Monday, April 30, 2012

A new moment of crisis for the Congress: Deals are not a permanent solution

Calamities do come in battalions. For a country with an economist Prime Minister, it is no small matter to be downgraded to the “negative” category by the rating agency, Standard & Poor. It has diminished India in the eyes of the world. So has the rebirth of the Bofors scandal. For a party leader to please whom the entire machinery of the party and the government is geared, it is no small matter to be reminded that Rajiv Gandhi protected Italians who took the Bofors bribe money. To crown it all, presidential election manoeuvres have brought up the name of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the one man Sonia Gandhi would like to keep out.

Coming after the UP and Delhi election disasters, these developments signal a crisis of unusual gravity for the Congress. Party strategists are unable to respond effectively because they cannot think beyond turning Sachin Tendulkar into a vote in Parliament. They go into twists and turns – now spreading the word about cabinet ministers quitting to work for the party, now making secret moves to enlist the support of a rival party or two. All moves are made from a position of weakness.

Speculation about ministers quitting was denied by the ministers, but the speculation did not stop. Obviously the strategists were floating a trial balloon. The media, with its addiction to short-hand cliches, dubbed it a Kamaraj Plan. But Kamaraj Plan was in fact a Nehru Plan to get rid of a millstone round his neck, Morarji Desai. Why would a Sonia Plan try to get rid of harmless flatterers like Gulam Nabi Azad? One thing politicians have taught us is not to believe what they tell us. So, what are they not telling us?

Is it a move to create vacancies in the cabinet so that they can be filled with nominees of Mulayam Singh Yadav and of Mamata Banerjee who, then, will support the Congress on crucial issues? Not that the ministers-turned-apparatchiks will be wasted in the process. Gulam Nabi can strike a deal with the Telangana leaders, Vayalar Ravi with his friend Jagan Mohan Reddy. That could possibly net a couple of dozen Lok Sabha seats. Precious in 2014.

A central element in these manoeuvres will be the presidential election. It is complicated this time because the veteran intriguer of our times, Sharad Pawar, is taking a direct interest, something we should all be worried about. Mulayam Singh, no less a veteran, is also involved. Most disturbing is the possibility that Sonia Gandhi might allow any deal with anyone as long as she can influence the choice.

Why is this disturbing? Because she has proved that she is guided by her private interests and not by considerations of the country's prestige. This was clear when she handpicked the unknown Pratibha Patil last time. True, Pratibha Patil was not the worst of our Presidents; it will take more talent than she has to be worse than Fakhruddin Ali and Zail Singh. But she was, simply, unfit to be President of this country. Having contributed nothing to anything, she manoeuvred, till protests forced her to retreat, for  a retirement mansion. That is her calibre. Her record as a Sonia hanger-on was her sole qualification. If this is the yardstick the Congress President uses, what good can she do this time? The country loves Kalam, but she hates him because his sense of non-partisanship blocked some of her plans. Should that be the deciding factor?

Deals have a counterproductive effect, too. Where did the deal with the DMK take the Congress? Or the deal with Trinamool? Or with the Kerala Muslim League? Where will new deals with the wild horses of Andhra take it? Only one deal will actually benefit the Congress – a deal of honesty with the people of India, a deal that will put people's interests above dynastic interests. That, unfortunately, is one deal the Congress will not make.

Monday, April 23, 2012

With a feared but clueless High Command, Congress is dying. Look at the South

Victory in the Delhi municipal elections has filled the BJP with ecstasy. Actually the significance of this election lies not in the BJP's success but in the Congress' rout. The once-great party has been reminded yet again that it is in a nosedive with no one, on present reckoning, capable of pulling it up.

To understand how serious is the comatose condition of the Congress, we must look beyond Delhi and UP to the South. This was the citadel of the Congress. Indira Gandhi herself needed the South to get reborn when the rest of India turned against her. Today the citadel is turning into a tomb. The Congress is dead in Tamil Nadu and is on the way to death in Andhra Pradesh. It is staring at death in Karnataka and is in the throes of a deathwish in Kerala. Add Pondicherry and Goa if you like, the picture only gets grimmer.

The central problem is that the Congress refuses to accept the central problem. Which is the High Command. Congressmen are gripped by fear of a High Command that is perceived to combine the powers of both the Creator and the Destroyer. In the obsessive desire to please this Monolith, no one thinks of the party or the country. Even the Prime Minister remains safely inactive. With the scope for independence and initiative reduced to zero, local leadership does not come up in the states. But strong leaders rise outside the Congress and the states go under their spell.

Unable to understand the pull of the Dravida sentiment, the Congress lost Tamil Nadu for ever. The same inability to understand local sentiments is destroying the party in Andhra. Recall P. Chidambaram creating a crisis by virtually promising Telangana state, then going back on it. Recall, too, the Congress embracing film star Chiranjeevi who has become a vote-loser.

Jagan Mohan Reddy is another example of the Congress being clueless in Andhra. He amassed wealth during his father's imperial rule. Following father's death, the Congress instinctively felt the boy should be curbed. But it did not know how. The result is a mess.A desperate Congress may now make deals with Jagan and with Telangana's Chandrasekhar Rao. Any deal will only make the local leaders more powerful than the High Command, but the Congress may accept that humiliation in return for a few seats in Parliament, its focus area.

The Karnataka BJP is so deep in mud that a reasonably credible Congress can get a walk-over. Even at this late hour, if the party announces that leaders like Siddaramaiah, B. L. Shankar, Krishna Byre Gowda, Sharan Prakash will lead the next Congress Government, it could win a fairly easy victory. But it won't because the High Command has no clue. So, discredited faces like D.K.Shivkumar and B. K. Hari Prasad leave the Congress stranded while too-good-for-politics gentlemen like G. Parameshwar watch helplessly.

Karnataka is not natural BJP habitat. It was the folly of overambitious H.D. Deve Gowda that brought the party in as a junior partner in Government. Given half a chance B. S. Yeddyurappa's craze for power and Bellary's blood money did the rest. If the BJP wins the next election too, the Congress can as well be forgotten.

In Kerala, the Congress had just scraped through in the last election. It should have been extra careful for that reason alone. But an otherwise seasoned Chief Minister Oommen Chandy shocked people by subverting the Supreme Court and releasing a convicted politician, Balakrishna Pillai, who promptly started manoeuvring to become minister again. Just as highhandedly he reinstated a tainted police officer, Thachankary, who was still under investigation. When the Chief Minister gave the Muslim League one more minister, almost all of Kerala, including Congressmen, rose in revolt at what looked like Chandy succumbing to an evil genius in the League who is widely detested in the state.

This is a Congress that is not just nosediving in Andhra, in Karnataka, in Kerala. This is a Congress that longs for death.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What did we gain by washing the Army's Dirty Linen in Public? We lost much

No democracy has washed its military's dirty linen as publicly as India has in recent weeks. Defence-related corruption was exposed in gory detail. This would have been a good thing if it had led, immediately and comprehensively, to an overhaul of the procurement and control systems. This has not happened, and will not happen, under the present gutless Government in Delhi.

So the linen remains dirty. This harms India in three important ways. First, the principle that aspects of national security must remain outside public debate now stands wrecked. In the nervous days of the Cuban missile crisis, American media respected President Kennedy's request not to report certain matters. In Britain there is a system of Defence Advisory notices that request media and others to exercise restraint on security matters.

In our case, nothing is sacred. TV anchors repetitiously shout the same secrets “exclusively”. A “senior member of the cabinet” himself leaks stories about coup-like troop movements. The Army Chief's confidential report to the Prime Minister about serious shortfalls in ammunition is in every paper and every channel. Our not-so-friendly neighbours should be happy to get all the information they need for free.

Second, India's military preparedness is reduced, the Army Chief's confidential report (that there is ammunition for only ten days) being more credible than the Defence Minister's pep talk (that we are prepared for any eventuality). The Chief is credible because India's weaknesses are of long standing, stemming basically from a lack of long-term planning. Advanced democracies plan on a minimum five-year basis, China on ten- and fifty- and hundred-year basis. Our range is one year because our budgeting tradition is on annual basis.

What planning we do is often hijacked by crooks who manipulate procurement processes through high-value corruption. A belatedly started Defence Procurement Organisation improved matters to some extent, but the crooks are too many and too powerful, and corruption in arms deals is a global science. Classified information was stolen from, of all places, the naval war room in Delhi in 2005. Serving and retired officers were found to be the culprits.

An Israeli company already under CBI investigation won a Rs 10,000-crore missile contract in 2009 by bribing an Indian middleman who, too, had fallen foul of the law and had fled India. Obviously, Indian blacklisting is a joke to operators functioning from the shadows. When bribes determine things, preparedness becomes secondary.

Third, the dirty linen has brought out perhaps the worst malaise affecting the defence structure – oneupmanship by the IAS over the military. All authority in the Defence Ministry is controlled by the civilian bureaucracy. Junior-level bureaucrats are in a position to issue instructions to army headquarters. Issues like pay and warrant of precedence are weighted against the military brass. Worst of all, top military professionals have no say in formulating security policy, a territory jealously preserved by the babus.

The IAS achieved its Big Brother status by telling the political leadership that high responsibility to the military would encourage it to seize power from civilian leadership. It is our misfortune that there hasn't been one Prime Minister or one Defence Minister so far to see through the selfish motivation behind this argument and give the military its due position in policy making. They do that in the US and the UK and we haven't yet heard of a General trying to seize power in Washington/London.

Think of the irony. We have a Prime Minister who is Mr Clean. We have a Defence Minister who is Mr Clean. We have an Army Chief who, despite the age controversy, is Mr Clean. This confluence of Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati should have given us a rare historical opportunity to cleanse the system and be truly prepared for any challenge. Instead, the weaknesses of the politicians and the cunningness of the bureaucrats have combined to rob the country of a singular opportunity. Unless we have Krishna on our side, we may be no match to the Kauravas who covet what we have.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Democracy's Dynamics. A Pakistani compares Hindus in Sindh with Muslims in UP

This week I happily yield space to a thinker from Pakistan. He has analysed recent events in a refreshing way, reminding us that behind the terrorist minority that has hijacked Pakistan, there is a sober majority that dreams of progress and the warmth of the human spirit.

Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group focusing on governance and democracy. He is a blogger who appears in Dawn, Jinnah's newspaper. The newness of his approach is visible in the very choice of theme for a recent blog: “North India and South Pakistan”, Uttar Pradesh and Sindh to be precise. He traces the bond between the two – and the disconnect.

“A huge number of Muslims from Uttar Pradesh migrated in 1947 to Sindh in Pakistan. People with Urdu as their mother tongue are 21 percent of the province's population now. Every fifth inhabitant of Sindh belongs to third or second generation of migrants from India at large and UP in particular... Every fifth inhabitant of the present-day UP is a Muslim”.

Noticing inter alia that UP is bigger than Pakistan in population, Tahir Mehdi turns to the recent elections in UP. “Muslim candidates were serious contenders. In fact 68 of them won and another 64 stood second in contests. Adil Sheikh defeated Speaker Sukhdev Rajbhar, former minister Nand Gopal Gupta was drubbed by first-timer Haji Parvez Ahmed and four-time BJP winner Inder Dev Singh lost to Mohammed Ghazi. No one cried foul, no allegations of rigging were hurled, no conspiracy theories of undermining Hindutva made rounds and above all no one saw the infamous 'foreign hand' behind the defeat of caste Hindus at the hand of 'pariah' Muslims”.

What we take for granted in India must be looking incredible from across the border. “Remember”, says Tahir Mehdi, “that UP is the state where the capital of Urdu culture, Lucknow, is located and so is the epicentre of Hindutva politics Ayodhya, and the hometown of secular Indian nationalism (read Congress), Rae Bareli, and the minority Muslim voters are swinging political fortunes there and tipping balances of political power. Such is the dynamics of elections and the power of democracy”.

How did the reverse process pan out? Tahir Mehdi writes: “A massive number of Hindus migrated from Sindh to India in 1947. But a few hundred thousand did not migrate. Non-Muslims in Sindh are around 9 percent of the total population or half the percentage of Muslims in UP. Have you heard of a non-Muslim contesting elections on a general seat and winning too? There was only one Hindu candidate in the national assembly elections of 2008 who polled votes in thousands. He lost.

“It is not that Hindus in Pakistan consider politics haram; political parties think that Hindu candidates are not halal enough for their pious voters. There were 26 Hindu independent candidates on national and provincial seats of Sindh, nine of them doctors and others mostly engineers and advocates. That is a fair indication that the Sindhi Hindu middle class has taken the first step toward playing its due role in politics. That none of them could actually poll even a hundred votes tells us that they have a long way to go. Will any party dare to give them a hand?”

It requires courage to raise such a question in a country where mad fanatics like Hafiz Saeed run riot and a minister was assassinated for criticising the grossly exploitative blasphemy laws. Tahir Mehdi's boldness in comparing the opportunities Indian Muslims enjoy, with Pakistani Hindus' lack of opportunities should be an eye-opener especially to the Muslim extremists and separatists in India. They play into the hands of a bunch of self-seeking bigots in Pakistan when ordinary Pakistanis are dreaming of the dynamics of elections and the power of democracy on display in India. Our politicians may be scum, but we, Muslims included, have a free and fair system– like no other people have in the subcontinent.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Of Netaji, Azad Hind, three-finger eating; the Bose Persona had many sides to it

The thrill effect of the Subhas Chandra Bose saga never fades. His fairy-tale escape from India, his two-month submarine voyage from Germany to Sumatra, the magic of the Indian National Army and its near-capture of Imphal – the Netaji story can be re-read again and again with undiminished interest.

Most accounts of this extraordinary life tend to be sentimental because of its heroic nature and the devotion it inspires; many believe that he is still alive. M. Sivaram's The Road to Delhi (1966) is outstanding for two reasons. His eye for details brings out revealing titbits, and his admiration for Bose is tempered by his willingness to criticise policies with which he disagreed.

Sivaram was Associated Press correspondent and the highly connected editor of the Bangkok Chronicle when Japan's military putsch enveloped Southeast Asia. He ended up as Chief of Propaganda while his friend S.A. Ayer, Reuters correspondent in Bangkok, became Minister for Publicity in Subhas Bose' s Provisional Government of Free India.

Sivaram provides a thumbnail sketch of Rash Behari Bose, the old revolutionary who had exiled himself to Tokyo and become “a thorough-going Japanese, spoke Japanese with an ease and dignity that amazed most Japanese”. He also introduces Rash Behari's Man Friday, Nair-san, a Trivandrum boy who went to Japan, graduated in electrical engineering and then stayed on as a participant in local politics, doing “undefined political work in China, Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet, playing many parts, from camel dealer to Living Buddha”. (Sivaram does not include Nair-san's evolution in postwar Japan as the owner of Tokyo's legendary Indian restaurant, Nair Hotel. Newcomers from India were entitled to a free meal there. He married a Japanese lady but changed her name to Janaki Amma).

Subhas Bose of course is the dominant figure in Sivaram's book. (Long out of print, a reprint has just been brought out by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. An invaluable contribution to the history of India's freedom movement, the book deserves an Indian edition). Sivaram quotes Abid Hassan, who accompanied Bose in the submarine as his secretary, to reveal that many details about free India were worked out during that long voyage. New names were coined, for example: “Azad Hind as the name of liberated India, Jai Hind as the mode of salutation and Netaji as his own designation in free India”.

Sivaram had long conversations not only with Hassan. Almost every day he and S. A. Ayer would have extended chats with Netaji in his seaside bungalow in Singapore. Consultations usually scheduled “after seven o'clock” actually began sometime after 1 a. m. Netaji needed only three or four hours of sleep in a day.

Netaji's outstanding leadership quality made him fearless. Even in the worst of circumstances, he was full of confidence in himself and the victory of his cause. Also, he insisted on maintaining the style and pageantry of a head of state. Sivaram says that the average Indian's heart swelled with pride when “Subhas travelled in state and insisted on putting on the biggest show possible....Two Japanese military trucks, with mounted machine guns, and a fleet of cars carrying his personal staff, all flying the Indian tricolour, escorted Subhas Bose on his tours. He travelled by the fastest Japanese bomber”.

But there was another side to the Bose persona. A small-time magistrate from Bengal named Sarcar was appointed Legal Advisor and asked to draw up a plan for the reconstruction and unification of liberated India. A comprehensive plan emerged. “Politically India would be welded into one grand dictatorship. There would be dress regulations, food regulations. Khaki shirt and pants for work, white shirt and pants for leisure, spoon and fork to eat with and, if hand was used, no more than three fingers to touch the food”

The Japanese, says Sivaram, took a dim view of this post-war plan, but Netaji was adamant and the plan was broadcast. Fortuitously, it remained a plan, leaving India free to develop into a functioning anarchy. Jai Hind for that.