you can.

Of course we can't catch him. He is an MLA belonging to Mayawati's BSP. It is all very well to say that UP has a Chief Minister who flaunts her Dalit status. But it is in UP that the largest number of attacks have taken place against Dalit women. The police have no time to look into this because they are busy cleaning the Chief Minister's shoes. Nor has the BSP any qualms about the criminalities of its stalwarts. As yet another rape case hit the headlines, a party spokesman appeared on TV to argue that no charges had been proved. When a girl's ear is cut off and nose disfigured and knife wounds inflicted on her body for resisting rape, what proof does the party want – a severed head instead of a severed ear?

The BSP spokesman's attitude is similar to that of the railways, headed curiously enough by another powerful woman. In a lonely ladies' compartment in a Kerala train, a habitual criminal attacked a young girl, kicked her off the train, dragged her bleeding across the rails, suppressed her screams by smashing her skull with a rock, then raped her to his heart's content. She died later. As public indignation mounted, the railway authorities filed an affidavit in the High Court in connection with a previous attack in a ladies' compartment. It said such attacks occurred because lady passengers were careless.

After 5000 years of civilisation and 64 years of vibrant independence, is India losing its way? Is an indifferent and criminally inclined ruling class hijacking our country? Is brutality becoming a way of life? There is something terribly horribly wrong with 21st Century India. High growth rates will not help a nation that loses its soul.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Civilisational Cairo vs. Fools

Cairo has a distinction other ancient, continuous-civilisation cities like Damascus, Baghdad and Varanasi have never had: It is the heart-beat of pan-Arab culture, its influence stretching for beyond its national boundries. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mehfouz was the Arab world's novelist, not just Egypt's. Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram was the Arab world's newspaper. Egypt's Al-Azhar university was the Arab world's university.

Typical of Egypt, the Al-Ahram newspaper was always government-owned, yet often was independent in its conduct. Which contributed significantly to its intellectual and policy impact. It was the arbiter even in the writing style of Arabic for all Arab countries. Al-Ahram (which means the Pyramids; you have to be careful when you hop into a Cairo taxi and say “Al-Ahram” because the driver might take you to the pyramids when you mean the newspaper, or vice versa) was a mighty voice when Mohammed Heykal was its editor-in-chief, from late 1950s to mid 1970s. A thought leader himself, Heykal attracted celebrated literary figures as regular contributors, among them Edward Said, Taha Hussein, Azmi Bishara and Mahfouz himself. Any writer, well-known or otherwise, who was visiting Cairo was free to use a private office and secretarial facilities at Al-Ahram for as long as he stayed in the city. Such was the paper's sense of responsibility to the Arab world's intellectual resources.

Egypt was also the springboard of ideological revolutions as distinct from ambition-driven personal revolutions. Syria and Iraq for example saw some of modern history's cruellest palace coups that put blood-stained military men in dictator's chairs. But in Egypt when Gamal Abdel Nasser helped end monarchy once and for all, he was hailed as a hero in all of Africa and Asia. Nasser, Tito and Nehru were the inspirational Trimurtis of a generation of Afro-Asians.

It is this historical background that gives the upheaval in Egypt a significance popular protests in neighbouring countries do not have. Spontaneous popular uprisings drove Tunisia's dictator out of the country, shook Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Lebanon and made Syria, Libya and Morocco nervous. These other outpourings of public anger show, as much as the blowup in Egypt does, how long and how brutally suppressed the Arab people have been despite the enormous wealth oil gave many of their countries.

Egypt's wealth was never oil. But its civilisational leadership had endowed its people with a vigour and vitality seldom seen elsewhere. Unacceptable levels of poverty exist in Egypt, both in urban jungles and in the countryside. It is unnerving to see young and middleaged men in Cairo and Alexandria reduced to robotic existence and extending their arms for baksheesh at every turn. That level of impoverishment and joblessness is enough to condemn Hosni Mubarak who ruled with an iron fist for thirty unforgivable years and was planning to install his son as dictator for perhaps another three decades. The duration of his reign is a pointer to the harshness of his methods of torture and elimination.

He must have been surprised that the worm turned. In a bid to crush the worm, he appointed intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Vice President. Suleiman is known for two things: His no-nonsense brutality against critics and his closeness to Israel. Notice how “pro-Mubarak” crowds suddenly appeared in the streets to battle the protesters. Notice also the alacrity with which Israel rushed anti-riot equipment to Cairo.

It is Israel and the Jewish lobby in America that sustain West Asia's worst dictatorships. This is ironic because the radicalisation of Islamism threatens both Israel and the US. Much of this radicalisation is the direct result of Saudi Arabian religious propaganda through Wahabism and of course Saudi financing. Yet America describes Egypt and Saudi Arabia as its “staunchest allies”.

How long can this false posturing continue? What we see in Egypt is a battle dictatorship will eventually lose to democracy. No force can stop the human mind's natural yearning for freedom and some dignity. That is why a barefoot army in Vietnam defeated history's mightiest military machine. But fools never learn.