Saturday, March 27, 2010

India is losing out. Beware !

Pakistan’s clever outmanoeuvring of India is racing towards a successful climax while India seems increasingly unsure of what to do. Consider two game-changing developments. First, America is willing to forge a strategic partnership with Pakistan. Which means one thing to America, and quite a different thing to Pakistan. Second, India has been snubbed by the US first agreeing to India interrogating American terror agent Headley and then changing its mind.

It is clear that America now sees India as a country that can be taken for granted. In all honesty, America cannot be faulted for this conclusion. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost half the game when he turned the civil nuclear treaty into a personal prestige issue, even risking the survival of his Government. The other half of the game is being lost by his eagerness to get parliament approval for the nuclear liability bill that virtually absolves US companies of financial responsibility in the event of an accident. (This agreement is so loaded in favour of America that the BJP joined hands with the Communists to oppose it.)

The net result is that India is facing its biggest policy failure to date. It has gained nothing whatever from the US in the fight against terrorism. It has potentially lost because the approvals Pakistan has won from the US put no break on terrorist activities directed against India.

A keen Indian leadership could have foreseen much of this. America’s obsessive interest now is to get the hell out of Afghanistan. Pakistan has convinced them that it is in the best position to help facilitate this exit. It launched military operations against recalcitrant Taliban elements and negotiated with the “good Taliban” on America’s behalf.

But the issue of terrorists looking east to India never came up between Pakistan and the US. This is clear from the Headley episode. From the outset America was unwilling to “share actionable intelligence” on the man who, as everybody knows now, was the principal scout and organiser of the Pakistan-based terrorist attack on Mumbai. America plays hide and seek because it does not want to admit that Headley was an American spy as well. More importantly, it does not want any evidence to come out about Pakistan’s direct involvement with Headley and the Mumbai attack. In other words, America is interested in protecting the Pakistan government from terrorism charges. Protecting India from further terrorist attacks from Pakistan-backed groups is not of much interest to the US at present.

If Manmohan Singh did not understand this, it is a failure of commonsense. If he understood it and still went ahead with promoting American interests in India – from nuclear accident immunity to surrendering our farms to American agribusiness companies – it is a more serious failure.

Things can get really dangerous because the man the Americans are banking on in Pakistan is army boss Ashfaq Parvez Khayani. They speak highly of him and in 2008 they honoured him with the US Army’s General Staff College Hall of Fame. As it happens, Khayani is also a former head of the ISI, the intelligence agency behind most of the operations against India. He is said to believe that India’s disintegration, or at least immobilisation through crippling terrorist attacks, is what will eventually stabilize Pakistan’s position as a major regional power.

It is true, as a Pakistani journalist’s supposed report circulating on internet says, that two Ambani brothers can buy 100 percent of every company listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange and still be left with $ 30 billion to spare. And also that the four richest Indians can buy up all goods and services produced over a year by 169 million Pakistanis and still be left with $ 60 billion to spare. But one Pakistani military schemer can make Indian politicians go round in circles and still be left with plenty of American financial/military aid to spare. So, fasten your seatbelts.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Lessons from UP’s Louis XIV

To most of India Mayawati may look like a vulgarian with no sense of propriety. Boorish statues, garish diamonds and garlands with 18 crores (or is it 20?) worth of currency notes – this is the ultimate theatre of the absurd.

But she won’t change because she won’t understand her critics. She is absolutely convinced that she is doing the right thing for the empowerment of Dalits. For the same reason, she sees everything proper in her followers giving her gifts including cash. The system itself was not invented by her. Many parties have taken this road. Even communist leaders received garlands of 2- and 5-rupee notes in the old days, though it has now grown to big bucket collections. Karunanidhi once travelled by foot from Rameswaram to Madurai in an emotion-packed political show and there were cash collections all along the route. Chandrasekhar’s famous padayatra also featured collections.

But these leaders were not in power when collections were conducted in their name. Mayawati is in power and therefore, inevitably, there are reports of coercion being used. Not only party offices but also government servants are given targets to meet. In the worst instance that hit the headlines last year, a BSP MLA in Auriya was arrested in connection with the murder of a state PWD engineer. The report was that the engineer had not contributed to the fund collection ahead of Mayawati’s birthday.

Add to this the personal treasure she has amassed during her years in power. According to the June 2008 issue of “g-files”, a New Delhi magazine that focuses on the civil service and allied politics, Mayawati “owns 5000 silver coins, 10,000 gold coins and 787 diamond crowns…... Between 1995 and 2003, she was supposed to pay Rs 90 lakhs as income tax. Her account in the Union Bank, Delhi has deposits amounting to 2 crore 27 lakh rupees. Another account in the State Bank, Parliament Street, has a balance of 23 crore 45,000 rupees. Various banks in Greater Noida and Bulandshahr have fixed deposits in the names of her brother, father and other relatives worth 2 crore 50 lakh rupees. Owing income tax amounting to 12 crore 50 lakh rupees, she has deposited 14 crore 70 lakh rupees in two instalments. Appropriately, she is the leader of poor Dalits in UP”.

Income Tax authorities are likely to inquire into the latest garland collection of 18 crores (or is it 20?). Has any tax investigation into her affairs been taken to its logical conclusion so far? Several cases have been registered, and in some instances the courts have passed strictures against her. But even court orders on the statue spree have only caused a temporary slow-down. She conducts herself like the monarch of all she surveys, beyond legislative or judicial checks and balances. She is the modern Louis XIV proclaiming: “I am the state”.

The larger issue here is how our democracy has come to this pass. Our violators are immune to the law, that’s how. In September last year, in Israel, former President Moshe Katsav went on trial in a sexual assault case, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmer was indicted in three separate corruption cases and two former ministers began jail terms for corruption. Barring a few exceptions, our Katsavs and Olmers continue in Raj Bhavans and ministerial bungalows.

The kind of evil Mayawati practises with pride can be easily stopped by tightening income tax and electoral rules. But to change the laws, we need majority backing by legislators. And who are these legislators? Partners in brazenness who show unity only when bills are introduced to increase their allowances. Mayawati may be louder and cruder than the others. But the others are also made of the same feather. They fatten themselves and we suffer the shame.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Women and Yaduvamsha reality

Draupadi had five husbands, each with unsurpassed capabilities. None of them came to her rescue when she was dragged into the royal court for disrobing. The political Yadavs of our time seem to have taken a self-serving lesson from this episode and resolved that women are unworthy of protection, let alone promotion. Either that or they have forgotten the double curse –pronounced by Gandhari, and then by Viswamitra, Kanva and Narada – that the Yadava race would destroy itself. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav have already reduced their parties to tottering relics. Their opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill and, worse, the hooliganism of their men in the Rajya Sabha betrayed a 19th century mindset. The hooligans brought such shame to the country that they would be better off under the waters that swallowed up Dwaraka.

But what do we see beyond the fossils of Yadu Kula? Two realities are clearly visible. The first is the politics of the bill. The Yadavas talking about Muslim women’s quota is a desperate move to regain some of the Muslim support they have lost. Mamta Bannerji’s visceral hatred of Bengal communists made her an odd woman against women. The Congress also put its internal politics on display. Singularly lukewarm about the bill on Day 1, it suddenly became determined on Day 2. In the Congress nothing happens until partymen know what Soniaji wants and once the signal comes, nothing can stop them from carrying out her wishes. A parliamentary system is unhealthy when it adheres to the letter of the Westminster model without heeding the spirit of it.

The other reality that looms large is that the women’s bill, even if it crosses the obstacles in its path and finally becomes law, will have only symbolic value. It will not by itself give women the human rights they have been denied for ages. That will require social reform and no social reformers are anywhere in sight.

If and when 33 percent seats in legislatures are reserved for women, around 30 percent of that will likely go to wives, daughters, nieces and girlfriends of male politicians. Lalu Prasad himself put his unlettered wife in the chief minister’s chair while Mulayam Singh could only find his daughter-in-law to contest a Lok Sabha seat. The Kanimozhis and Supriya Sules will multiply when reservations become law.

And what will happen when they sit as law-makers ? Will it mean an end to the killing of newborn girls in the villages of Tamil Nadu and Haryana? Will it stop crimes against women which increased by 30-40 percent in recent years as against 16 percent increase in general crime? Will it bring down dowry killings which doubled in the last decade? Will it make a difference to one-third of married women in India being children below 18?

In one sense India has already led the way in women’s empowerment. Women occupy top positions in corporate houses, financial institutions and in the arts. They have reached these positions through merit, not the favour of reservations. This will continue, making India an exemplar of women’s advancement.

But it will be foolish to close our eyes to the social debris that has collected over the centuries. The tendency to treat women as beasts of burden is all too prevalent. Inside a family, discrimination is carried to the extent of feeding sons properly while daughters are kept on starvation diet. This has led to half the married women in India being anaemic. The largest number of illiterate women is also in India –200 million. It’s all very well for Sushma Swaraj and Brinda Karat to forget ideologies and perform a celebratory embrace. But what about India’s social reality? Yaduvamsha still has a grip on that reality.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Paint on, Husain, wherever you are

M. F. Husain has class. And the magnetism to bring every TV channel to his doorstep when he so decides. One of the many astonishing things about him is that at 95 he knows what he needs to do and articulates it with amazing energy and self-assurance. In a few sentences he shows the attributes that make him exceptional -- his creativity (“ I cannot work without disturbance in India”), his maturity (“I do not feel betrayed by anyone”), his supremacy (“A few people don’t understand art, that’s all”), his sense of history (“Civilisations disappear, only culture lasts”), and his patriotism (“Wherever I am, I am an Indian painter”). What Mark Antony said of Caesar applies here: “His life is gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This is a man’!”.

TV discussions as usual revolved around the fatuous and the moronic : The man is free to live anywhere, his decision to accept Qatar nationality is of his own free will, why is it important to get him back to India, why Qatar which is not a democracy, and so on. The real issue in the Husain controversy is none of these. It is, and has always been, aggressive communalism and the Indian state’s failure to protect a citizen from it.

To see this in perspective and to understand the bankruptcy of Home Minister Chidambaram’s statement that India would extend all protection to the artist, we have only to recall how the British Government handled a similar situation when Salman Rushdie came under the threat of a fatwa in 1989. That Rushdie happened to be a British citizen was enough for the state to pull out all stops and extend 24/7 protection to its citizen.

Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister then and she had reasons to adopt an Indian-style policy of platitude without action. In his writings, Rushdie had referred to Thatcher as “Mrs Torture” and as “Maggie the Bitch”. He had also described the British police as “neofascist”. Yet when the call of duty came, Mrs Torture and the neofascists heeded it for the honour of Britain. The protection provided to Rushdie was so efficient that he could continue writing, travel and, in one defiant challenge to his detractors, appear on the stage at London’s Wembley Stadium during a packed music concert. Diplomatic relations broke between UK and Iran, but the UK establishment kept its citizen safe for nine years until the fatwa eased. Chidambaram talks as if he doesn’t know of these things, and Chidambaram is an honourable man.

Perhaps it is all to the good because Husain has won. By underlining the primacy of art, by asserting the artist’s status as a citizen of the world and, above all, by pointing to major projects he has to execute irrespective of his age, Husain has placed himself unreachably above the hypocrisy of his communal detractors. He has won also because his decision to accept Qatar nationality has spread a sense of loss across India. As Sharmila Tagore said, “We recognise our national treasures only when they are gone”.

If India being a democracy has not helped Husain, Qatar not being a democracy is a non-issue. Qatar has been liberal enough to make Al Jazeera TV respected around the world for its independence. The Qatar Foundation has been sponsoring the BBC’s Doha Debate programme anchored by Tim Sebastian. The ruling Emir’s American-educated wife, Sheikha Moza, is the force behind the Qatar Foundation. She is a personal friend of Husain and has bought more than ninety Husains for the Qatar International Islamic Museum. Evidently, Sheikha Moza has the will to give Husain the undisturbed atmosphere he needs while P. Chidambaram only pontificates for India. And Chidambaram is an honourable man.