Archive for the ‘POLITICS’ Category

Let’s face some hard truths about Pakistan

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Mint, 20 August 2014

Exasperation and mild amusement: these are the two primary feelings I get as I watch the hullabaloo over India cancelling foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan in the wake of the Pakistani high commissioner meeting separatist Hurriyat leaders in spite of being warned by the Indian foreign secretary.

The amusement went from mild to high this morning when I read Congress Rajya Sabha MP and former Indian foreign service officer Mani Shankar Aiyer in The Indian Express newspaper. Even for a known peacenik and alarmist as far as any aggressive Indian move on India-Pakistan affairs go, Aiyer outdoes himself. His essay ends with the following sentence: “We stand warned that whimsicality and bullying are going to characterize our relations with Pakistan over the next five years; exactly the kind of whimsicality and bullying that led to the Austro-Hungarian Empire attacking Serbia a hundred years ago, leading to the devastation of the two world wars.”

Is this guy for real?

In any case, it’s probably time to state some plain facts that we in India are too polite to articulate, at least most of the time. These are the following:

• Pakistan’s raison d’etre is hatred and fear of India. Indeed, it is a country which defines itself in terms of India. If there was no India to feel bitter about, Pakistan would have no reason to exist. Its dismemberment in 1971 into two parts aggravated this mindset even more.

(Thirty years later, at the breakfast meeting with Indian editors during the Agra summit, Pervez Musharraf brought up 1971. He accused India of being a wanton aggressor—an utterly delusional and repulsive statement that denied the shameful rejection of national election results; an inhuman genocide (codenamed Operation Searchlight) that left three million people dead—including all doctors, engineers, teachers, intellectuals the Pakistani army could find—and hundreds of thousands of women raped (perhaps the first time in the 20th century that rape was used systematically as war strategy); and India overwhelmed with 10 million helpless refugees from what would soon be Bangladesh.)

In the fullness of time, Pakistan may develop its own self-image with no India angle to it, but that day seems distant indeed. We should acknowledge this unfortunate fact and make that the basis of our policy towards Pakistan.

Because other than some parts of northern India and the media, we are not obsessed with Pakistan in any way. People in east India are not, nor in west or south India. This gives India a much freer and stronger hand in dealing with Pakistan.

• Pakistan is obsessed with Kashmir, and can rarely think beyond that. But the vast majority of Indians do not lose their sleep over the valley. When I was working in a weekly news magazine in 2004, we sent two journalists to Pakistan to cover the India-Pakistan test series. Whichever city they travelled to, they were hosted for an evening by the local Press Club, and the first question they were asked was: “What do you think about Kashmir?”

One of our journalists was a Keralite and the other a Bengali. They would reply, quite honestly, that they did not think about Kashmir. The reaction of the Pakistani press ranged from astonishment to “Hey, come on, we are all brothers of the media here, you needn’t be diplomatic” to hostility towards the two “Indian liars”.

Even most Pakistani leaders have no idea about the vastness and diversity of India. While Musharraf was ranting about 1971 to the editors, he was struggling with the main course of the breakfast: an uttapam. He had never seen anything like it before, and after a few futile attempts to make sense of it, set it aside (doubtless convinced that this was another sly Indian put-down gesture.).

But the fact is that India is massive, complex and has many other issues to focus on, of greater importance than Kashmir. Pakistan will never understand that, because it is a prisoner in that cage of a resentful world view it has built for itself.

• Pakistan wants Kashmir and India will never give up Kashmir. Territorial integrity is of course paramount, and the Kashmir issue actually even goes beyond that. If India gives up the valley because it is a Muslim majority area, it loses the moral right to call itself a secular nation. This seems like weird logic, and certainly counter-intuitive, but I’d request you to think about it.

• Some commentators have observed that by calling off the foreign secretary talks, India has weakened Nawaz Sharif and played into the hands of the hard-liners, from the army to that born-again messiah of fundamentalism Imran Khan (who, according to Salman Rushdie, was known as “Im the Dim” in his Oxford days). Things, apparently, can only get worse from here on.

But surely, we have been hearing these Cassandra predictions for decades now? In the 1980s and early 1990s, we were told that if Benazir Bhutto goes, all hell would break loose. We were then told that if Nawaz Sharif goes, there will be anarchy. Post 9/11, the US insisted that if the Musharraf regime fell, the region would be plunged into dangerous chaos. Even Asif Ali Zardari—a man who escaped conviction in a London court by producing a medical document certifying him as mentally unsound—was thought to be necessary for Pakistan’s stability.

All have gone their way (other than Sharif), and the situation remains exactly the same. Islamist fundamentalists roam, rant and raise funds at will; large tracts of the country are outside the control of the government; Mullah Omar is possibly still directing the Taliban from inside a well-protected and comfortable base in Pakistan; the Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, continues to pursue its own agenda; prime ministers serve out their terms at the pleasure of the army chief; terrorist attacks on Indian soil continue to be planned; the ceasefire at the Line of Control is violated regularly.

Let’s face it. Pakistan, by most definitions, is a failed state. The leadership may change, but the problems will remain just as they are, because of the contradictions inherent in the very concept of Pakistan. Unless India recognizes those contradictions very clearly, it will never be able to deal boldly and effectively with its neighbour.

• We should stop bothering ourselves about the internal matters of Pakistan—the politics and the power struggles—except for areas that concern us directly, like the terrorist infrastructure. Sharif is no spring chicken, and it is not India’s responsibility in any way to help him solve his problems. We should see Pakistan as a whole, a single entity to be dealt with, keeping our national interest in mind, under the accepted rules and processes of international diplomacy.

• And so what if earlier Indian governments permitted separatist Hurriyat leaders to meet Pakistani officials, and even travel to Pakistan? Surely, India is free to change its policy and lay down new terms of engagement? Especially when these generous liberal gestures achieved nothing at all.

Some members of our Punjabi political gerontocracy still suffer from nostalgia for Lahore. Thankfully, they are all out of power now.

In its scale of loss of human life, of emotional scars that have still not entirely faded away, in the terrible trauma and havoc it wreaked on millions of people, and in many other no less significant ways, the Partition was one of the greatest tragedies in human history. But it’s 67 years past. We have to accept it. We have to accept that we are two nations, and one of them is still searching for a national identity that is not linked to India in some way.

This is certainly not our fault. We must therefore tackle the problem we have with a clarity of vision that has no space either for wishful thinking or a graciousness that is usually misconstrued as timidity.

Modi’s First I-Day Speech

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Mail Today, August 16

There were two small things about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on Independence Day that struck me as the most significant aspects of the exercise. One of them was something that was missing: the bullet-proof enclosure—the shield behind which Prime Ministers have standing for so many years. This has always seemed a national embarrassment to me. We mention phrases like “the world’s largest democracy” at the drop of a hat—even before the hat has hit the ground, yet we had unquestioningly accepted the notion that our Prime Minister cannot deliver his most important annual speech without protecting himself against possible snipers. What have we then achieved, really?

The other came towards the end of his speech, and I don’t know how much attention people paid to that. Post-speech, on one TV programme, a journalist was complaining that Modi should not have worn a saffron pagdi (frankly, I thought it was red), and a BJP leader was responding that the pagdi also had swathe of green. Yes, they may have missed the other important thing.

The country—and especially the media—has been waiting for some sort of vision document from the NDA government from the day it came to power. The majority of the media—and even some economists who had earlier vociferously supported Modi—expressed disappointment over the Budget, calling it “more of the same” rather than a grand manifesto. But if studied closely, it did indicate a clear change in intent and direction. It’s just that the government did not want to make a hue and cry about it, which is entirely in line with the tone Modi has set—do your work efficiently, and eschew the dramatics.

The Budget put more money in the hands of the taxpayer (not much more, but given the state of the economy the NDA has inherited, even that little bit was a brave act, and definitely a statement of ideology). It attempted to encourage entrepreneurship; in an interview, Jaitley said what I believe to be the most important economic statement he has made: “We want to move from an entitlement economy to an opportunities economy.” He set high disinvestment targets, but mentioned it only in passing in his speech. He explained later that speaking more about it would have caused disruptive debate that the government could currently do without.

The BJP in government is very different from the BJP in campaign mode. The ministers are quiet, the bureaucrats are leaking much less, and there is an all-out public approach towards conciliation, and increased respect for India’s federal structure. Under Modi, the BJP is determined to project itself as the new natural party of governance, and shed its bogeyman image as conclusively as it can. The shift towards the right is by degrees, not through a sudden turn of the wheel. (It still has to rein in its unguided-missile fringe elements, and that certainly will be an interesting process to watch)

There has never been greater public interest in a Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech in at least three decades than in what Modi was going to say today. There was much speculation, about massive new schemes being announced, about new tough nationalistic rhetoric, and so on. No such thing happened. Indeed, it is our problem, more than Modi’s, that we have come to treat the revealing of new social sector schemes named after some historical luminary as a mandatory part of the Independence Day speech.

Yet, when Modi began his speech by paying respect to every Indian government which has come before this one, it must have surprised a lot of those who media refers to as “observers” and “analysts”. He then referred to the Budget session of Parliament just completed, and said that the NDA did not want to rule on the strength of its majority but on the basis of consensus. The credit for the success of the session, he said, was not only due to the ruling party, but also to the Opposition, and every MP. Several BJP ministers applauded, while Sonia Gandhi sat grimly, her arms crossed. While she has been accusing the BJP of a poisonous strategy of divisiveness, bigotry and fostering riots, Modi had deftly risen above the acrimony and was congratulating everyone in sight, extolling the glories of responsible Parliamentary democracy!

The speech reflected what Modi believed would be a Prime Ministerial message on such an occasion, and certainly he was not wrong. This is not a political speech, he insisted, it was a speech about national strategy. He spoke about turf wars within the bureaucracy, about our inherent self-seeking nature, about our disinterest in the national good. And for spending so much time in his speech on sanitation, cleanliness and toilets, he certainly deserved a rousing ovation (which he did not get; Indian politicians never do, when they bring up these topics before a nation in denial).

He spoke about women’s safety, about re-inventing the Planning Commission, the importance of e-governance, and so on. A mix of standard fare and stale news, except that Modi is a lightning-witted and engaging communicator. But for me, the most important point he made (other than the removal of that bullet-proof shield) is that he would ask every MP to create a “model village” within his constituency. This is a specific goal, its success easily verifiable, and in one stroke, puts pressure on the MP to deliver to his people. This simple scheme can have extraordinary ripple effects, and no extra government expenditure is needed. Every MP anyway has funds allocated for development of his constituency. It’s just that now, part of what he does with those funds has been formally delineated.

This will force every MP sing for his supper, empower the people, generate competition and pride, and is truly one of those simple ideas that makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. India needs these simple ideas that go a long distance much more than enormous ill-thought-through underachieving dole schemes. Modi knows very well what he is doing, and that includes how to be Prime Ministerial.