Welcome to my blog. I may write copy here that I would not present elsewhere. This blog allows me to comment while reporting for clients which can include subscription-only platforms. I use it to take a sideways look at running stories, and all views presented here are my own.

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Friday, 31 December 2010

British PM message for New Year; belt tightening in order!

Prime Minister’s New Year Message
After eight months in this job, I am acutely conscious of the challenges we face as a country. But I begin this New Year in the same positive frame of mind as when I set out the task of starting a new government back in May.
By nature I am an optimist – about people, about human nature and, above all, about the future of our great country.
If we sort out our problems, and make the most of our many opportunities, we can be one of the international success stories of the new decade.
As for politics, my approach is simple: politics is public service in the national interest.
We all have our dreams, ambitions and principles that we cherish and want to put into place.
But most important of all, particularly at times like this, is to deal with the real problem in front of us.
And there can be no doubt what that is: the state of our economy and the budget deficit.
We have been living seriously beyond our means.
We have to sort this out.
Every sensible person knows this.
The national interest dictates that we do the right thing, which is to act, not the easy thing, which would be to delay.
In doing so, we should be clear: Britain has a really bright future to look forward to.
2011 is going to be a difficult year, as we take hard but necessary steps to sort things out.
The actions we are taking are essential, because they are putting our economy and our country on the right path.
Together, we can make 2011 the year that Britain gets back on its feet.
Eight months ago we inherited an economy in deep trouble.
The previous government had racked up the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history.
We only have to look at what’s been happening in Greece and Ireland to see the kind of danger we were in.
Rising interest rates. Falling confidence. Others questioning whether you are still credit-worthy as a country.
And, remember, the deficit we inherited back in May was actually forecast to be bigger than that of Ireland or Greece – or any other developed country for that matter.
But we’ve pulled Britain out of that danger zone.
Through the Budget and the Spending Review we've taken some really tough decisions to rescue our public finances and fundamentally change the direction of our economy.
The new independent Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts the economy will grow continuing into 2011 and to rise further in 2012.
So we have a credible plan for restoring confidence in our economy.
But we have to see it through.
A lot of the heavy lifting will happen in 2011.
Each and every Minister in this Government is acutely aware that the plans we have in place are tough, in fact incredibly difficult, but we are clear that the alternative – indecision and delay – would mean taking unacceptable risks with our economy, our country and our people.
I didn’t come into politics to make cuts.
Neither did Nick Clegg.
But in the end politics is about national interest, not personal political agendas.
We’re tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal.
This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.
When we talk of building a bigger, stronger society, we mean it.
These debts are not the government’s debts, they are the country’s debts.
We’re all in this together.
As we deal with the deficit we are protecting the things people cherish the most - like the National Health Service and the old age pension that we are re-linking to earnings.
We want to take people with us.
The Coalition - two distinct political parties, working together to tackle a national economic emergency - is the embodiment of that spirit.
Of course Coalition politics is not always straightforward.
We don’t agree on everything. We never said we would.
But I believe we are bringing a new style of government.
A more collegiate approach. One where we’re prepared to argue things out and then act to do what we both believe is in the national interest.
The political risks are greater this way.
But so too are the rewards.
As a Coalition government we are governing to the needs of the country.
And, in the last eight months, I believe that the government has been decisive, bold and determined.
We must maintain that drive in the months and years ahead.
As we start 2011, our priorities should be about enterprise, aspiration, the modernisation of our public services and the security of our people.
First, enterprise.
Uppermost in my mind as we enter the New Year is jobs.
Now ultimately it’s not government that creates jobs, it’s businesses, entrepreneurs, wealth creators.
And that is particularly true when governments are so deeply in debt that they have to cut back their own spending programmes.
So small and growing businesses will be our most important job creators.
And I want us to look at all the reasons why people find it hard to start a business and all the barriers that stop a small business growing and really get tough with ourselves in addressing them.
I want us to create a new economic dynamism in our country.
I want to see more bank lending, particularly for small businesses.
More deregulation.
More investment in the sectors of the future – like with our reform of the electricity markets which will help to create tens of thousands of new sustainable green jobs.
From the start of the year right through to the Budget and beyond, we are resolved to be relentlessly focused on supporting growth and driving job creation across our economy.
Second, aspiration.
In spite of some good measures in recent years – Sure Start and the Academy programme for instance – social mobility has stalled.
Bright children from poor backgrounds do much better in other countries than here in the UK.
That shames us.
It is in the very earliest years of a child’s life that disadvantage really takes hold.
That’s why we are protecting schools spending and enhancing it for the least well-off, offering free nursery education for disadvantaged two-year-olds and introducing a pupil premium, worth hundreds of pounds for each disadvantaged pupil.
But unless we modernise our public services, like education, we will never build a country of real opportunity.
Nor will we ever sustainably live within our means with outdated public services, pensions and welfare.
So our third priority must be to modernize those public services.
We will shift power away from central bureaucracy and give choice to the parents, patients and local citizens who use public services.
This will mean more open public services, more innovative, more responsive to what people want, and better value for money.
Fourth and finally, I want to say something about our national security.
For many years now we have been aware of the threat we face from international terrorism.
Recent arrests show that that threat is still very much with us.
And it is as serious today as it ever has been.
As we enter the New Year our police officers, together with their colleagues in the security and intelligence agencies, are working round the clock to foil plots that would do terrible harm to our people and our economy.
This government will be unstinting in the support it gives them.
But they also depend on the support of the public as they go about their work: together we will defend our values and way of life and defeat those who threaten them.
But we must ask ourselves as a country how we are allowing the radicalization and poisoning of the minds of some young British Muslims who then contemplate and sometimes carry out acts of sickening barbarity.
And the overwhelming majority of British Muslims who detest this extremism must help us to find the answers together.
But in the fight against terrorism we cannot just protect ourselves at home.
We also need to take action with our international partners abroad.
Just before Christmas, the Prince of Wales and I visited service personnel being treated at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham.
It was a stark reminder of the incredible bravery and sacrifice being made by all our servicemen and women who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.
For those serving in Afghanistan, 2011 is a crucial year in which we will start to transfer security responsibility for districts and provinces to Afghan control.
As the Afghans become steadily more capable of looking after their own security, so we will be able to start to bring our own forces home.
Enterprise, aspiration, public service reform and national security - these are the things that will determine whether in 2011 we take the steps towards the better, stronger, safer Britain that is within our grasp.
I am determined that we will.
That together, we have the right plan to pull through the tough times ahead.
And that if 2010 was the year we stopped the rot, we can make 2011 the year that Britain gets back on her feet.

Monday, 27 December 2010

P Sainath on Farmer Suicides in India

(First published in The Hindu)
Even as the media celebrate the Mercedes Benz deal in the Marathwada region as a sign of “rural resurgence,” the latest data show that 17,368 farmers killed themselves in the year of the “resurgence.”

When businessmen from Aurangabad in the backward Marathwada region bought 150 Mercedes Benz luxury cars worth Rs. 65 crore at one go in October, it grabbed media attention. The top public sector bank, State Bank of India, offered the buyers loans of over Rs. 40 crore. “This,” says Devidas Tulzapurkar, president of the Aurangabad district bank employees association, “at an interest rate of 7 per cent.” A top SBI official said the bank was “proud to be part of this deal,” and would “continue to scout for similar deals in the future.”

The value of the Mercedes deal equals the annual income of tens of thousands of rural Marathwada households. And countless farmers in Maharashtra struggle to get any loans from formal sources of credit. It took roughly a decade and tens of thousands of suicides before Indian farmers got loans at 7 per cent interest — many, in theory only. Prior to 2005, those who got any bank loans at all shelled out between 9 and 12 per cent. Several were forced to take non-agricultural loans at even higher rates of interest. Buy a Mercedes, pay 7 per cent interest. Buy a tractor, pay 12 per cent. The hallowed micro-finance institutions (MFIs) do worse. There, it's smaller sums at interest rates of between 24 and 36 per cent or higher.

Starved of credit, peasants turned to moneylenders and other informal sources. Within 10 years from 1991, the number of Indian farm households in debt almost doubled from 26 per cent to 48.6 per cent. A crazy underestimate but an official number. Many policy-driven disasters hit farmers at the same time. Exploding input costs in the name of ‘market-based prices.' Crashing prices for their commercial crops, often rigged by powerful traders and corporations. Slashing of investment in agriculture. A credit squeeze as banks moved away from farm loans to fuelling upper middle class lifestyles. Within the many factors driving over two lakh farmers to suicide in 13 years, indebtedness and the credit squeeze rank high. (And MFIs are now among the squeezers).

What remained of farm credit was hijacked. A devastating piece in The Hindu (Aug. 13) showed us how. Almost half the total “agricultural credit” in the State of Maharashtra in 2008 was disbursed not by rural banks but by urban and metro branches. Over 42 per cent of it in just Mumbai — stomping ground of large corporations rather than of small farmers.

Even as the media celebrate our greatest car deal ever as a sign of “rural resurgence,” the subject of many media stories, comes the latest data of the National Crime Records Bureau. These show a sharp increase in farm suicides in 2009 with at least 17,368 farmers killing themselves in the year of “rural resurgence.” That's over 7 per cent higher than in 2008 and the worst numbers since 2004. This brings the total farm suicides since 1997 to 216,500. While all suicides have multiple causes, their strong concentration within regions and among cash crop farmers is an alarming and dismal trend.

The NCRB, a wing of the Union Home Ministry, has been tracking farm suicide data since 1995. However, researchers mostly use their data from 1997 onwards. This is because the 1995 and 1996 data are incomplete. The system was new in 1995 and some big States such as Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan sent in no numbers at all that year. (In 2009, the two together saw over 1,900 farm suicides). By 1997, all States were reporting and the data are more complete.

The NCRB data end at 2009 for now. But we can assume that 2010 has seen at least 16,000 farmers' suicides. (After all, the yearly average for the last six years is 17,104). Add this 16,000 to the total 2,16,500. Also add the incomplete 1995 and 1996 numbers — that is 24,449 suicides. This brings the 1995-2010 total to 2,56,949. Reflect on this figure a moment.

It means over a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995. It means the largest wave of recorded suicides in human history has occurred in this country in the past 16 years. It means one-and-a-half million human beings, family members of those killing themselves, have been tormented by the tragedy. While millions more face the very problems that drove so many to suicide. It means farmers in thousands of villages have seen their neighbours take this incredibly sad way out. A way out that more and more will consider as despair grows and policies don't change. It means the heartlessness of the Indian elite is impossible to imagine, leave alone measure.

Note that these numbers are gross underestimates to begin with. Several large groups of farmers are mostly excluded from local counts. Women, for instance. Social and other prejudice means that, most times, a woman farmer killing herself is counted as suicide — not as a farmer's suicide. Because the land is rarely in a woman's name.

Then there is the plain fraud that some governments resort to. Maharashtra being the classic example. The government here has lied so many times that it contradicts itself thrice within a week. In May this year, for instance, three ‘official' estimates of farm suicides in the worst-hit Vidarbha region varied by 5,500 per cent. The lowest count being just six in four months (See “How to be an eligible suicide,” The Hindu, May 13, 2010).

The NCRB figure for Maharashtra as a whole in 2009 is 2,872 farmers' suicides. So it remains the worst State for farm suicides for the tenth year running. The ‘decline' of 930 that this figure represents would be joyous if true. But no State has worked harder to falsify reality. For 13 years, the State has seen a nearly unrelenting rise. Suddenly, there's a drop of 436 and 930 in 2008 and 2009. How? For almost four years now, committees have functioned in Vidarbha's crisis districts to dismiss most suicides as ‘non-genuine.' What is truly frightening is the Maharashtra government's notion that fixing the numbers fixes the problem.

Yet that problem is mounting. Perhaps the State most comparable to Maharashtra in terms of population is West Bengal. Though its population is less by a few million, it has more farmers. Both States have data for 15 years since 1995. Their farm suicide annual averages in three-five year periods starting then are revealing. Maharashtra's annual average goes up in each period. From 1,963 in the five years ending with 1999 to 3,647 by 2004. And scaling 3,858 by 2009. West Bengal's yearly average registers a gradual drop in each five-year period. From 1,454 in 1999 to 1,200 in 2004 to 1,014 by 2009. While it has more farmers, its farm suicide average for the past five years is less than a third of Maharashtra's. The latter's yearly average has almost doubled since 1999.

The share of the Big 5 ‘suicide belt' States — Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — remains close to two-thirds of all farm suicides. Sadly 18 of 28 States reported higher farm suicide numbers in 2009. In some the rise was negligible. In others, not. Tamil Nadu showed the biggest increase of all States, going from 512 in 2008 to 1060 in 2009. Karnataka clocked in second with a rise of 545. And Andhra Pradesh saw the third biggest rise — 309 more than in 2008. A few though did see a decline of some consequence in their farm suicide annual average figures for the last six years. Three — Karnataka, Kerala and West Bengal — saw their yearly average fall by over 350 in 2004-09 compared to the earlier seven years.

Things will get worse if existing policies on agriculture don't change. Even States that have managed some decline across 13 years will be battered. Kerala, for instance, saw an annual average of 1,371 farm suicides between 1997 and 2003. From 2004-09, its annual average was 1016 — a drop of 355. Yet Kerala will suffer greatly in the near future. Its economy is the most globalised of any State. Most crops are cash crops. Any volatility in the global prices of coffee, pepper, tea, vanilla, cardamom or rubber will affect the State. Those prices are also hugely controlled at the global level by a few corporations.

Already bludgeoned by the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), Kerala now has to contend with the one we've gotten into with ASEAN. And an FTA with the European Union is also in the offing. Kerala will pay the price. Even prior to 2004, the dumping of the so-called “Sri Lankan pepper” (mostly pepper from other countries brought in through Sri Lanka) ravaged the State. Now, we've created institutional frameworks for such dumping. Economist Professor K. Nagaraj, author of the biggest study of farm suicides in India, says: “The latest data show us that the agrarian crisis has not relented, not gone away.” The policies driving it have also not gone away.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cameron's Eid event speech


Thank you very much for that, and can I say how incredibly welcome you all are.

There are really three things I want to say tonight. The first is that I think we should be a country that celebrates and looks up to faith, rather than thinks of faith as somehow a problem or an embarrassment. I think what Sayeeda has spoken about on this subject is absolutely brilliant, and I am glad that she has made those speeches.

I had a wonderful reminder of the importance that British Muslims attach to their faith, and the importance of faith in general, when I went to stay with a British Muslim family in Birmingham. One of my duties was to take their very wonderful daughter and son to school in the morning, and I found out that I was taking them to King Edward’s Jewish School in Birmingham. When I asked the parents why they were sending their children to a Jewish school, they said, ‘We are all Abrahamic faiths and we want our children to understand the importance of faith, and this is a very good school.’ I thought that was a wonderful example of the important role that faith organisations play in our society.

I think we should try and do more to examine and understand how much our faiths all have in common, because they do have so much in common: teaching us, trying to do good works and live a good life, as well as to worship our God, and I think that is an incredibly important message. So you are very welcome here, it is great to be having this celebration and can I thank everyone who has made it possible.

The second thing I wanted to say is just to celebrate the immense contribution that British Muslims make to our national life. There are two-and-a-half million Muslim people in Britain and – it is not a well known fact – I gather the first Mosque was established in Cardiff 150 years ago. I am not quite sure why Cardiff was chosen but there we are! I think it was something to do with Yemeni seamen arriving in Cardiff and wanting somewhere to worship.

Today, if you look at our armed services they are the largest non-Christian group in our armed services, and serve valiantly in Afghanistan; I have just talked to two brave British Muslims who are serving in the armed forces there. After Christians, British Muslims are the largest religious organisation in our police force as well. A huge amount is given by British Muslims into business life, into cultural life, and we should also remember the huge contribution that Muslim charities like Islamic Relief make to the relief of suffering around the world, as I myself have seen both at their depot in Birmingham, but also their amazing work on the ground. I think tonight is a good opportunity to recognise the massive contribution that British Muslims make to our national life.

The third point I wanted to make – and it has been wonderful that so many people have mentioned it to me just walking from that door to standing here. The point many people have made to me is the important role that British Muslims want to play in building a big society.

I think this is crucial, because what this is about is just asking ourselves what more can we do not just for ourselves and our families, but what we can do to build a stronger community, what we can do to take more control of our lives, what we can do to actually help solve some of the social problems we have in our country. When you look at what British Muslims do think and take part in, I think they have – you have – an enormous role to play in that more generous and tolerant and open society that we all want to build.

So, for all those reasons, a very warm welcome. Please enjoy the refreshments there are and listen to the band, who I think are absolutely outstanding, and I want to thank them for coming all the way from Birmingham today. I think Eid has messages for all of us about family, about friendship and about worship; that whatever religion we belong to we can take very seriously.

I want to pay a huge credit and compliment to my friend Sayeeda, who I think has done more than any other single person to connect British politics with people in the British Muslim community.

To all of you: Eid Mubarak. Thank you.


Saturday, 30 October 2010

Who cares, and what difference does it make?

He writes from his gut, and there are not too many who do, but what difference does it make in India?
Between scam India and slum India
M.J. Akbar
It is entirely appropriate that a nation whose motto is Satyameva Jayate should discover a metaphor for ravenous loot in a Mumbai building society called Adarsh. Greed is the new religion and all are welcome to feed at her trough. Nothing else is sacrosanct; not the highest offices in public service: Chief Minister, Army chief, Navy admiral, or top bureaucrat through whom the file must pass. If there is a flat to be stolen in a housing society sanctioned for the welfare of war widows, then every single one of these crooks is ready to cheat the blood of Kargil martyrs. Thomas Friedman did not know how many puns danced on the head of a simile when he called the world as flat and began his journey in India.
There is no shame left. It is tempting to ask whether there is an India left when most of its ruling class has abandoned every principle in its composite, vulgar commitment to theft, but hopefully India is larger than its ruling class.
Which came first, hypocrisy or greed? Tough question. I would give primacy of place to hypocrisy, since that is the cloak behind which greed flourishes. Hypocrisy is always a great temptation in a democracy, since compromise always begins in the name of either realism or service. The gap between true expenditure in an election and officially sanctioned levels is the principal propeller of corruption since it becomes the justification for taking illegitimate “donations”, which of course is the polite word for bribes.
The stink of hypocrisy now permeates through all levels of authority, and institutions — like our defence forces — which cannot co-exist with corruption. They will be corrupt or a force; they cannot be both. The list of officials who stole from the Kargil dead is almost embarrassing: politicians, senior IAS officers, top defence officers. It was a rigged lottery handout.
It was robbery from the graveyard of Kargil martyrs. Those back-scratching cronies who distributed Adarsh flats between themselves should not be tried for corruption. They should be punished for treason.
But of course that is asking for too much from rulers who have become venal beyond belief. The system believes it can satiate any level of public anger with the meat of a scapegoat. Suresh Kalmadi was the officially nominated sacrifice for the putrid rape of public money during the Commonwealth Games. Ashok Chavan, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, will possibly have to resign because of Adarsh, unless he can, quietly, blackmail his superiors in Delhi by threatening to reveal how much cash he has been passing on to them.
We are being fooled by a clever set of manipulators in Delhi. Ashok Chavan did not become corrupt on the day media discovered that he had not only changed the terms of reference to cheat the “heroes of Kargil operation who bravely fought to protect our motherland” and then calmly stolen at least four of their flats for his family. He was corrupt the day he was made a minister in the Maharashtra government. He was promoted to Chief Minister not because he was competent but because he knew that the formula for upward mobility in the Congress, the happy combination of loyalty and corruption. When Delhi now puts on a mask of high outrage, it is only because it thinks this is the only way in which it can postpone retribution from the voter.
The voter does not live in Adarsh. 62% of Mumbai lives in slums. The distance between scam India and slum India is measured each day in the newspapers, but discomfort prevents us from noticing. Even media seems reluctant to shorten this distance. While the front page of Saturday’s newspapers in Delhi were full, justifiably, of the Ashok Chavan-led pillage, a small story on page 3 told of an unknown mother who left her two children, a boy, Pukar, and his sister Dakshina, outside a “mazaar” [a saint’s shrine] just outside the office of the Election Commission in Delhi, the home of the guardians of democracy. She gave her children all that was left with her, a bag with milk and some clothes, and told them she would return in an hour. She never returned. Her last trust was faith in the shrine. The children, said the temporary caretaker of the “mazaar”, Wazir Shah, cried the whole night. The children are now in a shelter.
They will learn to deal with the hungry, homeless, loveless reality that is the destiny of half of India while a thin skim ravages national wealth, and those in-between are trapped between dreams and insecurity. But will Pukar and Dakshina accept their “fate” and ignore Ashok Chavan and his fellow gangsters in the way that their helpless, nameless mother did? I hope not.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Not Rani's viewpoint; more a topic for discussion

What do you think of MJ Akbar's opinion, readers? I'd really like to know

The point missed between hyperbole and ridicule
M.J. Akbar
24 October 2010
The question begs to be asked. Has the Congress changed its view of Jaya Prakash Narayan after 35 years, or has the Congress changed its view of Rahul Gandhi after 35 months? An official spokesman of the party has, after all, compared Rahul Gandhi to a national hero, a veteran of the Congress Socialist Party, the leftist group that became a power within the party in the 1930s, and a freedom fighter whose last fight for freedom was to liberate India from the censorship, suspension of democracy and Emergency which Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed in 1975 upon the country in order to save her Prime Minister’s chair.
The Congress line on JP, as he was popularly known, was unambiguous: the khadi-clad Gandhian was alternatively a “fascist”, “anarchist”, “anti-national”, and whatever else came into the mind of the Congress leaders after they had read yet another polemical tract written by forgotten Bolsheviks. The Seventies were a decade when it was still fashionable to be of the leftist persuasion. Mani Shankar Aiyar, one of the brightest minds in Congress, would not have been consigned to the doldrums: he would have been an intellectually vigorous colleague of Mohan Kumaramangalam and D.P. Dhar, rather than a mere nominated Rajya Sabha MP. That was a time when “CIA” was a dread acronym, an organisation accused of assassinating unfriendly world leaders, not a building block of an allied security system whose chief could get an appointment with the Indian Prime Minister whenever he sought it. It was an age when Palestine was an ally of India, rather than Israel. Anyone who opposed this “politically correct” left was therefore ipso facto a “fascist” et al. The “anti-national” bit was added not only because JP had the temerity to challenge the rule of a woman who had been equated with India [the Congress president in 1975 famously said “Indira is India”] but because JP in a public speech had come close to asking Indian soldiers to reconsider their oath of loyalty to a government that had become venal. As you can see, that was a tempestuous era.
One presumes that Rahul Gandhi has none of these JP-type political characteristics, at least in Congress eyes. No Congress spokesman would even dare to think of Rahul as a fascist, and even if his political views are a trifle fuzzy they are hardly authoritarian. There will of course come a time when a Congressman will claim that “Rahul is India and India is Rahul” without getting sacked, since sycophancy is eternal, but that is still into the future. So the spokesman must have been, at some internal level, comparing Rahul’s popularity to JP’s. But that too is a radical departure, since JP’s appeal was always dismissed as false.
The spokesman’s enthusiasm for historic parallels has, apparently, been snubbed into silence since it was clear to the high command, a single-person unit consisting solely of Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi, that the hyperbole had opened Rahul up to ridicule. But while this is sensible [it always makes sense to cut your losses while the balance sheet is still manageable], the corrective is missing the point. JP’s place in the history of Indian democracy is not going to be determined by political social-climbers. The problem is not what the spokesman said but the impulse that made him say what he did. He was indulging in public sycophancy because he believed that this was the shortest route to promotion.
This disease is not limited to the Congress; most parties have created supra-human icons out of their leaders. This is because the life of the party is about as long as the life of the leader; one-man, or one-woman parties do not cross the lifetime of their creator. But the Congress is 135 years old. It was the torchbearer not only of the freedom movement but also of the values that have become enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Those values eroded, inevitably, and it is no longer the “central fact” of Indian politics, to use a phrase coined by Jawaharlal Nehru. But it remains a dominant force, and its implosion will leave vacant space that will not be easy to fill.
The paradox is that its opponents might do less damage to the Congress than its sycophants. The culture of obedience aborts proper discussion, for everyone around the table is eager to do just one thing: discover what the leader thinks, or wants, and then find a rationale that takes the participant to the same conclusion. This is not a meeting of minds. This is decision-making in a hall of echoes.
Rahul Gandhi has some way to go before he finds a working strategy: philosophy is passé these days, so it is unfair to ask him to get one. A good way to initiate the process is to use the door. A door is not only an entrance but also an exit. He should keep it open for independent thought, and show the door to sycophants.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

India wins non-permanent member seat at UN Security Council

It was expected. The vote count was 187 out of 191. India is at the table.


Saturday, 2 October 2010

MJ on That Verdict

Byline for 3 October 2010
2010 is a century away from 1992
M.J. Akbar
The judiciary is more important than any judgement. Every institution has to be larger than the sum of its members, and nowhere more so than the two pillars of any democracy, Parliament and the judiciary. We do not question the legitimacy of an enactment just because we disagree with an MP, or indeed because the behaviour of some MPs might have been unsavoury. A substantial section of India did not agree with the passage of the nuclear bill in 2009; and evidence of bribery in the process was produced, in a fairly dramatic way, during the proceedings. This did not mean rejection of the new legislation.
Lawyers and leaders of the Sunni Waqf Board and the Muslim Personal Law Board have repeatedly insisted that they would abide by the judgement of the courts. This was both reasonable and acceptable [reason and response have not necessarily been in harmony during the long years of contention over a mosque at Ayodhya]. When the Allahabad High Courts judgement was deferred by the Supreme Court for about a week, there was perceptible irritation among Muslims, who wanted the verdict to be announced. It is possible that such enthusiasm for the verdict was fuelled by a conviction that it would go in favour of the mosque. The lawyers and spokesmen of the pro-mosque movement displayed considerable confidence. Maybe they forgot that however strong a case may be, it still has to be argued before a bench, and complacency within the legal team can be a fatal flaw. It was the BJP that was preparing for an adverse judgement. Its leader L.K. Advani told his party repeatedly, before the verdict, that any remorse should be a private matter; and that violence was unacceptable. No disputant can deny the validity of the judicial process, or the credibility of the verdict, just because it has gone against you. That is counter-productive, and dangerous.
In any case, the Allahabad judgement is a semi-colon, not a full stop. The full stop will come when the Supreme Court takes a decision. Muslims will appeal, as they have every right to. It must also be stressed that in 1993 Parliament clearly prevented the courts from hearing any other dispute over a place of worship. Ayodhya is the last case of its kind.
The Congress, which has been in power during all four of the nodal points of the Babri-Ayodhya controversy opening of British Raj locks and installation of idols in 1949, laying of the foundation stone for a temple in 1989, destruction of Babri in 1992 and the verdict in 2010 is in search of an amicable settlement. The game is old and evident. Congress policy on the dispute has rotated around one axis: how to get the temple built without losing the Muslim vote. The BJP has no Muslim vote to lose, but it will support such an under-the-surface endeavour since it obviously wants a temple to be constructed as soon as possible. If Ayodhya is the last case of its kind perhaps we should let it complete the legal process as well. We have waited for six decades; why not wait for two or three years more? Any amicable settlement is unlikely to be amicable enough for everyone, to begin with and could degenerate into a political compromise that could strain community relations rather than heal them. If we trust our institutions then we must trust them fully.
Pseudo-politicians in religious garb seem to be able to resist everything except temptation, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. Unsurprisingly, therefore, one or two professional fire-breathers among Muslims have reinforced their reputation for irresponsibility by indulging in provocative rhetoric from the pulpit. They have not learnt from the experience of a quarter century what the price of provocation is, for they never suffer. The price is paid by the poor and the defenceless, who live in crowded lanes, defenceless on one side and hostile on the other.
There is however some good news. Those who think they can still milk hysteria are blind to an extraordinary change that has come about in India. The people, Hindu or Muslim, have risen above the negative politics of communal conflict; they want the positive politics of development. Faith and worship still matter to Indians; and it is a very limited, elitist, Delhi notion that the young have moved beyond religion. They have not. But they have moved beyond violence as a means to their horizon.
The impoverished have understood a simple, important, over-riding reality: poverty is not communal. There is no shortage of places for prayer in our country. There is, however, a shortage of self-respect, since every hungry stomach in our country is a sharp slap on the face of the idea of India. 2010 is a hundred years away from 1992.
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.

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

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Recently from M.J.Akbar

No short cuts in governance
M.J. Akbar
Governments never seem to understand a basic fact of the democratic dialectic: no Opposition wants its demands met. It prefers a Government to be stubborn, so that it can string out the accusation long enough for it to sink so deep into the public consciousness that it cannot be extricated by delayed redressal. There is not much political value to an accusation unless it becomes an intrinsic part of campaign rhetoric. In theory, the Opposition turns a day in Parliament into a verbal festival over the Commonwealth Games because it wants accountability for corruption. In practice, Opposition parties need to maximise the advantage by being able to go to town and village with the message that the Government has not only stolen the peoples money, but is so thick-skinned that it will do nothing about the thieves. The obduracy of authority is the ultimate gift to Opposition.
In real terms, it hardly matters whether Suresh Kalmadi goes now or after the Games. His role as the sports czar of India is effectively over. It is only a question of whether he gets a nice gift at the farewell party which, of course would be the closing ceremony of the Games or he is sent towards the sunset in lonely isolation. As far as the people are concerned the difference between grace and disgrace has evaporated. It could hardly be otherwise given the scale and sheer audacity of the corruption. It is possible that the bunch in charge of this lucrative extravaganza thought they had squared all sides. There were junkets aplenty, across the political divide. The BJPs Vijay Goel went to Beijing for technical studies as did the Congress Jagdish Tytler: neither had anything to with CWG but must be worthy of technical doctorates by now. Perhaps they were being given early training for the Asian Games. Delhis Congress legislators Haroon Yusuf and A.S. Lovely went to Melbourne to find how they run city transport, which of course is why Delhis traffic has already become better than Australias. Naturally they travelled first class. This is nothing but big-budget back-scratching between pals, an insurance policy against exposure: if everyone is guilty then no one is guilty. The officials have piled up enough flying miles to look after family holidays for a couple of years. They might all have got away if they had not all been so confident about the spread of the swill. But there are always a few who refuse to be co-opted. They keep our democracy democratic.
Time turns corruption into a milch cow. If A. Raja had been dropped from the Cabinet after the telecom storm burst, the collateral electoral damage would be limited. Now that he is being retained, he will become the perfect, mobile target for Jayalalithaa during next years Assembly election: mobile is the perfect metaphor, of course, since Raja will be wandering around the state. A good cartoonist could do wonders with Raja posters, if Jayalalithaa has one and has the will to leaven her anger with a bit of wit.
Governments do understand a second fact of our political debate: the issues that agitate Parliament and media are seasonal. Their expectation is that they will seem less important to the voter once the initial froth has subsided. If the big tent does finally manage to produce a circus, the memory of the gravy train that brought it will dissipate in the merriment. Who will bother to hold anyone accountable after the Games are over? It is not in the Governments vested interest to do so. It is not within the Oppositions capability to do so.
The tendency to elide through crises with token gestures can become a self-defeating habit. This was the initial approach to the building anger in Kashmir, and now the people do not take even a well-meaning gesture seriously. Omar Abdullah was literally driven away, and had to be bundled out to his waiting helicopter by a frantic security posse when he visited a hospital. He cannot travel a few kilometres through his capital in a car; he needs a helicopter. He reached the flood-distressed region of Leh with far more alacrity than he had shown in the city from which he rules, because, for the moment at least, he has become Chief Minister of Jammu and Leh rather than the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Perhaps he, and Delhi, believes that Ramzan, the month of fasting that begins this week, will bring calm. It could. Surface calm however is not peace. There are no short cuts in governance.
Does Government need to worry about Opposition fulminations if there is no election visible? That is the only accountable moment that the ruling system takes seriously. Since we do not have the law of recall, Governments tend to dismiss street anger as an emotion that can be assuaged nearer an election. Lack of popular support, however, saps the energy of authority.
A weak government weakens the nation.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London

Friday, 6 August 2010

Joint Statement by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister David Cameron 6 August 2010

They didn't give a joint press conference, instead this statement was issued to us by the Foreign and Commonwealth office

The President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan HE Mr. Asif Ali Zardari and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rt. Hon. David Cameron MP met at Chequers on 6th August 2010.

The President of Pakistan complimented Prime Minister Cameron on his election as the Prime Minister of the UK.

Pakistan and the UK have longstanding relations which are based on shared interests and mutual respect. Both leaders affirmed their commitment to further strengthen strategic and co-operative ties between the two countries by intensifying the UK-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue and confirming a yearly Summit. This Dialogue will deepen consultation on global and regional issues of peace and stability, will include people to people links, enhanced business investment and trade, collaboration in the education sector, and cultural and parliamentary links.

The two leaders welcomed the forthcoming launch of the British-Pakistan Foundation as an initiative to promote connections between our peoples.

Both leaders agreed that a strong, stable, secure and economically prosperous Pakistan is vital to global and regional peace and stability. In recognition of this, both leaders agreed to pursue closer development, economic and trade co-operation as part of the intensified Strategic Dialogue.

President Zardari underscored that Pakistan needs trade even more than aid. The Prime Minister said that the UK will continue to be Pakistan’s strongest ally in pursuing greater trade access to the EU for Pakistan.

Prime Minister Cameron expressed the UK’s support for Pakistan’s democratic government and expressed the UK’s solidarity and support for Pakistan coping with the damage caused by recent floods. He also expressed his condolences at the loss of precious lives and sympathy for the bereaved families. President Zardari expressed thanks for the UK’s pledge of £10 million of immediate relief for flood victims and for accelerating an already agreed £10 million bridge reconstruction programme.

Among the common challenges facing the UK and Pakistan is the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. Both leaders agreed that terrorism and extremism are global issues and needed to be combated by intensifying cooperation at the global and regional levels.

Both leaders discussed the role being played by the democratic government in fighting against terrorism. The Prime Minister recognised the sacrifices made by Pakistan’s military, civil law enforcement agencies and people in fighting violent extremism and militancy and appreciated the efforts of the democratic government. Both leaders appreciated the close co-operation that already exists between respective police forces and other security agencies.

The two leaders agreed that such co-operation needs to and will intensify. In this regard the British Home Secretary would visit Pakistan in the Autumn. They asked the Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism to make proposals for enhancing practical co-operation ahead of the visit.

Pakistan and the UK will intensify their strategic engagement and pursue comprehensive Ministerially-led co-operation under the framework of a summit level strategic dialogue process. This will be taken forward through annual contact between the British Prime Minister and the President/Prime Minister of Pakistan.

These Summit meetings will be reinforced through regular national security discussions. The two leaders looked forward to the meeting between Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi and British Foreign Minister William Hague under the revitalised Dialogue in October.

The President invited the Prime Minister to make an early visit to Pakistan. The Prime Minister was pleased to accept.

6th August 2010

Monday, 5 July 2010

Dhondy on the Naxalites

Naxal Tantric Rituals
Jul 03rd, 2010 -- Farrukh Dhondy
“Pride, a stubborn donkey Conceit, a blinded mule
The flattered never realise The flatterer is a fool”
From Mughlai Ditties By Bachchoo
My father was once town engineer of Jamshedpur and my late brother-in-law Ramesh Bhasin, also in the employ of the Tata empire, was sometime vice-president of the Tata Iron and Steel Company in the same town. I don’t exactly know what Ramesh’s specific responsibilities were and haven’t bothered, while writing this to call my sister and ask, because it doesn’t seem relevant. He was a servant of the capitalist enterprise that seemed to require him to travel for days in the coal and ferrous mines of Bihar and what is now Jharkhand.
As an occasional visitor to Jamshedpur, deliberately disinterested in its narrow social round, I would be offered the option of taking some reading and writing and being driven to the remote “interior” where one or other of Tata enterprises had a guesthouse where I could spend a quiet solitary time.
These guesthouses had been built near the sites of mines, in places called Jodha, Jamadobha and Naomandi. I wasn’t aware at the time of an unrest in the indigenous population to whom this land traditionally belonged. Though I fancied myself a Marxist, I gave no time to analysing the precise economic or political contradictions or dimensions of these places. Ramesh was very aware that I would, in the presence of his friends and superiors (I remember inflicting such on Russi Mody), argue against the capitalist exploitation of the local populations. I engaged him in conversations about the make-up and demands of the Tata trade unions. He explained their inherent corruption and I became aware, as anyone living in Jamshedpur would, that Tata employees, cushioned by being allocated free accommodation, schools, hospitals and pensions, would be reluctant to jeopardise this position of proletarian privilege by supporting union militancy.
About the rural or forest population where I spent a few days or weeks at a time, I knew very little. While there, I would read and write and discuss the night’s meal with the caretaking chef and wander out on walks, wary of the wild animals who, I was warned, were quite capable of attacking and eating me. On several trips I found that the sadhus in or near the streams of the districts or looking after the isolated country temples, grew small allotments of cannabis for themselves and were extremely generous with handing out pocketfuls of ganja and equipping me with a chillum to smoke it in. “Shambho! Hai Shambho! Jai Shambho!” was the knowing and mischievous eyeball-rolling slogan and benediction I took away from those encounters.
Now Jharkhand is in turmoil. It is one of the territories where the exploitation of the natural resources by agencies completely alien from the native population has given the Naxalites a base of operation. These places are now a launch-pad of violence directed against the injustice of a settlement in which the natives get nothing but forced displacement. That the targets and victims of such violence and the counter-violence of the inept state are palpably imprecise has ever been the way with “class war”.
It is not even clear in a strictly Marxist analysis whether the violence and organisation one reads of in the papers can indeed be called class war. The aim of the party that directs the violence is to overthrow the state. The aim of the cadres they recruit is to get corrupt police and politicians off their backs and participate in the spoils their territories provide and in the general material advance of the country. Into this divergence of aims, there is the opportunity for the bourgeois state to drive a wedge — if it can generate the incorruptible will to do it.
I have no right or intention to editorialise on Naxalism. Before the Naxal activity took root in the places in which I blithely holidayed, the officials of the company that worked the mines felt no guilt about digging those mines or making that steel. The talk then was of the advance of the country as a whole, the generation of expertise to expand India’s capacity to exploit its natural resources and turn them to industrial and constructive use.
They had no idea that in a few decades the pace and direction of development of the country would be such that the sections of the population that could and would explore and seek to own the freshly discovered mineral wealth of the land would be, justly, characterised as agents of a lop-sided social equity — if not as downright crooked exploitative parasites.
The very democratic development of the country, one that forced the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to come into existence, has resulted in an awareness and intolerance of such social and developmental inequity and iniquity. Hence the fertile soil for Naxalism.
The movement itself, with all the explanations forwarded by its apologists and by the hand-wringing “behalfists” who speak on their behalf, has always been a radical deviation from all forms of Marxism. Some of the propaganda perpetrated by the CPI(Maoist) party — and I admit that there could be willful distortions in the reports I have read — appeal more as tantric rituals of social cleansing than a Marxist programme for revolution. The derailment of trains and the killings at Dantewada, may serve some fantastic far-fetched strategic or recruiting purpose but in today’s world of aimless jihadic terrorism they appeal more as the slaughter of the hapless and the innocent. Lenin would not have approved.
At this time, all developmental and military factors considered, the Maoist Party is extremely unlikely to lead a peasant revolt or a Long March which will win the countryside and surround Mumbai and Delhi and wrest power at the centre for a Maoism that China has long buried. They may succeed, with very many voices now urging negotiation and compromise, in establishing themselves as part of the radical democratic make-up of the districts and states in question. If they take or share power in these states, will they annex the means of production, communise the land and its resources and share the proceeds and power as no other state professing socialism — not Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, the Kim family’s North Korea or Pol Pot’s Cambodia — has ever done?

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Farrukh Dhondy in Dalhousie

This is what Frarukh has been up to the last couple of weeks (courtesy Asian Age)
Plainspeak On Hills
Jun 26th, 2010 -- Farrukh Dhondy
"Underneath the lamplight
She stood those tortured hours
Waiting for the ones who knew
She wasn’t selling flowers.”
From Bictorian Bull
by Bachchoo
I am in Dalhousie, a settlement on five hill in the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by the Punjab where all roads seem to lead. I have lost my way twice walking down and up the mountain roads of this beautiful natural spot, a colonial town, entirely now Punjabised, if that’s a word, a suburb of Delhi with hill folk thrown in.
I am the guest of a friend and his family and, very grateful for his sumptuous hospitality meet the elite of the hill resort at his lunch and dinner parties and am courteously included when his guests reciprocate with invitations for a drink, a barbecue or dinner. Most of the people I meet during this short sojourn, which I am using to finish some pieces of sustained writing, discuss the weather — here, on the plains and in London, talk about literature, international and national, discuss their pastimes of golf, tennis and their keep-fit regimen, talk international politics assessing Barack Obama and the almost new coalition government of the UK’s David Cameron with acute analysis and even committed concern, a contrast to the annoyance and disgust which they profess for the latest news of the tactics of the Bharatiya Janata Party to get their nominees into the Rajya Sabha or the antics of the Shiv Sena in calling a strike of rickshaw and taxi firms and drivers.
These are international people who can discuss the shopping, art and wines of Europe and, perhaps with greater familiarity, the prices and promises of America.
There are local topics of course — the access to the Internet, the flexibility of civic supplies and, interminably, how much their houses have acquired the trappings of modernity — the constructed cutting that makes it possible for the 4x4 to drive to the front door of the house, the storage tank for water that defies all shortage of supply, the annexe which can be rented out as a summer getaway.
I encounter these gentle folk, people I have inevitably already met, as I take an evening walk, a necessary ritual of being here.
The town was named after the Viceroy of India who introduced the infamous “Doctrine of Lapse” whereby Indian Kings without heirs would cede their territories to the British East India Company.(cf. Many books and films including Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players). In London I met a direct descendant of this reviled Viceroy who told me that his illustrious or infamous ancestor had never been to the place and didn’t in fact found the resort. It was named after his departure from India or even from this mortal dispensation. It somewhat surprises me that no politician of Himachal Pradesh, a relatively new and presumably possessively inclined state has sought to rename the town. After all, “Bombay” and “Madras” despite not being Hastingspur or Curzonabad had to go. Compared to Dalhousie, their names were in the scheme of things inoffensively neutral. (Indians pronounce the name as “Del-How-Zee” even though the British retain the Scottish pronunciation for the name: “Del-hoo-zee”, though in my brief sojourn I haven’t seen any itinerant Scotsmen here).
The people I do pass on the beautiful mountain walks are either those I have met at the lunch parties taking their pre-prandial exercise, middle-class Punjabi families waving holiday sticks and moving noisily along or gangs up from the plains for a break in the hotels clustered around the armpit of the hills know as the town centre. I also pass, every hundred yards, the servants of the “barabecue-Tandooratti” crowd walking the family dogs and then at larger intervals, coming out from paths in the lower hill or descending from the “pug-dandis” of the upper slopes, the hill peasantry who live in the shanties of the town or in the ramshackle constructions of the villages which one can see dotted about the distant deep and wooded valleys.
As one passes these socially distinct individuals or groups, or they overtake you in their determination to keep the tandoori calories in check, we greet each other. It’s always a “hi”, “hello”, “good evening” or even an English exchange about the weather, the wonderful view or the sighting of a langoor, the black and white fluffy monkeys of these parts. Walking though is a serious business it makes impatient and brief encounters, the political niceties are left to the encounter at the dinner party under the stars.
The local taxis, white personnel carrier vans for the most part, driven by brazen horn-blowers and packed with the non-home-owning or non-bungalow-renting type of tourist, twist at high speed around the mountain curves, treat the hair-pinned roads as though they were Ludhiana streets and drive close enough to walkers to drive them off the cliffs.
If the local holiday-makers, the ones you haven’t met at the cocktail pass you on foot, you might smile and say a “namaste”, in recognition of being the only humans at least five minutes from civilisation. The isolation of the hills breeds a bonhomie. You may get a “namaste” in return or, more usually, a stone-faced denial of your existence.
With the people of the hills, the natives of Himachal, sons of the soil of the state, one doesn’t even attempt a “namaste”. They wouldn’t understand. Dalhousie and, I suspect, the other ex-colonial hill towns of India, are divided worlds. At least two.
They originated as such. The houses which today are Indianised still have old colonial names. There is Snowdon, the house now dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore which was once the object of Welsh nostalgia. Then there is the oddly named “Param-Dham Norwood” with its oxymoronic dedication to the Vedas and a south London district.
The vestigial nomenclature of the Raj mixing in with modern India is the least of it. Dalhousie, providing a resort for the upper classes of the plains, some of them citizens of the international sphere and providing subsistence, if that, for those who don’t deign to greet you on your walks, doesn’t strike one as a reproduction of colonial India. It is more accurately the terracing of modern India.
Away from Dalhousie, a long way in economic and political complexion, the disparity has led to militant despair. What is so plain in this Himalayan resort is true on a much greater scale of any town in India. The difference is only that in, say, Mumbai the vast disparities are part of the productive terrain. Dalhousie is a resort to which people come leaving the causes and capitalistic justifications for the disparity behind.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

MJ on Bhopal

Is peace on sale in Bhopal?
M.J. Akbar
Here are answers to the questions you no longer have to ask. First: how long would deputy chairman of the planning commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, protégé of the Prime Minister, ranking leader of the World Bank Alumni Association and senior advocate of multinational corporate interests, have taken to send Rs 983 cr to Union Carbide or Dow Chemical if Bhopals workers had killed the plant, rather than the other way around? My guess is 983 seconds. Ahluwalia would have probably sent the funds by wire.
The Madhya Pradesh Government made a request for Rs 983 cr as additional compensation for the rehabilitation of gas victims. Ahluwalia could not find the money in 2008. When, in 2010, public anger at 26 years of injustice not from Carbide, or Dow Chemical, but from Indian courts and brazenly insensitive Delhi Governments reached a crescendo, Ahluwalia discovered the money in 983 seconds, and released it quietly, a few hours before the first meeting of that desperate vote-saving device called the Group of Ministers.
Why was there no money two years ago and why is there money today?
Money was never the problem; Ahluwalia and his masters simply did not care for the gas victims. They were far more worried about the health of Dow Chemical, which was threatening to teach India a lesson for not eliminating any hope for liability payment from the company that had bought Carbide. Gas victims do not participate in discussions between India and American industry. They cant speak English, and dont live in Lutyens bungalows, so how would they understand the exchange rate between Delhi and Wall Street?
Does the Union Government have Rs 1,000 cr lying around in petty cash, which an upwardly mobile bureaucrat can pick up whenever he chooses to? Or does the Planning Commission have a secret account for emergencies like a sudden outburst of public opinion?
Officially, no: All expenditures must go through due process and find a claim on the national budget. But there is lots of moolah available from diversion; if you cant dip your hand into the holy Ganga, there is always a quiet tributary teeming with fish. Each year, many departments cannot actually spend their allocated money and therefore return unspent portions. The Minorities Ministry has been notorious for finding ways in which it can avoid expenditure. In any case, a Union Government can always find money if it wants to.
Why did the Madhya Pradesh Government wait 24 years before it asked for Rs 983 cr? Why not in the first 983 days? Or in the next thousand days? Why wait for over 8,000 days?
The snail-pace of the system is the easy, but bogus, answer. Over the last quarter century, Congress and BJP have shared power in Madhya Pradesh for about an equal number of years. They have offered a range of Chief Ministers, from the charismatic to the useful to the voluble to the forgettable. Irrespective of their comparative merits, each CM has been motivated by one primary desire, re-election. That is the basic propulsion machine of our democracy, as indeed of any other democracy. The great tragedy of Bhopal is that it never became a game-changer in electoral politics, either in India or in the state, and so politicians simply did not care enough about the consequences of their indifference or malice.
A decisive general election was held within four weeks of Bhopal, but the mood of the voter in 1984 was shaped by the martyrdom of Mrs Indira Gandhi and the youthful promise held out by Rajiv Gandhi. Congress won every seat in MP, and very nearly every seat in most of the country. Five years later, it was Bofors, to be followed by Mandal and Ram Mandir. Life moved on. Bhopals dead, as happens so often, became a vague memory, a cause limited to activists rather than national purpose. It has taken 26 years for Bhopal to enter the political narrative, which is why Opposition parties are reactivating their comatose limbs, and Government is discovering money that it could not find for a quarter century.
Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hold Ahluwalia, or anyone else, accountable?
The UPA Government and its fulcrum, the Congress, believes that this is only another passing storm, albeit one of unsuspected turbulence. They can see the storm becoming a gale, with a couple of tornados hidden within the chaos. They have probably allotted private codenames: Tornado Digvijay, Gale Rasgotra, Storm Narasimha, and perhaps even Irritating Disturbance Singhvi. Hurricane Arjun (Force 4) is still to break, although, if it follows traditional patterns, it will veer and dissipate before hitting landfall. By the summer of 2011, Congress hopes, Bhopal will return to that old backburner, and a general election will still be a thousand days away.
It must be praying that Rs 983 cr will buy at least 983 days of peace.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Open letter from PM David Cameron to Aung San Suu Kyi

On the occasion of her 65th birthday.
Dear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Today you will mark yet another birthday under house arrest – cut off from your children and your family. My thoughts, and thoughts of so many people in Britain and across the world, will be with you and with the people of Burma. The injustice of your continuing detention mirrors the injustice that the regime has inflicted on your country and your people for so many years. Throughout that time, you have stood firm, at enormous personal cost, for the principles of liberty and justice. You have become a powerful symbol of the strength of the human spirit. Like my predecessor, I personally have long found your example deeply inspiring. I want to assure you that as Prime Minister, I will maintain a close interest in Burma. The British Government I lead will do all it can, both internationally, working through the United Nations, and bilaterally, to bring a brighter future for Burma and your people, in which they enjoy full human rights and true democracy. I have never forgotten your own request: that we should use our liberty to help the Burmese people to obtain theirs. I promise we will do everything we can to achieve that.

Friday, 11 June 2010

MJ's recent piece

The many colours of red
M.J. Akbar
Red is not a single colour. By the second half of the Sixties most of the world Latin America, Africa, Asia, most of Europe was awash in its many hues, and Vietnam took its counter-intuitive edge to the campuses and television screens of America. By the late Sixties, and through the early Seventies, the Naxalite offensive had turned parts of India scarlet. The epicentre was Bengal, but the seepage was powerful enough to affect Delhi. Mrs Indira Gandhi, the most perceptive politician of the last half century, recognised its implications amidst the comfort zones into which a slothful Congress leadership had retreated. She broke the party and reinvented herself as a pink ruby in a clutter of paste diamonds.
Mrs Gandhi was astute enough to launch a major offensive against poverty, but did not have the economy to sustain her political will. Nor did she have the conviction in shared governance to build alliances within Parliament, and with industry, labour, peasantry, academia and media that could become the vanguard of change. India is too heavy a weight. It moves only when we all pull together.
That familiar adage of the freedom movement when Bengal sneezes, India gets a cold worked for the last time during the red upheaval of the Sixties. The sun rose from the east, but that sharp red streak of dawn faded quickly in the harsh sunlight of the rest of India. Bengal rejected scarlet, and dyed itself in the pale red of democratic communism, introducing a doctrine that challenged other applications of the phrase. Where the Soviet-East European model, for instance, gave primacy to communism over democracy by subverting the latter into a one-party dictatorship, Bengal became a one-party state in a cooperative electoral process that legitimised the party through election victories that might arouse scepticism, but whose credibility could not be challenged. The fulcrum of Communist rule in Bengal was social stability, which Congress had destroyed in the Sixties by cynical manipulation. The peace of the last three decades has veiled the fact that Bengal is a partition province, with a history of Hindu-Muslim antagonism that has deeper roots than Punjab. The Muslim League was born in Bengal; and Punjabi literature has nothing compared to the anti-Muslim froth that layered so much of the best Bengali writing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Why is the colour of Bengal swirling back towards the tricolour of India? There are many reasons, of course, including the rather obvious failure of the Left to embed itself into the consciousness of contemporary youth in the manner that it once dominated the minds of Bengali youth in the Seventies and Eighties. The young comrades who once drove a wedge into the sky kept the dream alive in their children, but have now lost their grandchildren, the teenagers who are leading the celebrations after every Mamata Banerjee victory. But there is a second, equally important, albeit unrecognised, reason for the electoral debacle.
We are used to dividing Bengal along Hindu-majority West and a Muslim-majority East, with the border as the only definition. But there is a new West and East in our Bengal. Official statistics say that the Muslim population of West Bengal is 28%; it might rise to 30% after the current census. But this demographic is not evenly distributed. Muslims are concentrated in the eastern districts of West Bengal, parallel to Bangladesh, forming about 40% of the voting population in the thickly populated regions south, east and north of Calcutta. Any map of the results will show that the core reason for Mamata Banerjees success lies in the shift of the Muslim vote from the Left towards her persona.
One uses this term carefully, since she is at the moment a personality who has inspired a revolt, but not been able to institutionalise her advance into a political structure. It is interesting that Muslim enthusiasm for Mamata has not transferred to the Congress. The Left has made gains where it contested the Congress, and its overall vote has increased by 4% compared to last years general elections. The Congress was routed in Pranab Mukherjees constituency, which has a Muslim majority.
If Mamata repeats this performance in the Assembly elections, one-party rule will be replaced by one-woman rule. The Left, technically, is a coalition, but in truth, Bengal has been ruled by the CPI(M). Having ensured social peace for three decades, the CPI(M) took the Muslim vote for granted, indifferent to the reality that the grandchild was not ready to accept what father had.
Could anything change what is widely seen as inevitable? The Left has begun to implement a job reservations policy for minorities; we do not know if this is too little, too late. Change is an exciting thought for a generation that has not experienced violence, so the young may dismiss this as a cynical last throw of the dice by a defeated gambler. Moreover, Mamata has empowered Muslims by making more of them candidates, but she will be vulnerable where she gives seats to the Congress.
The red of Bengal has already been diluted by time. The tint of the future will be determined in 2011, and the easel is with the Muslim voter. Both sides know that.
The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London

Thursday, 3 June 2010

MJ Akbar; After scripting acts, Amar now acts on a script

This from MJ Akbar recently.
Out of Turn
The Times of India
Which required better acting from the irrepressible Amar Singh: a 14-year association with Mulayam Singh Yadav or his role as husband of Dimple Kapadia in a Malayalam movie?

Politics is carbon-dated by events, not time. Partnerships need tensile strength to survive misunderstandings when suspicion warps a relationship into a tangential curve. Mercury rather than blood flows through the vein of public life; politics is very human and turbulent, and ego floats beyond the reach of rational discourse.

The best politicians are very talented, but often that blessing is flecked with problems characteristic of a maverick. The big chiefs like talent in their subordinates, but squirm at its attendant frailties. Bright sparks tend to possess an implacable desire to place a mirror before stupidity. The reverse mirror, however, displays a more provocative facet. Jealousy and intrigue are companions of ambition; if the talented were not ambitious, they would not be in politics.

Any institution, whether party or government, demands the stability of an uncontroversial script, or the comfort of silence from geniuses who can never find an equitable balance between their self-estimation and the role they have been given in what is essentially a Brechtian beggar's opera. Jairam Ramesh is a sharp and well-read politician, except when his tongue goes to his head. He has been a good environment minister, willing to stand his ground and even take a risk or two. But collective responsibility demands caution: you have to keep space between your blow-drier and your brain. Jairam Ramesh may even have been right on China, but he was wrong to say what was right.

Despite his penchant for the unusual, Amar Singh has been a far more careful politician, sticking to his responsibilities at some cost to his individuality. Happy memories are the first casualty of an unpleasant divorce, but it would be unfair to forget Amar Singh's mastery of the craft of first-past-the-post democracy. Mulayam Singh Yadav got the votes, but the real point in our system is to get winning votes. Backroom strategy can turn the first into the second in a difficult election. The conversion of Jayaprada into a Begum of Rampur who became more real than the real Begum deserves a chapter in any analysis of Indian democracy. Amar Singh has now taken on a more formidable challenge, the reinvention of Amar Singh.

Actors slip easily into politics because they have MBAs in the management of adulation. They have studied the arts of froth and the science of glamour, most notably the cruel fact that it has an early sell-by date. Madhubala remains an ageless icon because she died in her Thirties; death interrupted decline. A Dimple Kapadia is a rare phenomenon: she will be forever 16 thanks to 'Bobby' and a personality that is incompatible with domesticity. Women actors generally choose marriage as their retirement home. For a very few, 40 is too old for cinema and too young for oblivion, and they shift careers. Men get a few more years if they live in a gym. Politicians, however, do not possess the courage to become actors. Amar Singh has the élan to act a script after so many years of scripting an act.

The problem in both professions, of course, is finding an audience, without which you are not in business. An alliance with Mulayam Singh was ideal because he could guarantee a minimum box office in the worst of seasons. Nor were they involved in a multi-starrer like Congress, where great battles seethe beneath surface discipline. It was a two-star act, with Amar Singh the perfect alter ego to his leader. Perhaps a midlife crisis was inevitable, leading to a parting of ways. Mulayam Singh still has an audience, but can he turn it into a winning proposition? Amar Singh knows how to win, but does he have an audience?

When such questions set out in search of answers, they can lose their way in the by lanes of paradox. The definitive replies will be available only in the next assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh. If Amar Singh picks up, to give an example, the votes of his fellow Thakurs, it will hurt Congress rather more than Mulayam Singh's socialists because Congress is counting on a mobilization of upper castes and Muslims. And the greater the fragmentation the better it will suit Mayawati, whose core support remains consistent even if her supplementary vote is drifting.

If dancing has been described as the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, then there is a similar divergence between position and intention in politics. Subtle histrionics mix basic instinct with populist promise; rhetoric carries the message. The voter plays along, suspending disbelief en route to a polling booth.
Amar Singh is good before any camera, either in a studio or on the street.

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, and India on Sunday, published from London

Friday, 28 May 2010

Suspected Maoist Attack on Train

The Maoists have vowed to observe a "black week" and a rail attack seems to be part of this.

The Hindustan Times wrote,

The Indian Railways said sabotage by suspected Maoist guerrillas may have caused the train derailment in West Bengal that left 20 people dead and over 100 injured early Friday.

"We suspect it is a case of sabotage. The driver (of the passenger train) has reported to have heard a large sound. There was definite tinkering with the tracks," member railway board Vivek Sahai told reporters in New Delhi.

The sleeping passengers were killed when a goods train rammed into four bogies of the Gyaneshwari Express that jumped rails at 1:30 am on Friday morning allegedly after fish plates were removed and portions of tracks cut out deep inside Maoist-dominated West Midnapore district of West Bengal.

This comment from the Wall Street Journal India section is not that common in print.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

President Patil met President Hu Jintao; the First Visit in Ten Years by an Indian Head of State to China

A very significant visit by the Indian President to China this week, and it seems that no nicety has been spared.

India needs China's support in her bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
I met the Indian President on my visit to Delhi recently, she was loquacious and answered all my questions at length.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's First UPA 2 Press Conference

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave his first press conference and addressed two major issues; his relationship with Sonia Gandhi as well the matter of Rahul Gandhi. Dr Singh was also asked about Naxalism, relations with Pakistan, and dissent within his cabinet.

This is the first anniversary of UPA 2.

Friday, 21 May 2010

19 Years Ago Tonight, Rajiv Gandhi was Assassinated

It was while campaigning on 21st May 1991 in Tamil Nadu at a rally that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a LTTE human bomber.It was a rare early instance of a belt bomb being used. The blast blew out the whole of the front of Rajiv's face, as can be seen from photos of the time. In Delhi, his memorial site is called Vir Bhumi and I visited it ten days ago, around 36 hours before returning to london.

The site was being prepared for today's memorial ceremony, noted in Indian newspapers today.

This day is commemorated every year at Vir Bhumi, and is also called "Anti-Terrorism Day" in India.