Monday, January 28, 2013

A comparative look at India's future and the Gandhi dynasty's future

What a harmonious coincidence that both the Congress and the BJP had their "presidential" sessions the same week and with the same problem facing them: How to resolve a rather shameful situation with the least shame. Indian politicians being men and women of considerable genius, both parties succeeded, though in different ways.

The problem the Congress had to resolve was how to make dynastic feudalism look like democracy. It resorted to the usual technique of asking, Problem? What problem? It also sugarcoated its stance with speeches extolling the noblest philosophical truths about people, justice, equality and duty. The BJP's problem was how to show that their president, nominated for a second term, was as pure as the snow in the Himalayas. Finding the task impossible, it finally summoned the courage to drop him.

Evidently, the two parties have different operational styles. The Congress show was an orchestrated one, leaders speaking in the same accents and airing the same views. All speeches, all views and all body languages focussed on one unchanging theme -- obeisance to the presiding deity. The BJP was very disciplined outside, but daggers drawn inside. Differences of opinion were so strong that some ranking leaders threatened to file nomination papers in opposition to the incumbent president. What stood out was that there was no presiding deity to propitiate.

In the department of speechmaking, the Congress distinguished itself with its ability to state the obvious as though it was announcing a new discovery. Listen to Sonia Gandhi: Women have the right to feel safe and secure; corruption is deeprooted, we must fight it. Listen to Rahul Gandhi: From now on India is my life, the people of India are my life; last night my mother came to my room, she cried; this morning I got up at night, 4 o'clock in the morning; the youth is disenchanted with the system; the poor are confined to poverty. Perhaps some inanities are inevitable in political speeches. Rahul Gandhi did reflect the angst of a disillusioned public and underlined issues that could no longer be ignored.

Back in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi spoke up for similar ideals in a speech that truly electrified the Congress party and the country. He stressed the importance of getting rid of power brokers and middlemen who plundered the country. The inspirational impact of that call lasted only weeks. Power brokers and middlemen took over the very departments Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister handled. The issues that Rahul Gandhi addressed in Jaipur were fundamentally the same as his father addressed in Bombay 27 years earlier. If nothing could change during that period, how will anything change now?

It would be easy to debunk Rahul Gandhi as a Yuvaraj ascending the throne. However, there has been a degree of goodwill in the way his ascendance has been seen by many, including mainstream media. An angry country is looking for a ray of hope. Yuvaraj or dynasty, if Rahul can at least begin to tackle the rise of evil, from corruption to rape, he won't lack public support.

Paradoxically, his very weakness can be his strength. If dynastic power is a negation of democracy, in the Indian-Congress culture it gives unmatched authority. Rahul Gandhi can wield more effective power than Atal Behari Vajpayee or Narasimha Rao could. For no one in his massive party will dare raise a dissenting voice. How will he use that power? Will he use it, first of all, to stop fawning flattery from his party leaders? Will he use it to punish the big guns found guilty of corruption? Will he end the practice of kitchen cabinets and ensure a climate where merit, and merit alone, will decide positions? These may strike him as obvious things to do. But his mother did not do them, and his father could not do them although they had the power. Obviously they did not have the guts. Does Rahul Gandhi have the courage his father did not have? If he has, India's future will be bright. If he does not, the dynasty's future will be dim.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Pakistan is too serious a problem to be left to our TV Anchors

Pakistan is in deep trouble. So it is pushing India into deep trouble. Our own professional patriots are pushing India into deeper trouble. The great television anchors would love nothing more than a full-fledged war, now, at this very moment, so that their ratings would go up. Some of our politicians too want their ratings to rise. A senior leader said that for one soldier's head that Pakistan cut off, we must cut off ten Pakistani soldiers' heads. This is how patriotism makes villains of us all.

Internal trouble in Pakistan has been a perennial thing. The only difference this time is that it has come in battalions. The killing of Shias in Baluchistan and even Karachi is going on systematically; even after a Sunni extremist group claimed responsibility, the army has shown no interest in taking action. The Supreme Court orders the arrest of the country's Prime Minister. Canada-returned scholar Mohammed Qadri organises a million-men march and sets deadlines for the Government to abolish itself.

Bargains must be taking place behind the scenes at various levels. So, strange things are followed by stranger things. The Supreme Court's order for the Prime Minister's arrest was defied and nothing happened. Qadri's deadlines passed and nothing happened. Qadri's fire-breathing style itself changed suddenly as rumours rose about the Government's plans to arrest him for violating this law and that. As always, happenings of this kind have raised an old question : What is the army up to?

The Punjabi-dominated army has never been happy with the Sindhi-dominated Pakistan People's Party currently in power. The PPP's stock went down when Asif Ali Zardari became its boss and thus the President of the country. Zardari has been a synonym for corruption in Pakistan. His recent crowning of son Bilawal as successor must have riled the army. There would be nothing surprising if the army, under an ambitious hardliner like General Kayani, decided that the time had come to get rid of the civilian Government.

From the army's point of view, the timing was good. America is more anxious than ever to get out of Afghanistan and has come to realise that Pakistan can help make its exit smooth. The problems that had arisen over Bin Laden's killing and the US drone attacks inside Pakistan have been brushed aside. Now America has restored its billion-dollar-a-year "coalition support funds" to Pakistan. Another billion is given in the name of counter-insurgency support. Pakistan's requests for economic assistance from IMF and for other forms of general support will surely find favourable attention in Washington from now on.

This is the area India should have focussed on. The Manmohan Singh Government has gone out of its way to curry favour with America. Indian public opinion against Delhi's dependency attitude to Washington cut no ice. If we bow to US pressure on FDI and agriculture policies and so on while America provides muscle and money to Pakistani military knowing that they will be used against India, it reflects poorly on the Indian Government's understanding of its responsibilities.

When Pakistan cut off an Indian soldier's head, our aim cannot be to cut off Pakistani heads. We should try to cut off the misplaced support Pakistan gets from other countries. That is why experts have been counselling that we should keep the diplomatic channels open even with Pakistan while we try to convince the US and Western countries that Pakistan's war-and-terror machine is a threat to their interests as well. There is scope for India to convey this message to China, too. Islamist extremists based in Pakistan and supported by Pakistani extremists are actively involved in the anti-government terror strikes in China's Sinkiang province.

As of now Pakistan seems to be smarter in international diplomacy. It gets backing from China and the US even as it plays one against the other. Can't our diplomatic community do better? Can't our intelligence community be told to look into the area of covert activities? Certainly they can if the political leadership is a bit wiser. The only thing we cannot do is to make our television anchors shut up. What a pity.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Now China is taking on Japan too; Is the Army's influence growing?

Will the confrontation developing in the waters off China engulf us all? There is an explosive situation between China and Japan, an adversarial situation between China and Vietnam, an unfriendly situation between China and the Philippines and a prickly situation between China and Indonesia. The unhappy situation between China and India of course remains live.

From the Chinese point of view, the Philippines and Indonesia are ignorable because they pose no military challenge. India is ignorable too because China has completed the build up of modern road, rail and airbase facilities on its side of the border while India is still resolving budgetary details, jurisdictional arguments and procurement bottlenecks. China knows that India will/can do nothing except wait for the next round of talks and then the next.

But Vietnam is no such push-over as China knows only too well. The end of the liberation war in 1975 found Vietnam half destroyed and tired. But look at the sequence of events. In December 1978 Cambodia militarily attacks Vietnam. In the next month, January 1979, Vietnam destroys Cambodia's murderous Pol Pot regime and installs a friendly government there. In the next month, February 1979, China invades Vietnam across its 1000-km border. Vietnam drives back the 600,000-strong Chinese army. (A lesson for India?) This background of hostilities gives a sharp edge to China's dispute with Vietnam over the Spratley islands.

More dangerous are the new turns in China's dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands. True, Japan was a defeated nation and its economy nosedived in recent years. But the Japanese are the most resilient of all Asian peoples. The way they came out of the triple catastrophe of earthquake-tsunami-Fukushima nuclear leak in 2011 was incredible. Those who read John Hershey's classic Hiroshima wouldn't have been surprised.

But don't forget the other side, the Kamikazee pilots who crashed their planes into enemy ships because, like all Japanese at the time, they considered the honour of their country more important than their lives. Even after the defeat, Japan's military might never really disappeared. The post-war constitution barred them from having an offensive military. So they formed a defensive military called the Self Defence Force (SDF). It was lavishly funded and grew rapidly. The maritime SDF is listed among the world's leading navies.

The expansion was tied to America's policies. Rules were changed, for example, for the SDF to join American war efforts in Iraq. In the Senkaku dispute also the US has an important role. Japan controlled the islands from the First Sino-Japanese war in the 1890s. (Chinese claims are based on presumed sovereignty before that war). The US administered the islands during the world war. Naturally the islands were included in the post-war US-Japan Security Treaty, thus obliging the US to support Japan in the event of any hostilities. Indeed, the US Congress passed a bill last month pledging to defend the islands against Chinese attacks.

So, is China ready to take on Japan and the US at once? The political background makes the crisis even more complex. Japan has just elected Shinzo Abe as its Prime Minister. Abe is known as a tough rightwing nationalist and Japanese voters no doubt thought that someone like him was needed to tackle an increasingly belligerent China. But Abe cannot ignore economics. China's move to stop Japanese imports has already created recession fears in Japan.

China too is going through a leadership change. Newly elected Xi Jinping has made all the right noises, but he is the first civilian leader in recent times to have direct military links. The initiative must have come from China's military leaders for the strong positions the country has lately taken against its neighbours. Chinese patrol ships have circled the Senkakus and its aircraft went into Japanese airspace last month, something that never happened before. The military seems intent on action to the point of provocation. The question therefore is whether the army will guide Xi Jinping or whether Xi will succeed in guiding the army. Or, are they both one? On the answer may well depend the peace of the world.

Monday, January 7, 2013

We seldom enforce laws, that's why rape victims are still victimised

From every nook of India these days, we hear one question: Will anything come out of all this? It is actually more than a question. It is a cry from the heart. An anguished people, filled with anger and disgust and helplessness over the Delhi rape horror, are asking whether their collective sobbing will bear any fruit. Never since 1947 has a crime aroused such passions as this one. But where are the answers?

By now we know that the luckless girl in Delhi was not merely gang-raped. She was subjected to sadistic torture with iron rods. In a normal society such beastliness would have led quickly to the leaders of the land identifying themselves with the people, participating in their grief and reassuring them. We obviously do not qualify as a normal society. How else can we explain the disconnect between the people and the politicians? How else can ministers cease to be fathers and husbands just because they are ministers?

The Home Minister in particular seemed keen to show his incompetence. (Who cares for competence when loyalty alone is the deciding factor?) When his attention was drawn to the Government not rising to the defence of the people when needed, Shinde said: "Tomorrow a hundred Adivasis can be killed in Chattisgarh or Gadchiroli. Can the Government be there?" What a pathetic man.

No wonder rape victims continue to be victimised by those who should be protecting them. In Imphal last week an 18-year-old victim was remanded to police custody for five days to help the police record her statement. The Criminal Procedure Code specifies not only that a rape victim should not be remanded to custody but also that she should not even be summoned to the police station. The police officer who asked for her remand and the judicial magistrate who allowed it could not have been unaware of the law. Yet why did they choose to break it? Because they share the Shinde Syndrome of irresponsibility.

In fact the days following the Delhi gang rape saw a series of rapes in the country from Punjab to Puducherry, from Bengal to Bangalore. In Karnataka's Bidar district, a five-year-old girl was raped by two men. No one was arrested. In Patiala a girl killed herself unable to stand post-rape harassment by the police. In Bangalore a raped girl's family was targetted instead of being protected. The community elders asked the father to marry her off to the rapist who already had a wife. On the father's refusal, the community began ostracising the family. The father also said the police manipulated the girl's statement to help the rapist.

There is a culture of rape and sadism that covers India. The ancient tradition of looking upon women as cattle to be used at will is strengthened by the modern tradition of the state serving the interests of the bribing class. Where can our women, from 5-year-olds to 70-year-olds, turn for succour?

Some worthy steps have of course been taken. The most hopeful of these is the appointment of Justice J.S.Verma to formulate new legal frameworks to tackle this shame of a problem. Scholarship and independence of spirit have combined to give Justice Verma unmatched credibility. He is bound to come up with proposals of merit. The first fast-track court to try cases of sexual offences has opened and four more are on the way. At the practical level, Chief Minister Jayalalitha was the first to come up with a 13-point plan of action with emphasis on speedier trials and more severe punishments.

Delhi is notorious for not implementing plans. In the last 40 years at least six high-powered commissions presented reports on police reforms. Not one has been implemented to date. Seven years ago the Supreme Court ordered that a clutch of National Police Commission recommendations be implemented. Nothing has been done in practice. This is what lends poignancy to the question whether the current outrage against violent rape will eventually lead to meaningful action. If it doesn't, the present breed of home ministers, prime ministers and their dynastic sovereigns will have to start counting their days.