Monday, September 01, 2008

Kashmiri choice, August 24, 2008

A Kashmiri Muslim student came to see me last week and it was not long before our conversation turned to the current azadi wave in the valley. He did not think that an independent Kashmir was viable, and its only choice was either to be with India or with Pakistan. After a pause he asked guilelessly, why was India a democracy and Pakistan an autocracy? This set me thinking. I told him that Pakistan was more the norm--third world countries do not generally become stable democracies. India is an exception.

India’s democracy and Pakistan’s autocracy have deep roots in history. India’s nationalist movement was older and more widespread. Millions of ordinary Indians were drawn in by Mahatma Gandhi. Muslim nationalism emerged later and did not become a mass movement--Jinnah was more comfortable in the drawing room rather than the ‘dusty road’. While Indians prepared for democracy over three generations, Pakistanis-to-be got the itch only a couple of years before independence. After Independence, Pakistan’s politicians performed abysmally. The Muslim League Party disintegrated; there were nine governments in ten years; and the army under Ayub Khan seized power in 1958.

Jinnah’s great error as to impose Urdu as the national language when only 8% of Pakistanis spoke Urdu and 55% spoke Bengali. Thus, he sowed the seeds of Bangladesh. Sri Lanka made the same tragic mistake. India did not succumb to this anti-democratic temptation by imposing Hindi. This is how India gave space for sub-identities to flourish, allowed the rise of peoples’ leaders from linguistic states, and deepened democracy.

Although his slogan in the 1945-46 elections in undivided India was ‘Islam is in danger’, Jinnah wanted to build a modern nation. Even though General Zia ul Haq reinforced theological priority, I do not believe Islam prevents Pakistan from being democratic. The rise of Islamism does tear the ordinary Pakistani’s loyalty between the brotherhood and the state, but the Maulvi is not Pakistan’s natural leader as in Iran. The chief obstacle to democracy is the army. Hence, I am relieved that Musharraf is gone. It does create a vacuum that might be filled by extremists, but longer term the best thing for India is to have a democratic Pakistan.

For a brief moment in the mid-1970s the two nations seemed to converge. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto began to steer Pakistan towards genuine democracy while Indira Gandhi took India on the path of dictatorship. The paths diverged after 1977 as Mrs Gandhi called an election, and Bhutto was executed by Zia in 1979. India returned to the path of democracy, whose binding glue is the liberal notion that all Indians are equal citizens before the law, owing loyalty to the Constitution. This is a British legacy. Before that we were a collection of communities and kingdoms. Although we still feel loyal to our caste or community, we are different from tragic Pakistanis whose land has been hijacked by the military. Once there is military rule you get a state within a state. You are powerless to stop your secret service from creating monsters like the Taliban, and before you know it your country has become the world’s top university for terrorists.

I then turned to my young Kashmiri friend. He wished more Kashmiris could come and see India’s vibrant democracy, its confident economy, and the rise of the low born. ‘There is a simple choice before all Kashmiris,’ he said: ‘If you want to be a citizen of a modern democracy with unparalleled opportunities, you will choose self-assured India. If you believe that Islam is in danger and you want the army’s protection, you will choose tragic Pakistan’.

In praise of grand gestures, August 10, 2008

On a soggy monsoon afternoon last week I found myself in the company of not just one but two finance ministers, P.Chidambaram and Jaswant Singh, at the launch of a book by the admirable Swaminathan Aiyar. An unfailing rule for spreading happiness in the political class is to flatter—there is no limit to how much one can boost the human ego. I chose, however, a less comfortable course and quizzed the worthy politicians about the painfully slow pace of reforms. When both BJP and Congress agree on the major reforms, why can’t we insulate them from the football of competitive politics?

With the Left finally off its back, the Congress’ dream team wants to redeem some honour after four years of non-performance. Chidambaram picked up the ball and recalled how it had taken over five years to pass the insurance bill when it should have taken five months. When it was finally done, the NDA capped the foreign equity at 26% even though it had earlier killed the same bill because it was opposed to 20%. Jaswant Singh, normally quite charming, seemed bewildered and defensive. Perhaps, it was Sushma Swaraj’s outrageous statement that had put him out of sorts. When she declared that the BJP would not help pass the pending reforms, she was actually saying that she did not care about the lives of ordinary Indians.

The Congress, of course, is no better when it is in the opposition. Both parties should memorize Arun Shourie’s precept—the Opposition should never oppose anything it would itself do in office. Later over tea, the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar, with classic Doon School bluster, reproached me for harbouring undemocratic temptations. If he had listened, I would have told him that many democratic countries pursue bipartisan policies when national interest is at stake. In the UK, the Northern Ireland issue was always above politics and prime ministers always kept Opposition leaders informed. The unwieldy US Congress has an unwritten rule, ‘politics stops at the shore’. Thus, bipartisanship rapidly delivered the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after the World War II; Homeland Security after the 9/11 attack; and the sub-prime mortgage bailout this year.

The Nuclear Deal was one such moment in India’s history. It was less about energy and more about national security. Both the BJP and the Congress agreed on its essentials. Yet it became hostage to tragic politics. Bipartisan institutions could have spared us the cash-for-votes scandal and saved the political class’ image. Democracy does not have to mean permanent conflict. The Opposition does not have to only oppose. Mamata Banerjee is a failure because voters think that she only knows how to oppose. Ultimately, cooperation reflects character.

The Prime Minister showed statesman this week in reaching out to the Opposition on the Amarnath issue. Emboldened by this, he should now prime-move a bipartisan summit with key Opposition leaders, seeking agreement on an economic reforms slate over 200 days. The BJP knows at heart that pensions, insurance, banking are as much about national interest as preventing terrorism. The secret is to take the competitive sting out of the process. With this agreement in hand, Manmohan Singh should repeat what he did in July 1991. He should institutionalize an implementation mechanism inside the PMO for monitoring weekly progress. I am thinking of the famous Thursday Meetings of the economic secretaries, which were coordinated by AN Varma, Narasimha Rao’s principal secretary—it was the crucial instrument for implementing reforms at an unprecedented pace in 1991. This is the way to answer our mini-9/11 terrorists. India’s destiny will not be stopped by anyone.