Monday, August 27, 2012

Kalam writes of flowers and rockets, but not about the Sonia problem

As an author A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is lucky. Only he can get away with the “Dear reader” tone and child-like style of writing and still sell a million copies. It must be his never-say-die optimism and the innocence he carries on his sleeves that make him the most popular President ever.

But don't underestimate him. He knows where to be tough and where to act like a politician. These aspects of his persona are usually hidden behind his perennial smile. But a lifetime spent hobnobbing with Indian politicians, the wiliest in the business, has taught him a trick or two.

His latest, Turning Points, came out at a time when nominations for the presidential election were up in the air with Kalam's name prominently figuring in them. Mamata Bannerji and Mulayam Singh Yadav proposing Kalam's name (along with Somath Chatterji's and Manmohan Singh's) to Sonia Gandhi was one of the factors that forced Sonia to formally announce Pranab Mukherji's choice as the Congress candidate. It was known that Sonia did not want Pranab to be President because he had a tendency to be independent.

The politicking over the presidential candidates had revived memories of Sonia Gandhi's widely believed ill-will for Kalam. From the time Sonia opted out of the prime ministership following the 2004 election, there were reports that she had turned resentful of Kalam. Some reports mentioned that Kalam had advised her that her foreign origin might create problems for her becoming Prime Minister. No confirmation of this came from any side, but the story of Sonia falling out with Kalam had gained enough ground for the American embassy in Delhi to report it to Washington as WikiLeaks revealed.

Since it was publicised that Turning Points would deal with the non-appointment of Sonia Gandhi, there was considerable interest in the book. But those expect any information on the controversial topic will be disappointed. For one thing, Kalam reaches the topic leisurely, on the 134th page of a 176-page book. Twelve chapters test the reader's patience, with Kalam talking about his lectures, his talks with children, his suggestions on governance, his poems, his list of good deeds, his visits abroad, his improvements to the Mughal Gardens, the virtues of medicinal plants, rejuvenating the heart of India, etcetera.

Finally he came to “the three situations” that engaged his personal feelings. Actually he listed four. The first was the cabinet decision to dissolve the Bihar Assembly, a crisis that almost made him resign. The second was the Office of Profits Bill which he returned for reconsideration. The third was capital punishment cases on which he found many unfair assumptions. And the fourth – at last – was inviting the Congress to form the Government in 2004.

Kalam writes on the subject without saying anything. He merely says that he was ready to appoint Sonia Gandhi as Prime Minister and that, to his surprise, she put up Manmohan Singh for the job. So what about all the circumstantial evidence supporting Sonia's hostility to Kalam, what about the Congress cold-shouldering him, what about those American diplomatic cables? Not a word. In fact his account is so cheerful, about pleasantries being exchanged and so on, that we would think the two were buddies. This is Kalam the politician at his best.

Readers of the book have to be satisfied with the few points he makes elsewhere with firmness. When politics degrades into adventurism, he says, ruination would follow. We must graduate from political politics to developmental politics, he says. He also criticises Parliament for not debating seriously practices that cannot meet the standards of public probity.

In the course of all this, Kalam gives unstinted praise to P.V. Narasimha Rao. “I found Rao very perceptive on defence issues.... He had a long-term vision of building robust systems of defence application”. This is about a man who is a non-person in Sonia Gandhi's book and is denied mention in official Congress records. So now we can guess at least one reason for Sonia's dislike of Kalam.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Horror erased the joy of Independence in 1947. How valid is joy today?

Independence day can be an unsettling experience if you spend it reading about how it all began in 1947. Today we rejoice, we fly the flag proudly and say Jai Hind with confidence. All of which is right. But to forget the mass killings and horrendous human tragedies that marked the occasion 65 years ago would be unwise – because the mentality that led to the gory partition riots is still around as is clear from the Assam riots, the Mumbai violence and the sudden exodus of northeast people from places like Bangalore.

If mere rumours can spread panic today, we can imagine the scale of atrocities that accompanied independence. There are books and films that tell us about them. A book that many may not read is D.F. Karaka's Betrayal in India. That's because Karaka was seen as a social snob. In the 1950s-60s Bombay he and R.K. Karanjia were rival polestars, one editing Current, the other Blitz. Karanjia was the people's editor, identifying himself with popular causes. Karaka was a rich, British-educated, dressing-for-dinner kind of man, famous for throw-away sentences like, “at the luncheon table of J.R.D.Tata, I sat opposite Pandit Nehru”, and how “Madame Chiang Kai-shek did me the honour of asking me to tea”. In the course of the celebrated feud between the two editors, Karanjia called D.F.Karaka Damn Fool Karaka, and all Bombay laughed.

But Karaka was a gifted journalist. His contacts were unmatched and his columns were read. Betrayal in India is an account of what partition meant to the people of Punjab and how the masses felt let down by the new government that assumed power. On both issues his thesis is not new. We know now that partition brought out “not the surgeon's healing knife but the butcher's destructive axe”. We also know that freedom and power made patriots turn into predators. But Karaka said it in 1950, when the wounds were till bleeding and the masses still believed that Jawaharlal Nehru would lead them to justice and prosperity. Three generations later, we can say: Yes, what a let-down.

Memories of the “undeclared civil war “ in Punjab in August-September 1947 produce shocks even today. Calcutta had seen massacres earlier but at partition time Mahatma Gandhi lived in places like Noakhali and wrought what the British editors of The Statesman described as a near miracle. In Punjab there was no Mahatma. There were fearsome formations. The Muslim League had its National Guards who wore uniforms and “were reminiscent of the Nazi SS”. The Sikhs had their Shahidi Dal and the RSS had its armed wing. It was open war and there was no government machinery capable of controlling the warring groups.

Karaka describes the arrival of a refugee train from Pakistan at the Amritsar station. Later that same day a train going from India to Pakistan also stopped at Amritsar. The train from Pakistan had been savagely attacked three times and the survivors, as they reached Amritsar, said at least 2000 passengers had been massacred. The train to Pakistan was clandestinely shunted to an isolated track near the Khalsa College where its passengers too were attacked. Savagely.

In both trains “men, women and children lay dead in the most ghastly positions... Many a head and hand lay dismembered. Mouths gaped wide in horror, fear and pain.... Who were all these people dying like flies? They were poor, unarmed, defenceless peasants. They certainly had no political consciousness and had never been concerned with issues like partition and boundaries. They were only counted in hundreds and thousands as one counted heads of cattle”.

In the next chapter, Karaka recounts how “a new class of Indian now emerged on the Indian scene, the khaddar-clad, Gandhi-capped, black-marketeering patriot”. He talked of politicians and businessman who made a killing by illegally cashing 1000-rupee notes following their demonetisation. Karaka was lucky. He did not live to see Bofors, the Commonwealth Games and the 2G spectrum bonanza. The betrayal of India continues.

Monday, August 13, 2012

If politics were an event in Olympics, India would have won all Medals

It is heartbreaking to see a billion Indians hoping against hope for one creditable performance by one Indian in the Olympics – and then exploding in excitement when a humble bronze is won. Did you notice any excitement in the US? In China? They win gold by the tonne and take it as routine.

Champion countries didn't get there easily. Behind their success are back-breaking training systems and long years of dedication. In America, as the world's leading capitalist state, sports training is a business enterprise conducted with all the paraphernalia and competitiveness of corporate culture. In China it is part of communist rigour where top results are mandatory. India fails in this league because sports is for us an extension of politics. Athletics or archery, football or cricket, hockey or tennis, we run them all as we run the Nationalist Congress Party or some such. Sports in India is meant for the Suresh Kalmadis of India.

Hockey is a good example of politics as destroyer. India was Olympics champion in hockey eight times. The team today has some new players who performed well enough to win matches against Pakistan, China, Japan and South Korea. But they finally fell victim to the power struggle between the warring factions of the game, Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation. Pressure from the Sports Ministry in Delhi and warnings from the International Hockey Federation failed to enforce peace. The hockey politicians fought so savagely that the players were demoralised. The humiliation in London matched the humiliation in Beijing four years ago.

Such things are unimaginable in other countries. American training centres maintain high standards because the competition among them is stiff. They provide high-quality services in physical conditioning, mental training, sports psychology, speed techniques and even coach education. Because the English Premier League is “the most successful, viewed and profitable soccer league in the world”, football training schools teach also British philosophy.

China was an under-performer not long ago. It won its first Olympic gold medal only in 1984. Then it decided to take a leaf from Stalin and start a whole new culture in sports. Back in the 1950s, Stalin had picked sports as a field where the Soviet Union's supremacy could be put on display as a winning point in the Cold War. He succeeded. In events like gymnastics, weighlifting, kayaking and wrestling, Russian and East European stars became household names across the globe. Every human fell in love with Nadia Comaneci. But the methods Stalin used to achieve this distinction would not be acceptable to others. Coaches were told the number of medals their wards had to win in a particular event. If the quota was not filled....

In China Government diktat was an acceptable way to achieve excellence. Once it was decided to become a sporting nation, China set up special schools to train sports persons. There are 3000 of them today where some four lakh children, picked up by talent scouts, are given rigorous training. From them half a lakh “gifted” children are chosen for specialised training in elite sports schools.

It's tough life for the kids who start at age 5 and 6. Mornings are for general education. Then four hours of relentless training under unsmiling coaches. The children are kept fulltime in boarding houses, with access to parents only in weekends or perhaps monthends, rather hard in a country where the one-child norm is law. There are occasional reports of coaches beating the children, even doping them. But medals are what matter, and medals they win.

We are an honourable capitalist country, so we can't resort to communist methods. But why are there not enough entrepreneurs setting up sports schools with honourable profit motives? Perhaps they have no prospects when politicians are meddling in sports. So we are back at the mercy of the state. Unless the Government bans political leaders from sports, our athletes will have to find gold in bronze, and the nation must hold its head between its knees. How about FDI in sports? At least PPP?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mishandling, indifference at the top: How not to handle key Ministries

The first thing to recognise – and recognise publicly – is that the Prime Minister of India had precious little to do with the two cabinet appointments that all Indians are talking about. Congress spokespersons have been telling sceptics that it is the Prime Minister's prerogative to appoint cabinet ministers. Well, not in India in its current phase of politics. And every child knows it, including Congress spokespersons.

Given the self-focus of those who govern our country, no one expected anything inspiring from the long-predicted cabinet reshuffle. But no one expected a slap in the face either. Picking Sushilkumar Shinde for promotion from Power Minister to Home Minister was damaging enough as an idea. Its timing made it an affront to the people. Under his auspices, the nation faced its biggest ever power breakdown plunging 300 million people into darkness. The next day a bigger breakdown occurred affecting 600 million people. Precisely in that dark hour, he was relieved of his burden and elevated to Home. Just when a minister flops, give him a promotion. A strange logic that begs questions.

Why did not the Supreme Power wait for a week so that the people would at least not feel offended? Because the Supreme Power does not care what the people feel. Why Shinde? Because his appointment would carry two messages. First, that Home is a portfolio that the Supreme Power wants to be closely guarded by The Faithful. Second, that Shinde ranking high among The Faithful is all that counts. The country's interests? That's secondary.

Let's not make the mistake of thinking that this was a chance appointment. Actually, there is a method in this madness. Remember the best-dressed man in Indian politics, Shivraj Patil? As a prominent member of The Faithful, he was given Home earlier. The result was disaster. Terrorist sleeper cells sprouted across the country, Indian Mujahideen appeared on the scene, Maoists gained ground, the professionals in the security establishment raised warning signals. Even political circles expressed doubts about the competence level of the Minister. Nothing mattered. The Minister's suits remained immaculate and the Supreme Power happy. Then 26/11 happened. Finally the man had to be kicked upstairs and P. Chidambaram brought in. Home is now back in safely incompetent, and safely faithful, hands.

Chidambaram, one of the smartest operators in politics, handled 50 percent of the Home Ministry with efficiency. He identified problem areas, took corrective steps, improved the morale of the professionals. But he fumbled with the other 50 percent. He made the Maoist problem worse by failing to see the difference between them and Pakistan-backed Mujahideens. He was insensitive in handling Kashmir and the Northeast. He was crude and counterproductive in the way he tackled the Anna Hazare movement. His success was that he had secured his place among The Faithful. So he could get away with his faultlines. That also explains his return to Finance from where he had given rise to allegations of malfeasance. As Finance Minister he will perhaps perform better than he did as Home Minister, but what will happen to issues like the 2-G spectrum case?

The overriding factor that stares the nation in the face is the ruling clique's indifference to the real problems facing the people and to anything like a longterm view of things. Typical is the treatment meted out to the Power ministry in the latest shuffle. Poor infrastructure is recognised as one of the major roadblocks in the way of economic growth and investment. This makes Power a key portfolio, but the Congress party could not find a capable minister to handle it on a fulltime basis. It has simply put it as “additional charge” on Veerappa Moily's head which is already occupied by the Corporate Affairs ministry.

Look at it anyway, the ruling group is anything but serious about ruling. There is no accountability, no logic, no understanding of the country's needs, no empathy with the people. There is only one fixation: Ensuring the security and interests of the Supreme Power.