Monday, November 29, 2010

Bihar’s Double Fisted Punch on Caste and Corruption

Bihar’s Double Fisted Punch on Caste and Corruption
Saeed Naqvi

Bihar’s much derided electorate has administered a resounding double-fisted punch on the chin of exactly the sort of politics which breeds 2G spectrum, Adarsh and CWG. JDU’s Nitish Kumar has also demolished caste and emerged as 21st century India’s model leader.

It was smart anticipation on the part of Congress President Sonia Gandhi to walk briskly towards the cameras and, avoiding the Bihar debacle, rattle off the list of corrective measures against those of her party or coalition partners caught with their hand in the till. She contrasted this against BJP’s triple summersault on Yedurappa and his scams in Karanatka. In her brief performance there were shades of Indira Gandhi who, when cornered, generally lashed out.

Holding onto Nitish Kumar’s waist coat, the BJP has exceeded all expectations in Bihar. They could have basked in that glory a little longer. Instead of partying in Patna, they yoked themselves to Yedurappa in Bangalore, because, by some accounts, he threatened to split the local BJP and deny the party the support of every single Lingayat Muth in Karnataka.

Nitish Kumar, of course, has made history by universally acclaimed good governance and brilliant politics. Once it became clear that the minorities had totally given up on the Congress particularly after the Ayodhya Judgement, the expectation was that the Muslim vote would habitually drift towards Lalu Prasad Yadav.

That the Muslims turned to Nitish despite his alliance with the BJP could well be another turning point in the country’s political history. This confirms the extent of Muslim exasperation with the Congress. Nitish harnessed this disgust deftly by coming across as a firm leader who could keep the BJP on a tight leash. In other words, he could moderate the BJP.

No BJP leaders, who are anathema to the minorities, were allowed to campaign. Then there was the record of five years free of communalism, years of development, roads, schools, uniforms, gender equality, 11 percent growth, a general ambience of welfare. The compelling attractiveness of development, dwarfing caste and religion, places Nitish as the tallest leader today.

The BJP worked with the diligence of ants.

Taking full advantage of Nitish’s secular efficiency, under his attractive, overarching canopy, the BJP cadres moved (rather like “Birnam wood” coming to “Dunsinane Hill” in Macbeth) and clinched their 91 seats varying their flight and spin imperceptibly from constituency to constituency. A dedicated cadre in the alliance must have helped Nitish too to clock 115 seats.

What Nitish has on his hands now is a first rate political situation. The BJP was never expected to come so close to the JDU in numbers. Together they now have a record four fifth of a House of 243. It is a paradox of politics that Nitish would have had an easier five years with a simple majority plus 20 seats. Why? Because friction is built into the present numerical equation between the JDU and the BJP.

A pity Lalu Prasad Yadav is walking into the sunset. He was an amusing figure in a country bereft of political humour. Also, he probably had outlived his utility at a time when Mandal is a fading memory. Some credit must also go to him: the caste churning he inaugurated prepared the ground for Nitish to aim for a new social equilibrium. This must not mislead folks from believing that we have moved into a post caste era. Far from it.

In the two by elections in UP, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party trounced the Congress. Apparently in the October Panchayat elections, the Congress suffered reverses in its citadels of Rae Bareli and Amethi. The spin being given is that Panchayat elections were on non-party lines and Mayawati was now buying up the winners. Does it sound plausible at all?

The election season has truly begun. Elections to Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Assam, West Bengal and Kerala stare a debilitated Congress in the face in March and, a year later in UP and then the ultimate Kurukshetra, the General Election in 2014.

Congress rules alone or as UPA in eleven states. So do the BJP and its NDA incarnation, as in Bihar for instance. There are as many states where the Chief Ministers come from stables other than BJP or Congress.

Neither the Congress nor BJP leadership at the center inspires. One of the shackles on the Congress is the party’s almost servile inability to spell out whether the Youth Surge, with Rahul Gandhi in the vanguard, is real or ephemeral. Does anybody in the party dare speak out that “Ekla chalo” in Bihar or UP is an unrealistic slogan?

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Corruption And Eleven Day Test Matches

Corruption And Eleven Day Test Matches
Saeed Naqvi

Three batsmen at separate test venues on the same day score a triple hundred, a double century and a century. Captain M.S. Dhoni throws up his hands: “We will need eleven days of play continuously to obtain a result”. A spinner hits two hundreds in a row.

What does all of this have to do with 2G Spectrum, Adarsh, CWG? A great deal.

Pundits say Chanakya’s Arthasastra refers to “utkot” which means bribe, something that was fairly common for “rajkramcharis” or state officials to accept.

The British used the caste hierarchy to minimize corruption at the lower level bureaucracy. The ICS steel frame kept order at the top. It was, for instance, not uncommon for a Saiyyid from the landed gentry to monitor the excise department in a district where poppy cultivation was extensive. Genteel upbringing, it was assumed, would create an automatic distance between the excise official and the potential bribe giver.

Word “sharafat” was at a premium. Unfortunately, there is no exact English translation for that word. “Nobility of character” minus the class connotation and “honesty” do approximate to “sharafat”.

There was sufficient corruption even in 1950 to inspire Josh Malihabadi to write his poem “Rishwat Khori” or “bribery”. Josh’s satire is directed at traders and businessmen who had “fattened” themselves in cahoots with the corrupt instruments of the state:
“Tond walon ki to ho teemardari
Wah, wah!
Aur hum chaata karein imandari
Wah, whah?”
(The fat bellied and the corrupt, their cups full, are pampered;
While we lick the sweetener of honesty.)

Rising prices also underpinned corruption. Witness Josh’s punchline:
“Hum agar rishwat nahin lenge
to phir khaen ge kya”
(How will we feed ourselves without taking bribes.)

The corruption that disturbed Josh was largely a function of a sudden breakdown of the feudal order. Declining aristocrats were overnight reduced to penury. Middlemen turned up to pick up the heirlooms at throwaway prices. Patwari upwards, everyone in the revenue and land departments got into the act of transferring land to the “investor” or “Lala” at fictitious prices. The upheaval of partition followed by zamindari abolition brought in its wake a variety corruption.

From 1952 onwards, demands of electoral politics opened up another channel. Arrange for jeeps and country liquor for four “bastis” (colonies) of low caste voters. If the candidate wins, turn up at his MLA quarters in Lucknow for a canal building contract. This is the tiniest example.

There had always been a nexus between the Congress party and big business. After all, Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram at Sevagram was financed by Jamnalal Bajaj; Gandhiji was assassinated in Birla House, New Delhi. Members of the Union cabinet like Satyanarain Sinha never disguised their loyalty to the Birlas.

The nexus between the party and sources of funding was monitored by individuals of integrity: Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, C.B. Gupta, Atulya Ghosh, L.N. Mishra, Rajni Patel (the last named with a caveat). It has always bothered me that Sitaram Kesari, remained Treasurer of the party for nearly two decades without a single allegation of corruption being made against him. But the manner in which he was dismissed confirmed that in Congress culture considerations of caste and power would trump financial honesty.

The system expanded where politicians with less than few thousand crores began to suffer from an acute inferiority complex. Why can’t the finances of all these fat cats be investigated? Yes, bureaucrats, industrialists, journalists, everybody.

By the time the post Cold War economic liberalization was upon us, ancient wisdom had been made to stand on its head. We had been taught: “The purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness”. Rampaging capitalism altered the basic lesson: “the purpose of life is the accumulation of wealth”.

The balance between Lakshmi and Sarawati, the basic Indian equilibrium, has been tilted obscenely in favour of wealth. It is this culture of grab, grab, grab of which 2G Spectrum, CWG, Adarsh are only the latest examples.

Avarice and greed were values for Henry Ford when he advised: “Buy when there is blood on the streets”. The theology had currency until Enronn, Fannie Mae, Freddie Max, Lehman Brothers, AIG have cumulatively brought down the global economy to a point where even a nervous Economist is editorially advising us not to lose “confidence in capitalism”. The guiding theology of our times is being re examined.

Pitches are “guaranteed” for matches to last five days so that billions in TV ads (never mind the empty stands) are not lost just in case a fast track or a turning wicket terminates a test match in three days! This grab, grab application on cricket has denied it of the game’s poetry encapsulated in Neville Cardus’s description of Hammond driving between cover and extra cover.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Obama supports India’s “Diplomacy by Default” But Will Indo-US Unity Help in Afghanistan?

Obama supports India’s “Diplomacy by Default”
But Will Indo-US Unity Help in Afghanistan?
Saeed Naqvi

In search of saliency in the Obama visit, pundits have missed out on “Indo-US” co-operation in Afghanistan, a major shift since the narrative so far has been about US-Pak collaboration in the Af-Pak theatre.

The joint Indo-US statement issued at the end of President Obama’s visit reads:

“The two sides committed to intensify consultation, co-operation and co-ordination to promote a stable, democratic, prosperous and independent Afghanistan. President Obama appreciated India’s enormous cooperation to Afghanistan’s development and welcomed enhanced Indian assistance that will help Afghans achieve self-sufficiency. In addition to their own independent assistance programs in Afghanistan, the two sides resolved to pursue joint development projects with the Afghan government in capacity building, agriculture and women’s empowerment.”

The paragraph shuts up a noisy but uninformed lobby in India seeking a more muscular, “macho” (for which read “lethal”) presence in Afghanistan to check Pakistan’s military engagement with the US for controlling influence in Afghanistan.

Additionally, it is a rap on the knuckles for the US military policy makers in Afghanistan who are on record that India’s “political and economic influence” and “significant financial assistance” are impeding Afghan war efforts.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former US Force Commander said in June “Increasing Indian influence is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter measures in Afghanistan or India”.

The “countermeasures” cited by McChrystal’s colleagues were, for instance, attacks on Indian Embassy in Kabul. The implications of the McChrystal thesis were far reaching: that India should turn its back on Afghanistan so that the US-Pak combine can clear up Afghanistan of Al Qaeda and Taleban.

Even if one sets aside the India angle, the McChrystal thesis was a recipe for the US to sink deeper into the Afghan quicksand.

A leak from McChrystal’s note book insulting to Obama’s team resulted in him being sacked. He now teaches a course at Yale.

His successor in Kabul, Gen. David Petraeus, has so far not suggested that India quit Afghanistan to facilitate the US war effort. But he too has been talking about Pakistani fears of India’s “Cold Start” doctrine. “Cold Start” is a fancy term for Rapid Deployment. The term was apparently used in a seminar but has never been a doctrine locked up in some archive.

The Joint statement, carrying Obama’s imprimatur, shuts out this US military inspired thinking which has traditionally had a considerable resonance with the Pak Army ever since the US-Pak military pact was signed in the 50s and sustained through the Cold War. The joint statement almost scuttles a longstanding systematic synchronization.

Appreciation and endorsement of “India’s enormous co-operation to Afghanistan’s development” is a major shift. Obama justifies India’s concentration on construction of infrastructure, hospitals, schools and facilitating Afghan students in Indian schools, colleges and universities. Also, New Delhi, barely 90 minutes away from Kabul, has become a favoured destination for Afghan patients.

Stereotype diplomacy in Afghanistan as being an adjunct to military force has been made to stand on its head by almost Gandhian, non-lethal “good works”, done by New Delhi. Exasperated by bombings, searches, humiliations not unknown to Pakistan with its on and off participation in the war effort, Afghans have found Indians the most calming presence in difficult times. A common exclamation in Mazar-e-Sharif as well as Kabul it: “They flood us with arms; India helps us rebuild.”

This “diplomacy by default” as Indian low key presence in Afghanistan has been described by a think tank, has not only worked but has been applauded by Obama.

The further US commitment, “in addition to India’s own assistance program” is to jointly take up “development projects with the Afghan government in capacity building, agriculture and women’s empowerment”.

This Indo-US combined effort with the Afghan government serves a twin purpose. It creates and expands space towards an eventual political settlement in Afghanistan. At the same time Pakistani fears that India may be sharpening the pincer on it from the West, is taken care of by the US keeping an eye on the “nasty works” India may be upto. But there is a catch: New Delhi’s popularity in Afghanistan has been because of the widespread perception of its independence. Going hand in hand with the US may spoil it.

The joint commitment to promote a “stable, democratic, prosperous and independent Afghanistan” obviates any hegemonic role in Afghanistan by neighbours or, indeed, the US.

Two broad themes, in the works for months, were discernable in the interactions: growing US frustration at being stuck with a “nuclear”, increasingly unstable but logistically indispensable Pakistan which nurses “terror camps”. Without their elimination, Afghanistan cannot be stabilized.

The other theme was China, its domineering presence on the world stage. China’s rise was not seen in confrontational terms, but rather as a challenge to keep it in a cooperative global concert. Witness Manmohan Singh deflecting attacks on the currency issue at the Seoul, G20.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Obama: Lessons on Caste and Babur

Obama: Lessons on Caste and Babur
Saeed Naqvi

It might be an interesting detail for a US President who has come up the Civil Rights ladder. The role caste politics in India has played in boosting Indo-US ties in recent years. The dynamics in the connection are somewhat awkward to explain, and are a theme for another article.

The Indian Diaspora that went out to the colonial plantations as indentured labour in the 19th century were all lower caste. But the one that went to the US since the 70s were overwhelmingly upper caste.

Caste politics brought in its train a system of reservations in education and government jobs. Excellence, in other words, was being challenged by other social considerations because electoral politics had opened doors to burgeoning egalitarianism. Entrenched class and caste elites (to accept socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia’s thesis) which had recycled themselves for centuries, saw themselves being replaced, in phases, by new classes-castes in the foreseeable future. This began to happen in the 90s. Don’t forget Mandir-Masjid politics coincided with the opening of the economy post cold war when Washington became the world’s most magnetic capital.

A steady stream of Indian students had begun to populate American universities since the early 70s after the numbers going to Britain dropped. These Universities were anathema during the colonial period: Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah were all creatures of British education. Jayaprakash Narayan always had a complex because his father-in-law could only send him to Wisconsin. Britain remained the favoured destination for the recycled elite upto the 60s. Three years at Cambridge or Oxford in those days cost no more than Rs.10,000 (Rupees Ten thousand).

The Labour government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson took up “decolonization” seriously: British Councils were close down. There were few British scholarships. Meanwhile, the Indian elite ran out of money.

This was the turning point. US Universities opened up their campuses to Indian students who, if they had ability, also had access to full scholarships. What began as driblets were regular streams by the late 70s to 80s. Indians with American degrees obtained in the 70s are today in key positions in India.

This flow of Indians to the US coincided in the 90s with the surge in “reservations” in North India.

Fearing total status reversal on account of reservations, the elite began to park their wards in the US, first through the university system then permanent residence and Green cards. Others joined the exodus.

There was hardly a Prime Minister who did not have a son, daughter or close relative in the US. Could other members of the cabinet have been far behind?

It would be interesting to have the following data: children of Foreign Service officers above the rank of Joint Secretaries, Secretaries to Government at the Center, senior members of the armed services, senior journalists, whose children are studying or working or are citizens of the US. They are not a negligible glue in Indo-US relations.

A large section of the Silicon Valley, large number of CEOs, and such like Indian success phenomenon are mostly post Mandal happenings.

What Britain lost out in the 60s has ofcourse become America’s gain. But that is not all. It is this Indian Diaspora which has powerful links in New Delhi and works as a strong binding factor.

There should be logical sequence to this trajectory. More educated and therefore upper caste Indians should be looking for pastures in the US. But will they? Joseph Stiglitz and others of his ilk who see the US economy in Freefall (Stiglitz’s book) are painting the US in such lurid colours, that we may soon see US-bound Indians a diminishing commodity.

Bill Clinton’s famous three words, “the economy, stupid”, may give way to Barack Obama’s two words “Jobs, stupid”.

This may be payback time. And here too, US faith in Indian talent appears to be paying off. Indian companies in the US are already employing 60,000 Americans. The wheel may well be coming full circle. More and more Indian entrepreneurs are examining profitability of investments in the US.

Obviously business newspapers will obtain a few headlines on Indian business outsourcing $10 billion in the US. Studies done by businesses on how outsourcing, in a roundabout way, ends up generating jobs will make for op ed pieces. The expectation is that restrictions on ISRO, AEA, DRDO will be lifted, allowing them to do business with US firms.

Incidentally, talking of caste churning and how it differs from the Civil Rights movement which prepared the ground for Obama to be where he is, the differences between his educational reach and the home spun cunning of caste leaders, Salman Khurshid is just the right man to educate the visiting President on this as on Moghul history. Obama will certainly go back with a copy of Sons of Babur, Salman’s maiden effort as playwright.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama Visit: Realism Without Hype

Obama Visit: Realism Without Hype
Saeed Naqvi

All those who were, until the other day shrugging their shoulders and despairing at no “deliverable” packages during the Obama visit, suddenly have a relaxed pensiveness in their eyes which comes from the dawning of realism. In essence, the visit will be directional not “destinational”.

Little wonder someone involved in the preparations was heard with rapt attention when he narrated Obama’s description of his exchange with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Oval office: it was an intellectual exploration of the myriad problems that afflict the globe. The two, between them, are more intellectually equipped, than any other pair of summiteers. Manmohan Singh’s meetings in Malaysia and Hanoi and Obama’s coming itinerary in that region, all point to a pooling of ideas.

Jaswant Singh, who was Foreign Minister during the Bill Clinton visit, recalls his conversation with Strobe Talbott: Let the “sherpas” negotiate the trading lists of “must do” and “can do” items. “It is demeaning to treat an arriving President as a stars-and-stripe Santa Clause.” Nor should the President of the United States, in pinched economic circumstances, turn up as a trader.

Presidential visits can sometimes be misleading pointers to subsequent history. Circumstances change. Remember when the born-again, President Jimmy Carter met the twice born Prime Minister, Morarji Desai during his visit to India in January 1978, it seemed to herald a navigational correction in New Delhi’s foreign policy. The excitable Haryana leader, Devi Lal, even christened a village, Carterpuri. Such was the excitement.

Who could have imagined that within three months, in April 1978, Noor Mohammad Taraki, a Communist to boot, would become Prime Minister in neighbouring Afghanistan, paving the way for the Soviet invasion, making Pakistan the frontline state.

The first post cold war visit to India by a US President was Bill Clinton’s in March 2000. The American perception of the altered regional realities was reflected in the itinerary: Clinton spent five days in India and five hours in Islamabad, mostly chastising Gen. Pervez Musharraf for turning a blind eye to cross border terrorism.

Post 9/11, Musharraf made a U-turn and, to New Delhi’s chagrin, the US embraced him as its principal ally in the global war on terror forgetting how cross border terrorism had plagued India since 1989. With help from countries in the region, the US ousted the Taleban from Kabul. It had entered the conflict in a mood of “full spectrum dominance”. But, since the global economic downturn, a chastened US finds itself in urgent quest for policy options to scale down in Afghanistan. How does India play a calming role in this situation without getting involved in the mess?

Heaven knows how much work has been done on this count and incorporated into Obama’s briefs.

Gen. Stanley Mccrystal, from whom Gen. David Petraeus has taken over as US Force Commander in the region, was quite explicit: India must vamoose from Afghanistan to ease Pak anxieties about an Indian pincer from the east and the west.

Gen. Petraeus didn’t go quite that far but even he could not resist talking of India’s “cold start” thesis (a term for rapid deployment) possibly to keep the Pak military in good humour. No such thesis exits.

One can understand Pakistan’s indispensability on account of the supply route from Karachi through Balochistan to Afghanistan and US anxieties about religious extremism in the world’s most powerful and unstable Muslim state “with a 100 nuclear warheads”.

These are realities but how will they come up in the discussion? That Pakistan, strapped to a nuclear bomb, is about to go over the precipice? Or that sober appraisals are required bilaterally, then trilaterally and so on.

American desire to scale down in Afghanistan is clear but its ability to do so by 2011 is less so. Who will protect Hamid Karzai until and beyond 2014? Mullah Omar, Gulbudin Hekmatyar and Serajuddin Haqqani? Karzai begins to froth in the mouth with anger at the very mention of someone like Haqqani? So much for the acceptability of Pakistani assets in Afghanistan.

India’s popular infrastructure and development projects, supported by the widespread magic of Bollywood, has given it a wholesome profile in Kabul which must not register in Islamabad as facts adversarial to its interests.

Look! In varying degrees, all of us in the region are in a mess and should get into a scrum which must include Pakistan, Obama’s destination early next year. On this we shall look for hints from the summit.

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