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.