Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My God and I

Ingrid Betancourt said something on the BBC the other day that made me stop and think. “When it comes to God, it’s the questions you ask that really matter.”

As I heard her, I instinctively knew she was right. In my case, it’s not whether he exists that’s important, but whether I’m prepared to admit I need him. Today, in my fifties, I can accept I do. Whether I call that need God, or hide it from myself by using some other term, is a matter of mere detail. At its core lies the realisation that there are times when God, or hope — or an assurance — is necessary.

But was that always the case?

Yes, except I wasn’t honest about it. In my twenties or thirties, I claimed to be an agnostic. On the one hand, I did not have the certainty to be an atheist; but, on the other, I would guard myself by observing all the superstitions I knew of.

But when most in need, expediency would overpower my declared agnosticism! On such occasions I would actually bargain with God. So, for example, to ensure the right results after a big exam, I would strike a deal: if you give me a first, I would say, I will give up X and Y. Then, to twist his hand, I would make my sacrifice first. Reassurance lay in my presumptuous confidence God would deliver. Silly as it may sound, renunciation was my tool to propitiate — or, do I mean bribe? — the power that determines all our futures.

Over the years, as I have come to understand myself, I have also realised what I was doing. I was either camouflaging a need for God — or hope or reassurance — or, worse, contradicting myself. If I were to say the confidence of youth explains my earlier refusal to fully believe, you would be right to riposte that advancing age has probably conditioned my present acceptance.

Whatever the explanation, I’m no longer cold or distant to our human need of belief. It’s as much a part of our make-up as hunger or desire. Indeed, I would go further and say I don’t know if God exists, but I do know we need him. So, if he is our creation he is undoubtedly the most invaluable one. For, to him we look when we know we cannot help ourselves.

But let me be more explicit.

I do not have a particular God I believe in. In fact, I believe in them all — which is another way of saying I believe in the power of God. And indeed, if I’m honest, I only turn to him when I need him. It’s like food; the lure is powerful when you’re hungry and very different when sated. Which is why, even now, I think of him as hope or reassurance rather than the Almighty. You can’t have failed to notice I use the words synonymously.

Perhaps this is why religion, rituals, priests and piety irritate me. They are like the ceremony and etiquette of an elaborate meal which often detracts from the food being served. When I’m hungry, I want to eat, and then, like any other selfish diner, I push back my chair and leave.

I suspect Ingrid Betancourt’s relationship with God — or a hope or reassurance — was essentially no different, only more desperate and more intense. And I assume that would also be true of many of you who are reading this column this Sunday morning. It’s just that her years of dreadful captivity forced upon her an understanding that comes to the rest of us only with the slow passage of time. (Betancourt was rescued this July, after six years in the captivity of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.)

Listening to her on the radio, I could feel the penny drop. Admittedly, there was no audible clunk but there was a sudden acceptance of a truth, the comfortable feeling that you have always suspected something to be true but never before recognised it.

Awareness — if that’s what it is — happens in strange, inexplicable ways. Now, is that God’s work or just coincidence?

Sunday, 21 December 2008

A pertinent point

By Karan Thapar

The insistent ringing of the phone suggested it could be Pertie. Since his return last month he’s been unusually angry. I took this to be the helpless rage many of us have felt after Bombay but I soon discovered the cause of his wrath was quite different.

 “I think we ought to congratulate Bombay’s lawyers for their spectacular self-goal.” Even if this was intended as satire there was a distinct edge to his voice. “If they carry on like this they could lose the match for us!”

 Pertie was, of course, referring to a resolution by the Bar Council of Bombay directing its members not to defend Ajmal Amir Kasab. He found their argument that Kasab is a terrorist whom it would be wrong to defend difficult to accept.

 “Don’t they realise that if Kasab is to be brought to justice — as opposed to a public lynching — he has the right to a defence and it would be a meaningless right if no lawyer will actually take on his case?”

 “Sure they do”, I replied, “but they also believe there’s no room to doubt or question Kasab’s guilt. In such circumstances it would be morally wrong to defend a terrorist.”

 “That’s utter rot. No matter how you look at it, it doesn’t make sense. Not legally, certainly not politically and definitely not morally.”

 “Why?” I saw it in shades of grey. For Pertie it was stark black and white.

 “Because even Satwant Singh, who several people saw killing Indira Gandhi, had to be tried in court before he was convicted and he had a lawyer to defend him. Ram Jethmalani took on the case. Kasab is in a similar situation. Due process of law requires a legal defence and if that is not forthcoming it would be a mockery of justice. If a trial without a defence lawyer is actually held it would embarrass, even undermine, the Indian legal system.”

 “Alright,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly. “What about Subramaniam Swamy’s idea of declaring him an enemy alien? Then the government could invoke Article 22 (3) and deprive Kasab of the right to a legal defence.”

 “That would, no doubt, please people like you,” Pertie retorted. Now the mockery in his voice was as sharp as a knife. “But first you have to declare Pakistan an enemy country! And what would the rest of the world think of that? Where would that leave our proud boast of restraint? The world would think we are spoiling for a fight.” 

 “The prisoners of Guantanamo are considered enemy aliens.” I shot back. 

 “So?” Pertie was equally fast. “Is that the example you want to emulate?” He was laughing at me. “Anyway, don’t you know the US Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners in Guantanamo have a right of defence?” 

 This time I had nothing to say but my silence wasn’t sufficient to appease Pertie’s rising anger.

“Do you know the worst of it? If Kasab doesn’t get a lawyer because none is prepared to take up his case then why would Pakistan agree to extradite its citizens like Masood Azhar? After all, we claim we want to try him in our courts but if we can’t guarantee a defence for him then what sort of trial would that be?”

 “Hmmm?”. I wasn’t avoiding an answer. I was thinking about what Pertie had just said. But before I could speak he pronounced the conclusion himself.

 “Wouldn’t this be an excellent reason for Pakistan to refuse extradition? They could cite Kasab to prove India cannot guarantee justice and we’d be left with nothing to say. Even our friends in America and Britain would be unable to come to our help.”

 Perhaps I gagged or, maybe, I gasped but I was taken aback. Pertie was right. No one else had thought it through the way he had. 

 “It won’t be long before Pakistan picks this up” he said, as he got to the end of the call. 

“Now that Dawn and GEO TV have accepted Kasab is Pakistani they’ll have no hesitation claiming he won’t be given a fair trial.”

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Well done, Mrs D!

By Karan Thapar

If Sheila Dikshit is smiling contentedly as she sips her coffee and glances at the Sunday papers this morning, that would not only be justified but, more pertinently, an understated response to her phenomenal victory. 

In her place, others might have jumped up and down and shouted ‘whoopee!’. The credit for this third consecutive victory is undoubtedly hers. No doubt Sonia Gandhi and the Congress can claim a share but first, foremost and, indeed, most of all, it’s Sheila Dikshit’s.

If you don’t believe me start by looking at the odds she faced. To begin with she had already been in office for ten years and one would have expected a vote against her simply for that reason alone. It didn’t happen. 

But beyond that, she was the chief minister who presided over the Bus Rapid Transit corridor, urban sealing, Blueline murders and repeated terrorist attacks including the controversial and divisive Batla House encounter. 

If the BJP thought these constitute good reason for turfing her out, most of us would have agreed. Yet that’s not all. On top of all this there was also the frighteningly high rate of inflation and the dark shadow of the Mumbai terror attack. The Delhi electorate was more conscious of both than perhaps any other. Yet they deliberately and knowingly overlooked all of this. It’s not just incredible. It’s almost unbelievable. 

However, anti-incumbency is not the only element of conventional wisdom Sheila Dikshit has turned on its head. Age is the other. Next March she will be 71. Yet a city where more than 50 per cent are under half her age has given her a clear majority with 82 per cent more seats than the BJP. This time the BJP can’t believe it.

But how can I confidently assert the credit goes more — in fact far, far more — to Sheila Dikshit than either the Congress or Sonia Gandhi? Simple. Just compare the Vidhan Sabha results with those for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections 19 months ago. Then the BJP won 60 per cent of the seats, overturning an 80 per cent Congress majority in the outgoing house. Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party were at the front of that campaign. Sheila Dikshit was virtually absent. This time it was Mrs Dikshit who was the face of the party. Those of us who voted, voted for her.

Now the critical question is, what about Sheila Dikshit does the Delhi electorate find so reassuring? I would say the answer lies in three qualities. 

First, her image is appealing. The soft-spoken, grey-haired lady in printed silk sarees is attractive to all eyes. Second, her manner is caring. She is accessible, responsive and willing to accept mistakes. 

Third, Delhi has seen some — albeit limited — progress under her. The state of our roads, the spread of flyovers and the Metro, and the stabilisation of electricity, at least in winter, are the pluses. It may not amount to much, but for an electorate skeptical of politicians it felt like a lot.

But Mrs Dikshit was also helped by the opposition she faced. Clearly, V.K. Malhotra was not acceptable as the alternative. Whatever his political skills and acumen may be, he did not appeal to the electorate. And this point only underlines the fact that people want to know who will rule them. 

They may or may not like the choice on offer but a faceless, leaderless campaign is seen as undemocratic and, worse, it’s viewed as an attempt to deceive. 

However, there is also a caution one can sound. Third terms are tricky if not downright difficult to handle. What usually happens is that while a leader’s mandate has been renewed, the vision has also diminished and, often, the stamina is simultaneously exhausted. That’s precisely what happened to Margaret Thatcher 20 years ago and then, again, to Tony Blair 17 years later. Could the same fate befall Sheila Dikshit?

Guard against this Mrs D. But for today, keeping smiling. You’ve earned the right to a little self-satisfaction.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Memories & a promise

By Karan Thapar

Memories can be tricky, even unreliable. But those I have of the Taj and Oberoi in Bombay most definitely are not. They’re vivid, detailed and unshakeable. They capture something of the special quality of these hotels — their indomitable spirit, air of privileged class and soothing service.

It’s the shining brass surfaces of the Oberoi that first come to mind. Even late at night, there was a discrete footman ready to rub off grimy fingerprints as guests pushed the large revolving door to enter the hotel. Having done so, he would melt away as swiftly and silently as he had emerged.

In the mornings there was a similar attendant with a dust cloth standing by the lifts. He kept the brass surfaces so highly buffed you could check your hair or the crease on your jacket in the reflection. And, if I’m not mistaken, he was always smiling. A boyish, perhaps impish grin, that seemed to forgive you for soiling the gleaming brass.

Wood was the dominant feature of the old Taj. It gave the hotel its historic look. As you walked past the rooms, your hand dawdling on the smooth painted balustrade, you could feel yourself travelling back in time. And if you walked down the grand stairs, you half expected to see a horse-drawn carriage or, at least, an open top Ford Model T waiting for you.

Unless someone had told you, you’d never have realised the Taj was built the wrong way round. But this meant the pool was always bathed in sunshine. And there was always laughter from the happy guests surrounding it. The back verandahs were a favourite place for tea and snacks.

But the memory that I cherish is of a quiet swim late one summer evening as dusk began to fall on the city. As the gold and auburn colours of the setting sun fell across its surface, the pool seemed to turn magical. I was alone and the only sound apart from the swishing water was a gentle breeze in the trees.

Both hotels maintained coffee shops that welcomed fugitives escaping the hot sticky Bombay afternoon. If the Shamiana was better known, the Samarkand, as it used to be, had the advantage of a location outside the hotel itself. I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981 over two consecutive afternoons and several cups of espresso. Cappuccino was still unknown in India. The waiters knew I was a student who couldn’t afford more but they treated me like any other guest.

I was a teenager when I first dined at the Zodiac Grill. The restaurant had an awesome reputation and I was both excited and intimidated. Sitting at the table, facing its collection of glass and shining cutlery, I felt awkward and self-conscious. Yet the waiter, who shook open the napkin before handing it over, treated me like an adult. When he realised I was ordering injudiciously, guided more by the cost than an understanding of the dish, he gently steered me 

to a wiser choice. It turned out that Sole Albert, my initial pick, was just a fancy name for a very expensive steamed fish.

In the 90s, when work took me to Bombay three times a month, my favourite was the lobby level coffee shop at the Oberoi. I would often weekend in the city and brunch on Sunday morning was a particular pleasure at La Brasserie. There was so much to choose I was often paralysed by indecision. “Try a little bit of everything,” one of the waiters said on my first visit. I did. I ended up changing plates seven times.

But I do have one regret I could kick 

myself for. I wish I had spent more time in the Sea Lounge at the Taj. I meant to but apart from tea on a couple of occasions we remained strangers. Now I promise 

to atone as soon as it reopens. I’ll find a place by an open window, looking out, beyond the promenade, deep into the azure Arabian Sea, where I shall sip fragrant Darjeeling tea and nibble Petit Beurre biscuits.

Monday, 1 December 2008

When Zardari came to town

By Karan  Thapar

“There’s a little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian. I do not know whether it is the Indian or the Pakistani in me that is talking today”

The more I think about what he said, the more stunned I am he said it. But it’s not just his content that is startling. The fact that Asif Zardari was speaking as President of Pakistan to an Indian audience, in full knowledge that he was doing so on live television, makes his statements all the more amazing. Not one of his predecessors would have spoken so openly and with such obvious personal conviction. Indeed even his late wife, Benazir, would have been more circumspect.

To begin with, it’s the number of commitments he readily made. Pakistan has accepted a no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy. “I can assure you that Pakistan will not be the first country ever to use (nuclear weapons)”, he said. When I asked if this was a no-first-use assurance, adding “if so you have just made headline news”, he immediately replied: “most certainly”.

At one stroke, the Pakistani President reversed his country’s traditional insistence on keeping open the option of using nuclear weapons first. I don’t know what his army thinks, but Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) has publicly endorsed the Zardari line. So even if voices in the press are critical, he has majority support in Parliament.

Next were two expressions of future intent. He wants to see India and Pakistan establish an economic union. He did not explain in detail but he said they should aim for joint economic super power status. And he said he was in favour of “a flexible visa regime, eliminating travel documents … replacing them with (a) smart card enabled E-visa system.” 

“We don’t feel threatened by India”, Zardari said. “India should also not feel threatened by us.” And then, to re-inforce his point, he added: “I want change and reconciliation.” 

For me, however, the most important thing Asif Zardari said was not in response to questions and so it can’t be explained away as an off-the-cuff or unthought-out answer. It was part of his prepared speech. It was, therefore, a well-considered, planned and carefully crafted statement which, of course, makes it all the more incredible.

“There’s a little bit of India in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistan in every Indian”. As he said those words a perceptible hush fall on the audience. They literally couldn’t believe their ears. But Asif Zardari wasn’t finished. “I do not know whether it is the Indian or the Pakistani in me that is talking to you today”. As I looked at the seated dignitaries in front of me I saw a sea of flashing smiles and sparkling eyes looking at Zardari on the big screen. Seconds later, they were vigorously applauding.

Asif Zardari said he was quoting his wife. Benazir Bhutto had spoken in 2000. In fact in 2005, when he visited Lahore, L.K. Advani said something very similar. But both of them were leaders of the opposition, a post that allows the holder to speak freely. And they weren’t speaking at a high profile gathering broadcast live. In contrast, Zardari is President of Pakistan. He was addressing one of the most publicised conferences in India. And he knew the media was waiting for every word he said.

I’m not sure if the presidents of North Korea or East Germany (whilst it existed) have ever spoken in such terms, but I doubt it. Certainly the leaders of divided Ireland have not. Nor the Malays and Singaporeans or the Indonesians and East Timorese. Yet the President of Pakistan has! I see this as an indication of Asif Zardari’s thinking and his attitude to India. And I believe he meant it because if he did not the sentence would have got stuck in his throat. It’s almost impossible to express such sentiments when you are lying.

The only question is can he deliver? And, I suppose, how soon? But there is another question we should pose to ourselves: how can we strengthen his hands without, of course, embarrassing him? If a friend can help you, whilst helping himself, it makes sense to help him too. Kids understand that instinctively, adults sometimes forget!

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The call of the Valley

By Karan Thapar

I thought of the National Security Advisor, as the first day of voting ended in 10 Kashmir constituencies last Tuesday. In an interview in August, he had stuck his neck out and predicted normalcy would return within “a week to 10 days”. He was confident a credible election could be held on schedule. At the time, I thought he was being reckless. Others were less circumspect. They said he had been foolish. A few even mocked him: “four days to go and guess who’ll be wrong?”

“I think the situation is far less serious than what is being portrayed,” the NSA had said. “People have started comparing it with the 1990s. Certainly the situation is nowhere near that.” This was a surprising comment, given the lakhs of protestors who paralysed the Valley with their cries of “jeeve jeeve Pakistan” and “Bharat teri maut aie”. In fact, to maintain order, a curfew was imposed virtually all over Kashmir. As I heard the NSA speak, I could feel my jaw drop. Afterwards, he added: “I’ll probably be shot for saying what I did.”

Of course, it’s far too early for M.K. Narayanan to start blowing his trumpet. Only one phase of polling is over. There are six more to go and the process will continue till Christmas. Between now and then, a lot could go wrong and who knows, Tuesday’s astonishing outcome could spark off the return of violence. A re-buffed Hurriyat and angry militants may reverse their decision to campaign non-violently for a boycott.

But, that said and done, consider the facts from last Tuesday and what they seem to suggest. The turn out was 69 per cent. That’s 25 per cent more than the 2002 assembly elections and 33 per cent more than the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. In constituencies like Bandipora, Sonawari and Surankote, where fear of a boycott was the greatest, 57, 60 and 74 per cent voted, an increase of 83 and 85 per cent for Bandipora and Surankote compared to last time round. Clearly, Kashmiris wanted to vote and did.

The question is, what made them do so in such large numbers and what message should we read into this outcome?

Two facts seem to account for the turn out. First and foremost, the boycott campaign has been non-violent. Both the Hurriyat and the militants have consciously and publicly eschewed violence. This time there was no fear. As a result, the number of candidates contesting shot up. Bandipora, with 66 villages, had 19, which meant the ability to bring out friends and relatives increased by the same scale. The fact that in Safapora many came out to vote for the lotus, knowing it’s the BJP symbol but not put off by that, shows that the attraction of a candidate you know and want to see win was enough to overcome any reluctance to cast a vote.

So what’s the message from the Valley? Perhaps Hilal Ahmed, a local businessman, put it most pithily. “Kashmir is disputed territory and that is beyond debate. We believe that the issue has to be resolved. But the vote this time is meant to address local issues and it is not about resolving the Kashmir issue.”

This is a vote for better governance, for roads and schools, electricity and water, law and order and for an improved quality of life. But the big question of Kashmir’s future remains. It has still to be addressed.

Within this, there is also a specific message for the Central government and I’m confident the NSA has heard it. Let Delhi not mistake an election for a solution. Equally importantly, let Delhi not drag its feet seeking one. The upsurge we witnessed in summer could easily repeat itself. The sentiments that surfaced then have not been forgotten. They remain dear to millions of Kashmiri hearts. It’s just that an election was not the right occasion to express them. 

But if the big issue of the future is not addressed, they will be heard again. Perhaps sooner than we expect and possibly louder and more forcefully than we can anticipate.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Obama or ‘Oh bummer’?

Barack Obama’s sweeping victory is undoubtedly the silver lining to our heavily overcast times but now that the euphoria is subsiding should we start looking a little more closely at the clouds? There’s no doubt that Obama heralds a new dawn but does he also bring back a few dark shadows we thought had been dispelled?

You can’t have failed to hear echoes of this question on television and the papers last week. Anxiety about whether Obama would ring the Prime Minister was the silly side of it. Concerns about outsourcing or H-1B visas was a hangover from the early part of his campaign. But there is a new and more potent worry that has given the doubts fresh life.

Is Obama poised to play an unwelcome interventionist role in Kashmir? And if the answer is a likely yes, will he put pressure on India to secure concessions for Pakistan? In an interview to Time magazine on October 23, Obama appears to suggest this might be the case.

Obama says he wants “to try to resolve … Kashmir … in a serious way”. He calls it “a critical task” and will “devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there”. He also suggests Bill Clinton could be that envoy and reveals he’s sounded him out.

Now is this just loud thinking? I would say not. Obama is a careful self-controlled man. He’s unlikely to be indiscreet. Furthermore, the fact that he’s revealed he has spoken to Bill Clinton suggests the latter did not shoot down the idea. For all we know, he may even concur.

What could add to our apprehension is the possible context in which this proposal has materialised. Obama has repeatedly said that tackling Afghanistan and Al Qaeda will be his prime focus. He claims this is the core of international terrorism and believes it’s a task Bush took his eye off from. But to do so, he needs Pakistan’s co-operation and there are voices in Islamabad which argue it would be willing to co-operate if, in turn, America can create an environment permitting Pakistani troops to be deployed on the country’s eastern border (i.e. Kashmir) to move west (i.e. Afghanistan).

In fact, this thesis is at the heart of Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin’s recent essay in Foreign Affairs which calls for a “a grand bargain”, a deal which includes an American role to resolve Kashmir but also to diminish India’s presence in Afghanistan. Rashid has recently been appointed to a team of advisors set up by General Petraeus.

So is this disconcerting? Possibly. But you could counter by referring to some very different things Obama has said about Pakistan. Early in his campaign, he said he was prepared to take direct action in Pakistan to fight Al Qaeda if Islamabad lacks the capacity to do so. Later, he spoke of Pakistan receiving American equipment and arms supposedly to fight terror but which were, in fact, deployed against India. Most recently, he said he would convince Islamabad that the real threat it faces is internal militancy and not India. Seen alongside these comments, his thoughts on Kashmir seem contradictory or, at least, not properly thought through.

But such apparently conflicting thoughts often lie at the bottom of many a politician’s thinking. It would not be unusual if that was also the case with Barack Obama. And it certainly doesn’t absolve us of the need to be cautious and gently yet firmly, talk him out of attempting to step in and resolve Kashmir.

The problem is just as we are eager he should desist, Pakistan is keen he must persist. An American role in resolving Kashmir is something Pakistan has always wanted and India has, similarly, always resisted. So Obama’s intentions could affect a triangle of relations: Delhi-Washington, Washington-Islamabad and Delhi-Islamabad.

The challenge is how do we divert Obama from such interventionist intentions? Remember, they could have a place at the heart of his self-declared mission to initiate change. Can we deflect his missionary zeal without damaging the good relationship we hope to have with him?

The time has come to think about this.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Our politicians versus theirs

What’s the big difference between our politicians and theirs?” It’s a question I’m often asked but last week, as America voted and the world was transfixed by the Obama-McCain battle, everyone I met popped this query. “Why can’t our guys be more like them?”

I don’t know the answer but I can identify one important area of difference between our big politicians and theirs. The latter readily give interviews. Our top guns shy away. McCain and Obama sought opportunities to talk to the press. They debated amongst themselves. They took the tough questions head-on knowing they couldn’t duck them. 

In contrast, I can’t remember when our top leaders last gave an interview. If you disregard a casual ten-minute chat to The Telegraph, I’m pretty sure the Prime Minister hasn’t given a single interview to an Indian journalist. Vajpayee’s record was equally poor. But this is also true of Sonia Gandhi and, sadly, L.K. Advani, who used to speak but has, of late, opted for silence except to promote his autobiography. 

So where does this leave our big four? Well, to start with, it shows an incredible irresponsibility. It’s the moral duty of democratic politicians to be accountable. Answering awkward questions in interviews is usually how this is done. So if they won’t give interviews, clearly, they’re evading this. 

Ah, but they give speeches, you might counter, and they address press conferences. Isn’t that accountability? Quite honestly, it’s not. In a speech, you set your own agenda. You speak about what you want to. You avoid what doesn’t suit you. And although at a press conference a politician answers journalists’ questions, he or she has multiple interlocutors, each with his own subject, and because the issue changes with each person there is little follow-up and even less intensity or persistence. 

In short, India’s top politicians do not present themselves for ‘grilling’. In fact, they go to great lengths to avoid it. Which naturally leads you to ask why? Are they not capable of standing up to it? Do they have something to hide? Even if you’re kind and put aside such doubts, there’s still one further consequence that’s inescapable.

When in trouble, politicians need to assure people that they know how to handle the problem that’s pulling them down. They need to show they have the answers, the resolve to push them through and the deftness to do so successfully. All of this is shown by answering tough questions. 

And that’s where interviews play their role. At such times, if he handles the media effectively, a politician wins respect. If he avoids the media altogether, he leaves the field open to doubters and critics. Remember, their questions remain but his answers are unheard.

So, in the end, refusing to give interviews doesn’t protect but damages a politician. That’s the nub of the point. Obama, McCain and their fellow Western politicians understand that. So too did Nehru and, once upon a time, L.K. Advani. Today, it seems, the big guns of the BJP and Congress couldn’t care less. 

Perhaps they should learn a lesson from Mrs Thatcher, one of the greatest prime ministers of the last century. I recall a young cockney electrician once asking her how she decided whether to give an interview or refuse. Her answer was revealing. “When I’m in trouble, when I need to show I have the answers and I have the determination to put things right, I agree to every interview. After all, it’s only when people know that I can remove their doubts that they will have confidence in me. But when things are going right I stay silent. At such times, there’s a danger that if I speak I might put my foot in my mouth and create a problem that doesn’t exist!” 

Amazingly, our politicians do the precise opposite! To the extent they give interviews only to gloat, which is why they end up embarrassing themselves. But when they need to reassure and win confidence they opt for hermit-like silence. Which is why they’re so often — and for so long — in trouble.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The colour of America

Pertie’s phone call was a surprise, not least because he rang at a decent hour. He was also unaccustomedly calm and reflective. Paris seems to have made him professorial. 

“Are you following the US elections?” He seemed to think not. “It’s the only subject people talk about in Paris, apart from the crisis, of course.”

“And what are they saying?” I was being polite. I have not thought deeply about this election although I follow it intermittently on television. Bombay, Singur, the Christian killings and our tumbling stock market seem to take up all my time.

“Think about it: we could have a black president in just a couple of days. And that too a man with an obviously strange name and an unsettling middle name. It’s as if France was about to get a Moroccan or an Algerian president or even one from Cote d’lvoire and Senegal! The French press love it but the ordinary Joe can’t quite believe it.”

Pertie has a point. Six months ago it would have been hard to believe America could have a black president in our lifetime. And even though the rest of the world has embraced the idea, it’s still a little difficult to accept that Obama’s captured the popular imagination and expresses the hopes of tens of millions of ordinary Americans.

“Clearly colour is not an issue for many Americans and, who knows, they could be a majority on Tuesday. Isn’t that an astonishing measure of how much America has changed? How its prejudices have disappeared? How open and embracing it’s become?”

As Pertie spoke, fractured memories of America flashed through my mind. I recalled the dark, brooding heavy atmosphere of Harlem way back in the 70s when I first visited New York. It was unnerving. I felt scared and I did not want to linger. I remembered the music halls of the French quarter of New Orleans from the 90s. The black musicians were admired, occasionally loved, but they were never one with the rest. This was their city. White Americans were only visitors. And I recollected my trips to Washington in the 2000s. The taxi drivers, the street cleaners and the hotel staff were black. Those with money, who they served, tended to be white.

“You know what this proves?” Pertie’s voice cut through my reverie. “That America is the greatest democracy in the world. Don’t you agree?”

“Aren’t you over-egging it? After all immigrants or outsiders have made it to the top in other countries as well. New Zealand has an Indian governor general, Singapore has an Indian president, Canada has had Indian state premiers and federal ministers.”

Pertie’s first response was a low laugh. It sounded sardonic. But when he spoke I realised it was disbelieving.

“Oh come! This is the presidency of the United States of America. The most important and most powerful job in the world. And on Tuesday it could belong to a black man. A member of the old slave race. Remember that film we saw at school? Guess who’s coming to dinner? Well, this time it’s not dinner, it’s ‘guess who’s going to rule our lives?’”

I remember the film as if I saw it yesterday. The horror on Spencer Tracy’s face when he first encountered Sidney Poitier was unforgettable. Without saying a word it captured the colour divide that made America one country but two people, two societies, even two nations. If Obama wins that rift could be bridged. Indeed, the fact that Obama could win suggests it already has been.

“And if Obama loses?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Pertie seemed to have thought this out. “America will never be the same again. What matters is how far Obama has come and what he’s done to America’s image. Actually, what he’s done to the way Americans think of themselves. They’re proud they could elect their first black president. So if not Obama, there’ll be another very soon.”

“Hmm. Hereafter you can no longer say it’s a white man’s world.”

“Hang on. Don’t get carried away. They see Obama as a white man but other blacks won’t change colour!”

Bombay vs. Mumbai

Bombay vs. Mumbai 

I clearly remember my excitement as I stepped off the plane. It was my first visit to Bombay, as the city was then called. I was 16 and thought of it as India’s most cosmopolitan and glamorous. The trip was a present from Daddy after finishing my Senior Cambridge exams. It was also the first holiday on my own. Consequently, I felt grown-up and liberated.

Kidder jaane ka? The taxi-driver’s Hindi sounded defiant but also inviting. It suggested an adventure. No one spoke like that in Delhi. There, conversations were more formal, the grammar more old-fashioned. “Peddar Road”, I replied, and settled in to enjoy the ride.

As we drove to Malabar Hill I tried to imagine what Flora Fountain, Cuffe Parade, Kemp’s Corner and Napean Sea Road would be like. These were names I had long wondered about. They had come to captivate me. Each seemed rich with the promise of money and chic, modernity and difference. Collectively, they were a world away from Hauz Khas, Karol Bagh and Dhaula Kuan. For me, Bombay was another country.

I first noticed little things. In Bombay, men wore shorts and women were often in skirts. The taxis were Fiat 1100s whilst the buses were clean, safe and on time. People waited in queues and minded their own business. And no matter where you eat —Bombellis, a bhelpuri stall or the Zodiac Grill — it was a thrilling experience.

But after a while I became aware of the city’s atmosphere. You could literally feel it and it was compelling. Bombay was youthful, fun, busy. Everyone seemed to be dashing around. And, of course, Bombay kept awake at night. You could buy kebabs at Haji Ali well-after midnight, or sip coffee at the Shamiana even as the garbage collectors swept the city. In fact, you could have been forgiven if you thought Nancy Sinatra’s hit ‘The city never sleeps at night’ was written with Bombay in mind!

That first visit lasted a week but there weren’t enough hours in any one day for all the things I wanted to do. Everything was different, special, exciting or simply fun. Compared to Delhi, the cinema halls were bigger and brighter, the ice-cream colder and fresher, the colleges more exciting and youthful, indeed even the clubs seemed less staid. And where in the capital could a teenager drink chilled beer as the traffic honked by?

Alas, I fear the Bombay that won my heart has disappeared, possibly forever. I won’t claim Delhi is better but the city that was a magnet, that attracted teenagers like iron-fillings, has ceased to be. Or else how do you explain the attacks on Biharis for being outsiders, on the Bachchans for speaking Hindi and on shopkeepers for not putting up Marathi signboards? 

In fact, it seems the very identity of the city has fractured. Today, its residents have become Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Goans, Punjabis or UPites. No longer are they Bombayites or even Mumbaikars. Bombay has become its many different parts. 

It’s shrunk. It’s diminished.

I may be wrong but I’d say this process started when they forced a new name on the city. In 1995 Bombay became Mumbai but, sadly, with the name a lot more seems to have changed. Bombay was India’s most avant-garde city. It’s where Indians flocked to realise their dreams. They said the sky was the limit. 

Mumbai is simply the capital of Maharashtra. The largest city in India’s richest state but limited by its regional identity. It’s insular and parochial. 

However, this is not a requiem for Bombay. It is, instead, a plea to reverse history. Perhaps the old name cannot be resurrected — although in St. Petersburg and Volgograd that is precisely what happened —but can we not recapture and re-activate the lost spirit? Must the best lie buried with the past? Does the future have to be different to be better? Are there not a few old values we should preserve forever? Otherwise memories will be the only thing left.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Banking on a pause

Banking on a pause

My introduction to investment banking happened in rather unusual circumstances. It was the second day after our marriage and Nisha had agreed we would attend her office Christmas party. Being somewhat adventurous, I accepted. Little did I realise what I would encounter or how it would change my life. Of course, it started rather deceptively.

“What are you wearing this evening?” It was 7 am and I was still struggling to wake up. Nisha was standing in front of my cupboard examining my clothes. I can’t remember my reply but it did not impress her.

“I suggest your dark navy suit. I’ll give it to the drycleaners on my way to the office and you can pick it up when you return.”

She then started rummaging through my shirts and ties. “Is that all you’ve got?” This time she didn’t wait for an answer. “Never mind, I’ll pick up something suitable at lunch.” And then, with a “Don’t be late, we’ve got to be there by 6.30”, she was off.

That evening I discovered why Nisha was so concerned about my appearance. Her colleagues were in expensive, well-cut, dark suits. They wore Hermes or Ferragamo ties. They smelt of expensive lavender and vetiver perfumes. They had an air of cultivation unknown to the journalist circles I inhabited. 

Nisha was a merchant banker, as investment bankers in London are called. Her day began at 7.30, a good two hours before mine. She usually got home after I did. But if Nisha’s tribe worked hard they also knew how to have fun. They took their clients to the choicest restaurants, maintained boxes at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, kept up with the latest plays, joined the best gyms, drove expensive cars and week-ended in Paris.

As her husband, I often accompanied Nisha. At first, it was unsettling. She and the male guest, usually a corporate chairman or a senior government official, would talk shop. His wife and I would be left to get on as best we could. But such was the charm of this good life, I learnt not to care. And, anyway, it doesn’t take a journalist long to steer the conversation towards subjects where bankers are naturally curious and hacks good at holding forth!

Our life flourished on the strength of Nisha’s perks and her spiraling career. We bought our first home with her 2 per cent mortgage. Our first car was a BMW from her office. Because driving to the City was maddening and parking impossible, it was all mine. I must have been the only researcher at LWT who showed up in a 325i. And we had a maid. Of course, she didn’t came daily, but even twice a week Signora Costa was spoiling.

In five years flat Nisha was head-hunted three times. She first moved to Manufacturers Hanover, then Merrill Lynch and finally, as a managing director, to County NatWest. By 1988, when she was still 33, if you included her bonus, she was earning in the hundreds of thousands. It was 8 times my salary! 

Merchant bankers can rise like rockets. Of course, they can also fall like shooting stars. I knew several who lost their jobs without notice or forewarning. It’s a fear Nisha lived with all the time. 

In the 90s and the 2000s, a merchant banker’s life became yet more exotic. They moved into a different orbit altogether. Their salaries leapfrogged, scaling the millions and even touching the tens of. But the nervous juxtaposition of high reward and extreme risk remained its hallmark. Both in terms of what they did and what could happen to them, they oscillated between euphoria and dread.

Today that world is in eclipse. As governments bail out banks, capping executive salaries, and criticism of Wall Street and City lifestyles reaches a crescendo, banks will retreat into the shadows. The joy of flaunting will give way to discretion, if not anonymity. 

But, take my word for it, the sun will shine again. Of that I’m certain. It may not happen for years but these clouds will clear. As Nisha would have said: “You can’t keep good money down!”

Sunday, 12 October 2008

A time for Father Terry

A time for Father Terry

It’s as clear in my memory as if it happened yesterday. But, in fact, I first met Father Terry Gilfedder twenty five years ago. It was the late summer of 1982 and Nisha and I were preparing for our marriage. As a Catholic, she wanted a proper church wedding and while I agreed, I was irritated by the need to meet the local parish priest for a set of three ‘tuitions’. But there was no way out. The nearest church, St Mary Magdalene’s in Northumberland Avenue, would only marry Nisha to a non-Christian if this requirement was complied with.

So, one Saturday in September, around 6 in the evening, Nisha and I knocked on Father Terry’s door. He was sitting at his desk, his spectacles perched at the end of his nose. We settled into an old, well-worn leather sofa on the opposite side of the small room. Outside it was unusually warm, inside the atmosphere felt frosty. I was itching for a fight.

“Sherry?” The offer took me by surprise. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m rather partial to the stuff.”

It was Tio Pepe, my favourite, but in those days a rarity in London. Father Terry was a man of discerning taste. I found myself discussing the US Open Tennis, the Notting Hill Carnival, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children — in fact, anything but our forthcoming marriage or what religion our unborn children would follow.

Father Terry would top up our glasses and steer the conversation. He enjoyed an argument and held his own comfortably. The hour passed swiftly and enjoyably. Having agreed to meet the next week, we got up to leave. We were at the door when Father Terry stopped us.

“There’s a question I’d like you to think about.” A hint of a smile played on his large round face. His eyes were looking straight at us. “Why aren’t the two of you living together?”

I’m not sure if the blood drained from our faces but we were speechless and stunned. The truth is Nisha and I were living together but had deliberately given Father Terry different addresses to hide the fact. He had guessed and this was his way of saying it didn’t matter.

Father Terry became a close friend. At a rehearsal, two nights before our wedding, he suggested one of the readings should be from the Gita and asked me to choose. On the day when I revealed I had failed to pick a passage he slapped me on the back and laughed: “I knew that would happen so I’ve chosen something myself.” It was from Khalil Gibran’s Prophet.

Nisha had hoped for a full communion mass and Father Terry agreed overlooking the fact the groom was not a Christian. But it was his sermon that captured attention. He didn’t pontificate about hell and damnation or God and his goodness. He spoke, as he put it, of “three little words”: I love you.

“Karan and Nisha”, he said, “remember love joins ‘I’ and ‘you’ but it can also separate. The day you forget you’re two different individuals that bond can become a divide.”

It was a warm, simple, heart-felt message. More a fireside-chat than a formal sermon. But it’s stayed seared in my memory for a quarter century.

Six years later, as Nisha lay dying with moments to go before the life support was switched off, Father Terry was at her bedside. He gave her the last sacrament but also encouraged Mummy to whisper Hindu prayers in her ear. Then he stood beside me as the machines slowly, painfully, flickered to a close and Nisha’s life ebbed away.

Terry Gilfedder is the only Christian priest I’ve known. He was an unusual man but a great person. I think of him each time I read of attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. I’m confident he would have found the words to heal bruised hearts. And, no doubt, his sherry would have helped!

I’m sure there are Father Terrys in all faiths. Men of God but also caring, understanding human beings. Today, when we most need them, why are they silent?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The perverse logic

The perverse logic

What’s wrong with the government?” It was Pertie on the phone from Paris. He sounded both exasperated and bewildered. “How can they claim legalising homosexual relations between consenting adults will lead to a breach of the peace? What on earth are they anticipating?”

“Oh come,” I said not quite tut-tutting but still not taking him seriously. “Why are you surprised? What else did you expect?”

“Just listen to the arguments the government has come up with: they claim homosexuality is a reflection of a perverse mind, they call it a social vice, they even call it a health hazard! What century are they living in? Would any sensible, self-respecting, modern democracy think in these terms?”

“But that’s what they think!” I was a bit perplexed. Surely, he knew this?

“Why are you so angry?”

“Because when the government files an affidavit in court it needs to think about what it’s saying. This is not an individual opinion and it needs to be more than the flippant or glib arguments you present in a drawing room conversation. You have to be more considered and careful. I would have understood if they based their opposition on the fact Indian society won’t accept homosexuality. That could even be true. But why drag in a false and antediluvian moral argument? It betrays an intolerance and an illiberal mindset that diminishes the government.”

“But the guys who run the government probably are intolerant and ill-liberal when it comes to homosexuality!” Again, I would have thought that was obvious.

“Perhaps”, but Pertie clearly wasn’t prepared to leave it at that. “The problem is intolerance is unacceptable from a democratically elected government. And even more so from one that claims to espouse liberal values.”

This time there wasn’t much to say so I kept quiet. But Pertie was now in full flow. There was no holding him back.

“Look at how other democracies behave. In England public opinion would be entirely in favour of the death penalty. I dare say that’s true of India as well. But enlightened governments have put it in abeyance. And, in fact, that’s happening in India, too. Why then on the question of homosexuality is our government following, if not hiding behind, public opinion? How do they explain this contradiction?”

“Can you really compare the two?” I asked.

“And why not?” he countered, his voice rising to a falsetto. “If we don’t have the right to take someone’s life what makes you think we have the right to make someone’s life a living hell?”

Once again, I had nothing to say. Anyway, I wasn’t defending the government but only questioning Pertie’s vehement response. But, frankly, he was winning the argument hands down.

“People don’t choose to be homosexuals. It’s not a fashion or a fad. You either are one or you are not. And either way that’s how you’re born. God made homosexuals just as he made you and me or Shivraj Patil, Manmohan Singh and L. K. Advani. The funny thing is Delhi High Court judges seem to accept and understand that. Why can’t the seventy-and-eighty-year-olds who run the government?”

“You’re dead right about that”, I hastily added. I thought I had spotted an opportunity to diffuse his rage. “Do you know what the court said when the government claimed legalising adult homosexuality would spread Aids?”

“Do I?” Pertie laughed. In fact, he guffawed. “They said in that case why don’t you ban intercourse altogether! It’s headline news all over Europe. And now do you know what the French are predicting?”

“What?” I wondered what he would say next.

“It won’t be long before the government bans sex altogether! India, thanks to our foolish politicians, has become the butt of jokes.” Pertie paused whilst I muttered something inconsequential. “Except I don’t like being made a fool of by my government.”

“Ah well,” I said, sensing a chance to grab the initiative. “It’s not the first time and it definitely won’t be the last. Here’s what you should say to the French: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.”

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Who’s the real Hindu?

Who’s the real Hindu?

Does the VHP have the right to speak for you or I? Do they reflect our views? Do we endorse their behaviour? They call themselves the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, but who says they represent all of us? This Sunday morning, I want to draw a clear line of distinction between them and everyone else. My hunch is many of you will agree.

Let me start with the question of conversion — an issue that greatly exercises the VHP. I imagine there are hundreds of millions of Hindus who are peaceful, tolerant, devoted to their faith, but above all, happy to live alongside Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Jews. If any one of us were to change our faith how does it affect the next man or woman? And even if that happens with inducements, it can only prove that the forsaken faith had a tenuous and shallow hold. So why do the VHP and its unruly storm troopers, the Bajrang Dal, froth at the mouth if you, I or our neighbours convert? What is it to do with them?

Let me put it bluntly, even crudely. If I want to sell my soul — and trade in my present gods for a new lot — why shouldn’t I? Even if the act diminishes me in your eyes, it’s my right to do so. So if thousands or even millions of Dalits, who have been despised and ostracised for generations, choose to become Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, either to escape the discrimination of their Hindu faith or because some other has lured them with food and cash, it’s their right. 

Arguably you may believe you should ask them to reconsider, although I would call that interference, but you certainly have no duty or right to stop them. In fact, I doubt if you are morally correct in even seeking to place obstacles in their way. The so-called Freedom of Religion Acts, which aim to do just that, are, in fact, tantamount to obstruction of conversion laws and therefore, at the very least, questionable.

However, what’s even worse is how the VHP responds to this matter. Periodically they resort to violence including outright murder. What happened to Graham Staines in Orissa was not unique. Last week it happened again. Apart from the utter and contemptible criminality of such behaviour, is this how we Hindus wish to behave? Is this how we want our faith defended? Is this how we want to be seen? I have no doubt the answer is no. An unequivocal, unchanging and ever-lasting NO!

The only problem is it can’t be heard. And it needs to be. I therefore believe the time has come for the silent majority of Hindus — both those who ardently practice their faith as well as those who were born into it but may not be overtly religious or devout — to speak out. We cannot accept the desecration of churches, the burning to death of innocent caretakers of orphanages, the storming of Christian and Muslim hamlets even if these acts are allegedly done in defence of our faith. Indeed, they do not defend but shame Hinduism. That’s my central point.

I’m sorry but when I read that the VHP has ransacked and killed I’m not just embarrassed, I feel ashamed. Never of being hindu but of what some Hindus do in our shared faith’s name. 

This is why its incumbent on Naveen Patnaik, Orissa’s Chief Minister, to take tough, unremitting action against the VHP and its junior wing, the Bajrang Dal. This is a test not just of his governance, but of his character. And I know and accept this could affect his political survival. But when it’s a struggle between your commitment to your principles and your political convenience is there room for choice? For ordinary politicians, possibly, but for the Naveen I know, very definitely not.

 So let me end by saying: I’m waiting, Naveen. In fact, I want to say I’m not alone. There are hundreds of millions of Hindus, like you and me, waiting silently — but increasingly impatiently. Please act for all of us.