Monday, July 27, 2015

With China as friend, Pakistan is teasing India. The game has changed, leaving us behind

Pakistan is having fun at India's expense, teasing Delhi, even daring it. It flashes friendship at prime ministers' level one day, and attacks our border posts the next day. It offers cooperation on terrorists one day, and protects terrorists the day after. The generals seem to be using Nawaz Sharif as a convenient tool to needle India and enjoy the game.

Traditionally India has dismissed Pakistani bravado because (a) it has defeated Pakistan on the battlefield more than once and (b) it is miles ahead of Pakistan in size, economic resources and technological advancement. But the ground realities have changed with Pakistan building up alliances with countries that will, for different reasons, stand by it in a moment of crisis. India's alliances are weaker by comparison.

America, for example, was the mainstay of Pakistani economy for many years, its financial grants often competing with its military aid. Pakistan handled the US cleverly, making its collaboration critically important to American operations in Afghanistan. America attached so much importance to its relations with Pakistan that it frustrated Indian attempts to access David Headley in the Mumbai terror attack case.

But it is China's solidarity with Pakistan that has wider ramifications especially from an Indian standpoint. Post-independence, China had seen India as the only Asian country strong enough to be a force to reckon with. And China's leadership, the shrewdest and most far-sighted in today's world, found easy ways to nip what it saw as a potential problem. The decisive military defeat meted out to India in the border war in 1962 crippled India's self esteem. Additionally, China embraced Pakistan as a close ally and built it up as a force that could keep India pinned down.When China helped Pakistan become a nuclear power, the equation was settled with finality. It is currently constructing four civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan in addition to the two already completed, in violation of international treaties.

Even more decisive is China's recent infrastructural advance in Pakistan. The Gwadar port it has developed in Baluchistan is now to be linked to Xinjiang with a 3000-km road network. Along the way will rise new dams, energy lines and whole new cities. Pakistan places itself at the service of China. It has even raised a whole new infantry division to protect Chinese assets in Pakistan. Just as Pakistan was key to America's Afghanistan policy, it has become key to China's new policy of silk-road networking aimed at hastening China's economic-strategic centrality. China no longer sees Pakistan merely as a counterweight to keep India preoccupied; it now sees it as a pivot against Big Brother America's own Asian Pivot strategy.

There are no signs yet that India's foreign policy professionals have come up with anything like a strategy to, not contain China which is impossible now, but to ensure that Indian interests are protected. Occasionally there are reports of Prime Minister Modi taking a tough stand. Thus, when they met in Russia recently, Modi is said to have told President Xi Jinping that Beijing's recent veto in the UN against Indian move on Pakistani terrorist Lakhvi was "unacceptable". We must assume that President Xi was duly shaken.

Actually India is now a relatively minor blip on China's radar. The way China has been asserting itself under Xi's leadership shows that its horizons have widened. The US has been talking often and loudly, but has failed to take any action to check China's boldest challenge -- reclaiming sea and building an airstrip in the disputed Spratley Islands in South China Sea. Two months ago Japan announced a $ 110 billion aid plan for Asian infrastructure projects, a carefully calculated 10 billion more than the capitalisation of China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

This is a big boys' game and Narendra Modi has to play it without the back-up of a demonstrably competent foreign policy establishment, a national security planning system or think-tank specialists with ideas. All that has emerged so far from the Prime Minister and his advisors is a distinct shift in favour of the US. To what extent will this help when, on the one hand America's commitment to Pakistan remains strong and, on the other, Russia is getting closer to China and forming a united front to raise a multi-polar world against America's self-serving unipolar world?

Big boys' game cannot be played by people pre-occupied with petty games like I-can-stall-parliament-longer-than-you and my-scams-are-lesser-than-your-scams. We fight one another, attack and condemn one another -- while the world marches on, leaving us behind.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Iftar parties: How politics takes over religion, How some ministers turn to hypocrisy

In no democracy is religion as politicised as in India. And no other religious event in India is as politicised as Iftar. The breaking-fast ritual signalling the end of the daily Ramadan fast is traditionally an occasion for piety and family gathering. While that tradition remains strong among the faithful, commercial interests and politicians seem to work against the spirit of the occasion. Some promote the feasting rather than the fasting. Others host Iftar parties to show off their presumed influence among Muslims. Is influence purchasable with samosas?

Delhi was abuzz for days with speculation over who would attend and not attend Sonia Gandhi's Iftar feast. Lalu Prasad's announcement that he would not attend was seen as a major political statement. Rival Nitish Kumar's decision to attend added a sharp edge to that statement. Sonia, Lalu, Nitish -- what have they got to do with Ramadan and Iftar? How can they overshadow the purport of a religious occasion of prayer and piety that is alien to them?

A year ago Sonia Gandhi's Iftar party was a flop because the Congress had just been ignominiously beaten by the voters; no one of any importance bothered to respond to her invitation. Not this time. If the hall in Ashoka Hotel was not even half full last year, it was overflowing this time. More important: No one seemed interested in the roasted sea-fish, the biriyanis and the distinctive kababs on offer; they just wanted to crowd around Sonia and Rahul and get selfies. Weather-watchers quickly drew the conclusion that the BJP was losing ground and the Congress was gaining. May be. But what has that got to do with the submission to God and the charity that Iftar enjoins upon the faithful?

It is not just our desi netas who exploit the religious occasion for political ends. Pakistan does it with gusto. Last year the Pakistan High Commissioner's invitation to the separatist Huriyat leaders in Kashmir had led to India cancelling the scheduled meeting between the foreign secretaries of the two countries. Undaunted the High Commissioner seemed to dare India when he invited the separatists to the Id celebrations this time too. He rubbed it in by saying that Pakistan would fully support the Kashmiri people's struggle for self-rule. Pakistan's very existence is in the name of Islam, but its conduct puts politics over religion.

Who can blame them when the RSS itself is making use of Iftar parties. Its special-purpose vehicle, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, held a rather modest Iftar in Lucknow. Modest because the eats were limited and offered in small paper plates. On the wall of the stage, though, there were slogans that spoke for themselves: "Education, Etiquette, Development" said one. Another said: "We were one from nationhood, culture and ancestry, and we will remain one". The function, the organisers emphasised, was "spiritual, not politics".

As non-Muslim politicians rush to win the approval of Muslims for electoral purposes, there is a one-sidedness that stands out. People who crowded around Rahul Gandhi offered him skullcaps to wear. Mulayam Singh wore a prominent white cap and also an Arab scarf. Leaders compete among themselves to put on Islamic symbols to show their identification with Muslims, however superficial it may be. But the compliment is never returned. Muslim leaders do not put on symbols of others even for a celebratory show. (Narendra Modi was the only leader who had the courage to decline a skullcap offered to him by a cleric in 2011.)

Politicians who put on skullcaps for Iftar often ditch Muslims in practice. The good news is that some Muslim clerics and scholars have started criticising the politicisation of Iftar. Maulana Ikramul Haq, an Imam, actually issued a diktat saying that it would be un-Islamic to attend such parties. Paying heed to such advice will help re-emphasise Ramadan's message of purity.

Simultaneously they must discourage the misplaced overzealousness of some Muslim politicians who pretend to be more Islamic than others. The commissar of Kerala's Muslim League, P.K.Kunjalikutty, once declined to light a lamp at a public function saying that it was un-Islamic. This is a man who is linked with several scandals of a distinctly un-Islamic character. Keeping up with his leader, the state's failed Education Minister, a League functionary, recently refused to light a lamp. He was chastised, right on the stage, by filmstar Mammootty, a practising Muslim, who decried the Muslim League's outdated policies. It is a pity that good Muslims merely become popular heroes while hypocritical Muslims become ministers.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Politicians can no longer ignore Vyapam's point: That India is more than Congress and BJP

One of the misfortunes of our country is that everything is reduced to Congress vs BJP. This is because everything is political in nature, whether it is getting admission to a kindergarten, encashing a pension entitlement, getting into a sports team or getting out of a traffic accident you have caused. All activities revolve round recommendations, political interference, wirepulling and bribes. If the Congress does not blame the BJP for this year's erratic monsoon, it will be only because the channel shouters have not yet organised a "debate".

It is no surprise therefore that the Madhya Pradesh Vyapam scandal follows the traditions set by scandals of the past; one party pretends to be snow-white pure and accuses the other of being jet-black evil, the other party returning the favour with equal fervour. India and its interests are nowhere in the picture. The Commonwealth Games scandal was a national disgrace. But it was made out as though it was the handiwork of Congressmen, not greedy men. Same was the story of the 2-G spectrum scam, the coal block auction scam, the Italian helicopter scam, the Tatra trucks scam. The BJP went into attack mode as though it was the epitome of moral uprightness; the Congress defended the indefensible with no sense of guilt.

In the Vyapam scam, the absence of any sense of guilt on the part of the state leaders was astonishing. Till the very last the Chief Minister refused to see anything wrong in the local police doing the investigation. The state Home Minister blandly said all the deaths that occurred were natural deaths. Cabinet minister Kailash Vijayvargiya outdid all when he referred to the sudden death of a journalist and said: "Forget that journalist who died. Is he more important than me?" There was a designated BJP television spokesman who spoke like a robot, defending the indefensible.

Two things stand out in this kind of party games. First, putting the party's interests above basic human decencies. When a man suddenly dies in the middle of an assignment, common courtesy demands a gesture of respect and sympathy. It takes an unusual measure of depravity to use the occasion to project one's self-importance. Somebody must have told Vijayvargiya about the nastiness of his distasteful words. His response was, not to apologise, but to charge all and sundry for twisting his words. How low can politicians get?

The second reality brought to light by the Vyapam scam is that nothing, not even health and education, is safe when greedy politicians are around. Basically the scam centred round widespread manipulation of examinations for professional courses. Fake students and fake answer papers were used to ensure seats for those who paid the required bribes. Medical college admissions were decided on this basis, as were the competitive examinations to recruit police constables, sub inspectors and food inspectors. The system has been in place since 2003, so several "doctors" and "food inspectors" must be out there manning hospitals and certifying food quality in restaurants. We can imagine the plight of patients under the care of such doctors and the standards of hygiene in eateries supervised by such inspectors. Everyday life of people is endangered for the sake of ministers, officers and fixers who want to collect easy money under the counter. This is what democracy and elections have come to mean in real life. It remains so irrespective of which party is in power.

MP Government has issued its formal notification for examinations to be conducted in the first week of September 2015. It is a temptingly worded invitation to "talented candidates" to seize the opportunity of a lifetime. Among the 1519 vacancies to be filled are forest guard, agricultural development officer, land survey officer, revenue inspector and staff nurse. It is a safe bet that the politician-babu-mafia axis will do its best to manipulate the examinations this year too, ignoring all the hullabaloo the scandal has kicked up. Evil continues in cycles in our country because when one cycle creates scandals that stink to high heavens, the authorities who should take immediate action do not take any action. All parties put their party interests above the nation's interests.The MP Chief Minister yielded to CBI investigation only when it became clear that the Supreme Court was going to take up the case. The Prime Minister, as usual, has not said a word about a scandal that has scarred his party and his own anti-corruption image. His speeches made Narendra Modi. Will his silences unmake him?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Point of View - T J S George

So many said so much about Emergency excesses.
But why is there no inquiry into the tortures?

What a surfeit of Emergency narratives we've had this past week. Not surprising, given the way those two years, 1975-77, changed the very character of Indian democracy. A generation has grown up with no personal acquaintance of that traumatic period. For them Emergency is likely to be no more than a word. Like Independence. Yet these are words that made -- and remade -- our country. Tens of thousands sacrificed their lives for independence which, today, we take for granted. Tens of thousands suffered torture during the Emergency which, eventually, they defeated. We are the beneficiaries of the sufferings and sacrifices of the generations that preceded us. We are the lucky ones.

We are yet to fully digest the fundamental ways in which the Emergency changed the mindset of Indians. We understand the difference between pre-Independence and post-Independence because one was imperialist white rule and the other was rule by our own popular leaders. Just as basic was the difference between pre-Emergency and post-Emergency India, but we have not grasped the fact because the ruling group was the same. In fact, we can say that the same Nehru aura prevailed over both and therefore we thought it was a continuation of the same post-Independence ideals.

But the whole value system changed. What was unworthy became acceptable. A monolithic order became the norm. Strong leaders disappeared and Indira Gandhi's yes-men became chief ministers. In the Centre, she was famously known as the "only man in the cabinet".

Before Emergency, corruption was considered bad and ministers were used to the idea of accepting moral responsibility for this mistake or that mishap. After Emergency, the sense of shame over corruption was lost. All kinds of abuses were perpetrated by party and government leaders as though it was their right to do so. The judiciary and the press too got corrupted in the process and people were left with dwindling recourses for relief. Cynicism spread everywhere. And opportunism with it.

Emergency also normalised dynastic rule, the very antithesis of democracy. This generated a sense of proprietorship among the privileged sons and daughters. Rajiv Gandhi could go to the extent of justifying the atrocities Congress party goons unleashed on Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. It is by now widely accepted that the Congress's stagnation and subsequent stagnation in politics in general are linked to the continuing stranglehold of dynastic succession in politics, the fashion having spread to other parties as well.

The evils of dynastic mentality continue to haunt us. From Mamata Bannerji's nephew who openly threatens to cut off the hands and gouge out the eyes of opponents to the sons and daughters of various chief ministers who acquire properties and beat up constables, a whole breed has come up believing that the land and its resources are theirs to exploit. In the process whistleblowers are murdered, even journalists are set fire to.

If one person has to be identified for the changes Emergency brought to India, it has to be not Indira, but Sanjay Gandhi. Apart from the excesses he carried out singlehandedly, he changed for ever the meaning of parliamentary democracy. It was he who got a set of rowdies elected to Parliament. The instruction to the rowdies was to shout down any MP who criticised Indira or her Congress. Thus began the tradition of blocking Parliament's proceedings -- a tradition that has been taken over by all parties to the shame of our country. Indeed the difference between pre-Emergency and post-Emergency India is so deep-going that we can mark them out as two eras -- BE and AE, like BC and AD.

That the mindset change continues to haunt us can be seen at two levels. First, we still have people who justify Emergency on the ground that the trains ran on time. Are we such a disorganised and irresponsible people that we need a police raj to keep the trains running on time? Secondly, we have neither held the leaders of the police raj to account nor taken steps to change the anti-people culture of the police.

Although there were bad cases of third-degree in Delhi and elsewhere, Kerala had the worst record of torture, often of innocents. A group of police officers led by Jayaram Padikal developed special techniques of bloodless torture under the patronage of Congress Home Minister K. Karunakaran. No inquiry commission has looked into their violations. The tales retold last week are a reminder that we have unfinished business waiting for attention.