Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When Art Exposes Evil

When Art Exposes Evil
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 27.03.2010

When Jose Estevez serves his customers at the first floor Bar at Sardi’s, Broadway’s renowned Restaurant, in his direct line of vision are hoardings coming up at the theatre across the street: ENRON.

Sardi’s steady clientele of actors, directors and general theatre enthusiasts have all been casting a glance at ENRON with great curiosity.

“Al Pacino dropped in for a drink yesterday” says Jose “Who knows, he may be planning a film on ENRON.”

In April, New Yorkers will be able to watch this brilliant play by 29 year old Lucy Pebble which has already been captivating full houses at Noel Coward theatre at St. Martins Lane on London’s West End, which is where I saw it.

Quite frankly, I have not seen anything so riveting since Brecht’s Rise and Fall of Artutro Ui, a spoof on Hitler.

The spectacular collapse of the Energy giant Enron on December 2, 2001, the biggest bankruptcy in corporate history which “ripped open the catastrophic fault line of unchecked economic avarice, vanity, incompetence, lies and greed which leads to Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, HBOS, Icelandic banks and all the melt downs of this young century.”

Enron was America’s seventh largest corporation. It had grown from $10 billion of assets to $70 billion in 16 years. It went bankrupt in 24 days. Among Enron supporters were George Bush senior and George W Bush who, as Governor of Texas, was always willing to call up Washington to help his friend “Kenny Boy,” Kenneth Lay, Chairman and Founder of Enron.

The CEO of Enron, Jeffrey Skilling, admired for his “incomparable” brilliance, was in October 2006, sentenced to 24 years on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy.

Kenneth Lay, looking at a 45 years’ sentence, died of a heart attack. Bush Senior attended the funeral.

Tim Bouquet, author of cold Steel, has summed up the sickness surrounding Lucy Pebble’s theme succinctly.

“Why wasn’t the fraud spotted sooner?” asks Bouquet.

“Enron is the story of synergistic corruption. There are supposed to be no checks and balances in the system. The lawyers are supposed to say no, the accountants are supposed to say no, the bankers are supposed to say no, but nobody who was supposed to say no said no. They all took their share of the money from the fraud and put it in their pockets.”

There are two lessons for me in the remarkable play I saw in London and which will jolt New York in April:

First, the greed and avarice inherent in what Ronald Reagan described as the “magic of the marketplace”. The meltdown of 2009 continue to reverberate.

The second lesson is the enormous reservoir of intellectual honesty available in western societies to balance the excesses of “Kenny Boy”. Pebble’s masterpiece is just one example.

Remember Rumsfeld when faced with press questions” on Abu Ghraib, threw up his hands and said when war breaks out, “stuff happens”. David Hare, exceptionally gifted playwright, immediately mounted a play at the West End. “Stuff Happens” became an insightful and prophetic spoof on the war games played by George W. Bush, Dick Cheyney, Rumsfeld and Condy Rice.

Even earlier in the same vein, off Broadway was drawing full houses on “Guantanamo Bay”.

The Late Michael Foot, gentlest of Labour Leaders, made film on British inaction in Bosnia.

The Oscar winning film Hurt Locker and an equally powerful, Green Zone, both rip open aspects of the US occupation of Iraq. Charlie Wilson’s war brings this flair for critical self examination nearer home, in the Af-Pak region. It is an American film about American callousness in Afghanistan.

Who in our society is taking up a giant size mirror in blinding light so that all our warts show?

Husain in Ivy League

M.F. Hussain’s exile itself could yield a thought provoking script.

My last meeting with Hussain was at the Nehru Centre London some years ago. I was therefore quite thrilled to find an exhibition of Hussain’s early masterpieces from 1950s – 70s at the Brown University.

The exhibition is part of the year of India at Brown. The list is almost interminable. In fact it is the private collection of Brown alumna, Amrita Jhaveri.

Considering that no other Indian artist has done two complete series of paintings on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, it hurts that his devotional exuberance, his adoration of a goddess or Radha unrobed, has been profaned by the bazaar brigade.

One such painting adorns the wall at the David Winton Bell gallery at Brown!

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pakistan: “Too Nuclear to Fail”

Pakistan: “Too Nuclear to Fail”
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 21.03.2010

An impression is gaining ground that talks with Islamabad, at the official level as of now, may help take the sting out of Pakistan’s propaganda that India was being difficult but in reality these cannot achieve much. Just the fact of a transparent “contact” between the two countries is, for the time being, an end in itself because it will help avert possibly disastrous misunderstandings.

If the two Prime Ministers meet on the margins of SAARC summit in Bhutan at the end of April, the occasion will produce positive photo ops but nothing much of substance.

Call it realism or pessimism, but it is rooted in the reality that there really is no “durable” civilian authority in Pakistan with whom business can be done.

The scene for a near breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations was set when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. Since he had evolved from the Hindu nationalist RSS, he could, with a wave of the hand, ask the Hindutva brigade to pipe down. The allegation of a “sell-out” could never attach to him.

Prime Minister Manmohan carried forward this policy with sincerity I am all too personally familiar with.

It remains his dream to improve Indo-Pak relations, to visit Gah the village where he went to school. But he is handicapped by traumatic events like Mumbai terror attacks at a time when the BJP sits in the opposition minus Vajpayee who is ailing.

On the Pakistan side, there was Gen. Pervez Musharraf, author of Kargil (so no one could accuse him of a sell-out either), but mellowed with extended authority. He could match steps with both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.

For President Bush, he was a “reliable ally”, so reliable in fact the US looked the other way even as Musharraf played both sides of the street in the war on terror. The Lal Masjid, after all, was an extremist facility under the noses of both Musharraf and the Americans.

With the 2008 elections approaching in the US, and the seven year old war in Afghanistan showing no results, pressure on Musharraf was stepped up.

When Taleban fleeing Afghanistan were checked at the AF-Pak border, Karzai and Musharraf harmonized with each. But remember there were spells when Karzai and Musharraf were not even on talking terms. Whatever the level of enthusiasm with which Musharraf was in the war, the blowback from the war was severe for him and the Army.

To protect Musharraf (“great ally”) from taking the flak singly, it was decided that the severity of the blowback would be distributed three ways – the Presidency, Army and the Prime Minister. Benazir Bhutto prevailed on Washington and London that she would not only fight the war to the finish but also handover A.Q. Khan to the Americans for interrogation.

Musharraf, feeling the heat from Washington, blundered into sacking the Chief Justice causing the lawyers agitation. He was shown the door and Benazir was assassinated soon upon arrival.

With the US Congress eager to deliver a democracy in Pakistan in the absence of a victory in Afghanistan, a half baked election brought Zardari to power, even though Nawaz Sharif emerged the more popular among the people largely because he did not carry the odium of being a US nominee.

Zardari, Mr. 10 percent, inept administratively, corrupt, is possibly the most unpopular leader Pakistan has had. Sooner or later, he is on his way out.

So, who does New Delhi talk to. If another election brings in Nawaz Sharif the Americans should be pleased to the extent that, not being a US nominee, Nawaz will be popular and by that token be able to check rampaging Anti Americanism.

But on India he will operate under the double constraints of competitive politics and the Red Line which the army will draw.

Sad, but the emerging conventional wisdom in New Delhi seems to be that the only coherent and durable institution in Pakistan is the Army. What then does New Delhi do? It cannot be seen to be undermining Pakistan’s democracy. And yet there is this creeping realization that in the ultimate analysis power rests with the Army which repeatedly declares itself as “India centered”. Where does one go from here?

Situation is even more complicated because the US does not seem to have a long term strategy for AF-Pak, only tactical moves.

“Reduction of Indian presence in Afghanistan” would relieve pressure on Pakistan and they would therefore be more focused on the war on terror; give them $8 billion every year; they need laser guided bombs; soften up their eastern front……. and so on. The bottomline is that “Pakistan is too nuclear” to fail!

All of this has caused the skeptics in the New Delhi establishment to wonder if placing all the eggs in one basket was such a good thing. The torrid love affair during those years of nuclear debate is turning cold. Some of the eggs are now being distributed to other baskets as well.

Americans must know, of course, that the Indo-US strategic partnership does not hinge merely on inconveniences on AF-Pak. The two are comprehensively enmeshed on several vital issues – nuclear, military, space technology, intelligence; business and so on. Not to forget the sons and daughters of a vast section of the Indian establishment parked in US campuses, with many of them looking for permanent residence and Green cards, recession or no recession.

This confidence in Washington that a testy statement here and there by Holbrook or Gen. McChrystal, the centrality of Pakistan to the US, none of these can derail the “comprehensive Indo-US” relations, must, occasionally, leave Indian policy makers feeling somewhat stranded.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women’s Bill: Liberal measure, illiberal politics

Women’s Bill: Liberal measure, illiberal politics

By Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 13.03.2010

I was surprised by the sympathy for the opposition among educated Muslims in my UP village on the Womens’ Reservation Bill. The drift of their argument was that most of the 182 seats being reserved for women in Lok Sabha of 545, will be cornered by women attached to the “political class”.

That the Yadavs also constitute the political class is a fact but in this instance neutralized by the backward environment in which women of intermediate castes live. But this is not the only reason why the JDU and Samajwadi parties are opposing the Bill. Their primary game is elsewhere. By this opposition they emerge as champions of the Muslims who have no “political class” at all only groups and individuals in certain pockets. After all, in a House of 545 there are only 29 Muslim MPs, the lowest representation since independence. This downward slide will be aggravated by the Bill, they said.

If you add 122 seats reserved for SC,ST, there is very little left in the kitty to be distributed.

Basically, Muslims are seeing the Sachar Committee report, Ranganath Mishra Commission and the Women’s Reservation Bill in one sequence.

The Sachar Committee, a historic breakthrough in shedding light on the socio economic condition of Muslims, has established that in 60 years Muslims are down to the level of Dalits without having the facility of reservations.

The Ranganath Mishra Commission, which recommends steps to redress the gloomy picture painted by Sachar, is shrouded in arcane percentages. If OBCs have 27% reservation and Muslims are to get 15% reservation, it will work out to 4% of the total when they constitute 14% of the population.

In brief, the Women’s Bill leaves the Congress vulnerable on account of the Muslim vote, particularly in UP where Rahul Gandhi has pitched his tents for the 2012 assembly. What if Mayawati calls for election in 2011?

That the Left is supporting the bill does not appear anywhere in the frame. Their’s is a sideshow, keeping Mamta Bannerjee out of any floor co-ordination in the course of which she may have supported a quota for Muslims in the Bill. What emerges in bold relief is the Congress joining hands with the BJP to have the Bill passed. Remember, Mulayam Singh’s embrace of Kalyan Singh for the 2009 poll had a considerable political cost attached to it!

Another vulnerability the Congress exposes itself to is that with Yadavs opting out, it would barely survive with a seat or two ahead of the 272 absolute majority mark. This would expose it to blackmail on countless issues for the next four years.

Logic, most of my friends in the village felt, must dictate the Congress approach. After all, 50% of humanity are women. But that is not the quantum of reservation proposed. If 33 % is an arbitrary figure, why not accommodate the Yadav’s on a figure they were willing to accept.

Also, if the party is sensitive to the evolving socio-economic picture as the Sachar initiative suggested, it must not lose its sense of proportion in redressing one centuries old bias at the cost of other biases which have plagued us for millennia.

Of all the disabilities society suffers from there is none more glaring than the acute backwardness of Muslim women. I do not see how Muslim women will in the near future make an appearance in Parliament in excess of two or three at the very most. The picture in the state legislatures is worse. That the village gentry had cogent views on the Bill proves one thing: Muslims may be down and out but they have their ears close to the ground on issues of interest to them.

If affirmative action as a principle is acceptable, surely some consistency must be demonstrated for the Muslims as well. And yet, it must be admitted that quotas for Muslims is, in any case, extremely tricky for more reasons than one.

For example, historically an overwhelming majority of those who converted to Islam came from the lowest rung of the social order – SCs. But the quest for pedigree among Muslims has caused most of them to deny their SC roots.

Thus, 31% of Sikhs and 9% of Christians have accepted their SC roots but only 0.5% of Muslims. Over 39% have preferred to characterise themselves as OBCs. They are, of course, 60% in the general category.

Instead of proceeded one by one from Sachar to Ranganath Mishra, the Congress by promoting the Womens’ Bill, has taken a social leap but may have risked reviving the Mandal politics which, by its very nature, invites, Hindu consolidation and communalism.

Token gestures like a Minority Affairs Ministry and Haj subsidies irritates a section of the majority community without doing a jot for the minorities.

The person who should give these informed rural lot a hearing is Rahul Gandhi. He is seen in a positive light but Congress – BJP camaraderie is not. “Ever since Mandal upturned the established social structure, it has been the dream of the upper castes and the corporate sector to have the BJP and Congress establish a closer relationship”, said a journalist now settled in his village home. “Is this the beginning of that process?” if so, the backlash should not surprise us. Indeed, it should be anticipated. A disturbing thought in the context of an unstable neighbourhood.

Yes, globally and among the urban elite the message will go out of India taking a giant leap towards modernity. But the applause will obscure harsh social realities. Only, 70% of Muslims from ages of 6 to 17 are literate, bringing them at par with Dalits. And this is just one of a hundred such examples.

The navigation of the Bill in the Lok Sabha will be watched with interest and concern, depending on the viewers’ social strata.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

The Prince as a Statesman

The Prince as a Statesman
By Saeed Naqvi

Dated: 05.03.2010

My line of business takes me frequently to West Asia where among the people I almost compulsively seek out for cool headed appraisal of events is Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan. This time too he was his cerebral, candid self, though a little more anxious than I have ever seem him before.

Intelligence agencies in the region were suggesting that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was “imminent”. This did not make sense to him for several reasons. “With ongoing operations in Afghanistan are they going to open another front in Iran?”

Moreover, US secretary of Defence Robert Gates was on record that Iran would not be able to manufacture nuclear weapons until 2013 at the earliest. The diplomatic route had not yet been exhausted. “Don’t forget this entire region has nightmares about the nuclear capabilities whether of Israel or of Iran.”

He was disappointed that “Tony Blair, European Foreign Minister and Senator Mitchell come and go without giving any evidence of being in possession of any framework or strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

You can’t focus on “Iraq today Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran tomorrow and hope to arrive at a solution”. There has to be a comprehensive vision of the entire West Asian region.”

The issue of Palestinian refugees, Iraqi migration, stateless people are all problems that cannot be shut out by “walling yourself in”, as Israel has done. “Something will have to give”.

And yet he realized that the present Israeli coalition, the most right wing government in Israeli history, was the least capable of proceeding on a path for peace. Because even minimal adjustments, or compromise which entail “concessions” would cause the extremist coalition partners to bring down the government.

Meanwhile there were no signs that the Hamas and the Palestinian Authority was anywhere near resolving their differences.

On Iraq he thought the federal arrangement, “however tenuous”, must be maintained. “Even the Kurds know that any talk of more autonomy would be resisted by Turkey”.

He gave the example of Kosovo. “Remember Spain refused to recognize its independence” because Spain faced secession in the Basque region. “Likewise how can Syria accept” Kurdistan because it has Kurds living in contiguous territory.

He was disturbed by another possibility looming on the horizon: that Israel would be accommodated in OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).

This detail seemed to fit in with his larger thesis that a new class system was being reinforced. The rich would wall themselves in and the poor would dream of a transnational Caliphate. This is one of the explanations for the global spread of political Islam.

Unless a holistic view is taken of the entire region, “unless you stabilize the hinterland people living next to oil from the Caucasus to the Middle East”, the region will remain destabilized.

He recommended a conference of all the countries of the region to spell out what “the Mid-East peace plan is and how it should proceed”. This could be the beginning of a quest for harmony in the entire region.

With his considerable sense of history, Prince Hassan saw the conflict in Yemen against the backdrop of traditional “Imperial interests”. He referred to the report in 1907 by Campbell-Bannerman (former Prime Minister of Britain) when the former colonial powers came together to look at the future of waterways and strategic materials. The report concluded that “the best way to safeguard colonial interests was for neighbouring peoples to remain poor and divided”. In the three way conflict going on in Yemen, “the Al Qaeda also raises its head and becomes a rallying call for the military-industrial complex and their supporters”.

It was a pity that India had not recognized the big role in West Asia “history has bestowed on it”. After all, when the British left India, they did not give up British India’s control on the Gulf States until 1961.

What did he think of the Shia arc the media was playing up?

According to him the issue had no saliency before the US occupation of Iraq. In fact when the US talked of the “Lebanonization” of Iraq at the very outset of the occupation, ears were cocked. In Lebanon, the power structure is divided between the Shias, Sunnis, Christians and Druze. It was only when these kinds of hierarchies were sought to be created in Iraq that Shia-Sunni violence broke out in the South. Before the occupation, Iraq had a tradtion of Sunni-Shia harmony.

Differences sought to be made between Ajam and Arab or between Iranian and non Iranian Shias were even more divisive. This kind of talk frightens the Gulf States. “Little wonder they invited Iranian Foreign Minister, Manoucher Mottaki to their summit at Manama, capital of Bahrain.”

He even had a comment or two on Bolly wood. “Time has come to go beyond Slumdog Millionaire opening and move onto more cerebral films, because otherwise China seems to be winning awards at international film festivals.”

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sauce for the goose but not for the Gander

Sauce for the goose but not for the Gander
By Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 25.02.2010

The burgeoning global media, the very beacon of the free world, has not been very forthcoming on a bill before the US congress threatening action against media in the Middle East critical of US policies.

As in all such measures, the language is couched in caution.

For instance, section 1 of the Anti-American Incitement to Violence in the Middle East, Bill reads:
“Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression are the foundations of free and prosperous societies worldwide, and with the freedom of expression comes the responsibility to repudiate purveyors of incitement to violence.” (Freedoms are only for prosperous societies?)
“Television channels that broadcast incitement to violence against Americans, the United States, and others, have demonstrated the ability to shift their operations to different countries and their transmissions to different satellite providers in order to continue broadcasting and to evade accountability.” Goodbye to off-shore telecasting?

The bill names some channels which give the game away.

“Television channels such as Al-Manar, Al-Aqsa, Al-Zawra and others that broadcast incitement to violence against the United Sates and Americans, aid Foreign Terrorist Organizations in the key functions of recruitment, fundraising and propaganda”, are all liable to be punished.

Therefore, “it shall be a policy of the United States” to:
“Designate as Specially Designated Global Terrorists those satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as specially Designated Global Terrorists”.

The Bill threatens other, unspecified “punitive measures” against satellite providers that transmit Al-Aqsa, Al-Manar and Al-Zawra channels………….”

This bill “requires the President to transmit a report to Congress that must include a country-by-country list and description of media outlets that engage in anti-American incitement”.

Also, American level of assistance to a country will be determined by the extent to which the country in question shuns anti American propaganda.

By this criteria, Pakistan should be stone broke because there is hardly a country in the world which has a more hysterical, anti American media!

Ah! There’s the catch. The bill names countries only of the Middle East. These are: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza strip, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The Bill specifies these as the most worrisome area as far as anti Americanism (and hatred for its allies) is concerned. This lengthy Arab list is actually a camouflage for the real culprits, the ones who are a thorn on Israel’s side.

Let us consider the list of TV stations the Bill names. Al-Manar, for instance. The entire Middle East knows that it is the official channel of Hezbollah.

According to Wikipedia “The Israeli Air Force bombed Al-Manar building on July 13”, during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. “Despite the attack, the station remained on air, broadcasting from other undisclosed stations”.

The other TV station named in the Bill is Al-Aqsa TV. Wikipedia says it is a Hamas run television. Among other programmes, the station airs TV shows for children, some of which have been accused of promoting “anti Semitic views”.

The station began broadcasting in the Gaza strip in January 2006 after Hamas won a sweeping victory in Palestinian Parliamentary elections.

Celebrations in Gaza were galling for the Palestinian authority in Ramallah as well as for Jerusalem. In this instance Ramallah acted as the cat’s paw.

On January 22, 2006, The Palestinian Public Prosecutor, Ahmad Maghni, decided to close down the TV station because “it did not have the necessary broadcast license.” Hamas refused to enforce the decision.

On December 29, 2008, during the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza conflict, Israeli aircraft bombed the offices of Al-Aqsa TV. The building has been completely destroyed. But, says Wikipedia, the station continued to broadcast from a mobile TV unit.

Wikipedia, better watch out for recording subversive truths!

Likewise, Al-Zawra TV is Iraqi satellite channel which was known for airing insurgent attacks on US-led coalition Forces.

There is no point arguing against the wise US congressmen who have drafted this piece of legislation. One is speechless. Showing images of attacks on US soldiers in Iraq is a crime? In what category do we then place, the complete destruction of what was once Mesopotamia, one of the world’s earliest civilizations; organized looting of its museum; killing of a million innocent Iraqis; the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Are the wise Congressmen sunk, in the deepest levels of thought on legislation that will banish such inhumanity in some distant future?

“Mister Obama, on the morning of November 4, 2008, some of our friends assembled at the crack of dawn (for that is when US presidential election results were to be announced in India) to celebrate not so much your victory as the capacity of the American people to renew themselves and their nation, the nation we all salute. How do you think does this kind of illiberal legislation register with those who celebrated that morning?

Ofcourse, there are organizations you and your allies would consider recalcitrant. Well, handle them politically, or in any other way that does not embarrass the vision of freedom your founding fathers outlined for all humanity. Mark my word, implicit in the Bill is the spirit which leads to banning of books!

Even in this instance, it is the American people who will thwart this deletion of other people’s freedoms. After all it was one of your own journalistic stars who alerted us to the mischief afoot. Like him, a hundred voices will rise in your land and elsewhere. Let us hope, the standard bearers of press freedom in India will not shame us with their silence.”

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