Friday, October 26, 2012

The End Of A Love Story

The End Of A Love Story
                                            Saeed Naqvi

“Raja Sahib Bhatuamau”, as I generally teased him, died in a Karachi hospital last week. This mock elevation of Kazim Bhai’s status was actually somewhat ironical. His father really was the Raja of that awkward sounding principality, in Awadh, in status and location not far from other Taluqdari’s, some driven to despair by Chief Minister, Govind Ballabh Pant’s zamindari abolition in the 1950s.

The status reversal for Awadh’s gentry was considerable but the enormity of it did not apparently touch Kazim Bhai who drowned out the Blues at the Lucknow club, danced the fox trot in buckskin shoes, and escorted Anglo Indian ladies from the Maqbara to the weekly, 10 am. English movie at Lucknow’s Mayfair cinema. Heaven knows how he ended up in Sweden from where, armed with a degree in structural engineering, he landed on his feet in Karachi and built a few buildings.

Meanwhile, a transformational storm had also engulfed our family, anchored in Mustafabad in Rae Bareli.

Depleted land revenues spurred a quest for Western education, the only stepping stone towards alternative means of livelihood. Law was a favoured profession because legal practice was an enabling factor in avoiding having to “work” for somebody else.

Then came the troubling issue of women’s education. Of the four sisters, my mother and the one immediately younger to her, went through the usual motions of private instruction while the younger two, Bilqis and Alia Askari joined the University. Alia, communist after a fashion, proceeded to lead the Lucknow University union and became the first woman in the family, indeed in Lucknow of the 50s, to obtain a highly acclaimed Ph.D. She was my favourite aunt and for her many idiosyncrasies, I addressed her as Aunt Agatha, straight from Wodehouse.

Given the gender biases of the period, Aunt Agatha’s education, her exceptional oratorical skills, her equation with the finest minds of the day, became her greatest handicaps. “How to find a husband for a girl so educated”? There were other handicaps: she was a Saiyyid too! A feudal landscape in a state of collapse was singularly bereft of Post Graduate Saiyyids!

At the time of Partition my eldest Aunt, Shabbir Bano, lived in Mumbai with her husband, a Captain Hasan Zaidi. A question arose. Should he join the Indian or the Pakistan army? The issue was settled by an extraordinary calculation. A map of India was pinned on a large table. One point of a compass was placed on Lucknow, the other on Mumbai. Then, the point on Mumbai was rotated onto Karachi. There was not much of a difference in terms of distance. The issue was easily settled in favour of Karachi because a family friend, Brigadier Zahid, had promised all manner of support in the new country.

When Shabbir Bano heard of Aunt Agatha’s predicament, she sent word that Karachi was crawling with “post graduate” Saiyyids. So, Aunt Agatha was placed on a Karachi bound Dakota and received in Pakistan with fanfare by relatives who were active members of the Pakistan Communist Party from whom she learnt of Ayub Khan’s military pact with the United States.

Before she had opened her bags, she was whisked off to a large public meeting which Aunt Agatha kept spellbound by her oratory and sharp “anti imperialist” invective. Gen. Ayub Khan lost no time: well spoken officers picked her up from the meeting, collected her bags from her sister’s house and placed her on a Delhi-bound Dakota, within a day of her arrival.

But my Karachi Aunt would not give up. She scoured the city until someone drew her attention to a tall engineer from Sweden always in a flashy suit and, ofcourse, those trademark buckskin shoes. He could not measure up to Aunt Agatha’s intellect, but he was a Saiyyid alright, a fact which in Shabbir Bano’s eyes absolved him of his sartorial excesses.

Although towards the end they were inseparable, the first phase on Aunt Agatha’s part was one of acquiescence. She was all too conscious of what to her, in the beginning, seemed an unbridgeable chasm: two people from the same region, Awadh, living in different zones. And all because, they were from childhood, exposed to a variegated emphasis on a life of the mind.

Most of those who had migrated from India, the Mohajirs or refugees as they are called to this day, would see them as an unlikely pair. The trick was to escape to an alien culture where people would not spot the nuances.

Aunt Agatha proceeded to teach Urdu literature in Beijing University until the Cultural Revolution of the 60s made it difficult to live in China. In China, too, Kazim Bhai was her perfect escort, even to the Great Hall of the People.

Returning to Karachi, she immersed herself into her favourite literary groups. Kazim Bhai, clad in his suit and buckskin shoes, fixed his gaze on her with unwavering adoration. She became an in-house intellectual to Begum Nusrat Bhutto a fact which elevated Aunt Agatha further in Kazim Bhai’s doting eyes. After Begum Bhutto’s death they proceeded to waste themselves in mutual adoration bereft of any inspiration – a very feudal decay. But they were, by now, totally inseparable.

There was always in Kazim Bhai something of a Walter Mitty, day dreaming, lost in reveries, including one of a day in paradise. I called him from Delhi: “How was paradise? Would you like to go?”

“No” he said in his frail voice. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”. He was a lovable man.

If we tried we would have got visas to attend his funeral. But we did not. The sheer habit of living in different countries with obstacles in travel increases distance exponentially. Dearest relatives take up residence only in the mists of memory.

Look after yourself, Aunt Agatha!

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

How Chavez Made The Media Electorally Irrelevant

How Chavez Made The Media Electorally Irrelevant
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

“If much of the Western media is to be believed, I write this column from a country brutalised by an absurd tinpot caudillo, Hugo Chavez, who routinely jails any journalist or politician with the temerity to speak out against his tyranny”. This was written by Owen Jones of London’s The Independent from Caracas on the recent Venezuelan elections. And guess what happened: Chavez won handsomely.

But media malice continues. As an example Jones cites, among others Toby Young, author of “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”. According to Young, Venezuela is ruled by a “Marxist tyrant” and a “Communist dictator”. The defeated opponent in the presidential elections, Henrique Capriles, was portrayed by contrast as an inspiring, dynamic democrat determined to end Venezuela’s failed socialist experiment and open the country to much-needed foreign investment.

Doesn’t this yearning for “much needed foreign investment” by most of the losing politicians in Latin America, resemble the sentiment of the Indian ruling class?

Owen Jones’, critique of the global media habitually dissembling about world leaders who thumb their noses at the West, is all the more compelling because it comes from one of the West’s very own. Jones continues “The reality of Venezuela could not be more distant from the coverage, but the damage is done: even many on the left regard Chavez as beyond the pale. Those who challenge the narrative are dismissed as “useful idiots”, following in the footsteps of the likes of Beatrice and Sidney Webb who, in the 1930s, lauded Stalin’s Russia, oblivious to the real horrors.”

Those in the media who were cheerleaders for Henrique Capriles, the defeated opposition candidate, must seriously reflect why they got this election so hopelessly wrong. They may take heart from the fact that they are not the first Chavez baiters who galloped straight into the windmill. There have been a procession of others, possibly more illustrious than they, who have been eating humble pie though 15 elections that Chavez has successfully been through ever since he won the first one in 1999.

He must be one of the most exasperating figures for the West to stomach. It would be easy to smother him under heaps of abuse had he silenced the media, painted blood signs on the doors of the rich, filled jails with his opponents: it would be gratifying driving nails into the coffin of such a monstrous tyrant. But he has done none of this. He has simply ignored the rich to their devices and improved the lot of the poor, by every development yardstick.

He has tolerated the private media, having 90 percent of the audience share. This “free” media dishes out daily doses of vitriol against Chavez. The person the “free” media rails against trounces his opponent the object of its adoration. It must be galling that the independently owned media has become so insubstantial, so impotent, unable to terminate the political life of a dictator they so hate? Here is room for the study of “free” media sans credibility, something the global media is rapidly becoming in pursuit of an agenda in yet another theatre – Middle East. What riles the media is this: “he has not even given us the opportunity to accuse him of repressing the media, or of blocking rallies against him which, in fact, are galore.”

Is he able to survive because he rigs elections? But all elections have been declared free by International Observers. One of these observers, President Jimmy Carter, described the country’s election process as “the best in the world”.

A mention of George W. Bush at this juncture would be proper because no recent US President has tried harder to stop Chavez. In fact the losing candidate on this occasion, Capriles, tried to do in 2002, with Bush’s help, what an earlier American administration succeeded in affecting in Chile: a Pinochet style coupe. And this effort at toppling Chavez was totally backed by Venezuela’s “free” media. Allowing a candidate with this record to contest against him reflects on his cultivated cockiness.

The Independent’s correspondent asks: “I wonder what would happen to Sky New and ITN if they had egged on a coup d’├ętat against a democratically elected government in Britain?”

Much to the West’s chagrin, a series of South American leaders are only mildly distinguishable from Chavez in their leftist hue. In fact Brazil’s Lula de Silva spoke for most Latin American leaders when he said: “A victory for Chavez is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin America. This victory will strike another blow against imperialism.”

Geographically, Fidel Castro and Chavez are within whispering distance from the US which has not concealed its incurable dislike for both. Castro has been on the hit list for half a century.

Why is it then that Saddam Hussain can be picked up from a rathole, Qaddafi sodomized by a knife in front of TV cameras, similar plots can be in the works for Bashar al Assad, but hate objects in the vicinity of the US are treated differently. Why? There could be interesting reasons.

Considering that India is part of BRICS, it cannot be indifferent to developments in Latin America. Ofcourse, there will a qualitative change in interest if the promised energy pipeline from China to Venezuela proceeds beyond the drawing boards.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

India’s Role In The Muslim World: A Foreign Policy Challenge


India’s Role In The Muslim World: A Foreign Policy Challenge
                                                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

Supposing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seated across the table with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, were to say:
“The murderous regime in Syria has killed 30,000 of its own citizens. India by itself has no clout in Syria. There is nothing you can do on your own. It is time therefore that you become part of the solution by falling in line with us. Assad simply cannot have a role in the solution having murdered so many. You must make a choice: does the obstructive role being played by Russia and China deserve your support? And you know as well as anyone else that the regime’s days are numbered.”

What would be Krishna’s response to this imaginary statement? Well, imaginary the statement may be but, with moderated tonal quality, it may yet reflect sentiments the Indian side has heard from their US counterparts in recent exchanges on West Asia. Do Indians listen in silence to this case for the prosecution? Or do they dwell on the case for the defence? Being reminded that India has no hand to play, must hurt.

What exactly is the situation inside Syria? When I was there, which is several months ago, the world media had conceded outright victory to the Syrian opposition and safe havens were being considered for Assad and his family. The Assads are still around, although speculation is rife of him being considered for “targeted killing” as distinct from “political assassination”. Wondrous play on words!

There is a difficulty analyzing a dynamic story like Syria where so much technical, military, human resource has been injected from outside. We may have forgotten but once we described this as cross border terrorism. The facts on Syria this reporter internalized in August, 2011, can be only partly relevant a year after the first external probes began to find local hospitality. And then external and internal amalgamated into scores of opposition groups.

The earlier case was based on personal observation and interviews. Contrary to conventional wisdom a year ago, Assad could not fall because he controls (loosely now) a Ba’ath power structure not dissimilar to the one Saddam Hussain supervised in Baghdad. It took Shock and Awe, invasion, occupation, half a million Iraqi lives, thousands of US and British soldiers dead: only then was the US able to leave Iraq the wreck that it is today. Does the West have the stomach to repeat that in Syria when Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya continue to be weeping sores?

Such a question would be particularly valid at this juncture when the world is waiting for a new administration to emerge in Washington. But the reality is that Foreign Policy – and National Security establishment in Washington, barring extraordinary change at the top, moves seamlessly from one administration to the next: faces change, but attitudes do not.

Election season or no election season, the US establishment focused on West Asia is pushing ahead regardless, holding the hand of France, Saudis, Qatar, Turkey, orchestrating the eventual fall of the Syrian regime.

In high stake poker there is always a little bit of bluff and bluster. There may be some here too, particularly to play on Russian nerves. As a scholar told me in Moscow recently: “Putin will not let down Assad, but fewer are the chances of his letting down Russia!”

Mikheil Saakashvili’s eclipse in Georgia must have provided relief in Moscow from the relentless Western pressure on Syria. For the time being, Moscow and China will stand their ground because the cost of an alternative policy will be too high in the region.

The Saudi interests are clear: a fear of encirclement by Shia populations. But surely Saudi Wahabis will remain a minority even in an augmented Sunni ocean, the kind of Sunnism that obtains in the region stretching from Morocco right upto the borders of Saudi Arabia.

Two Saudi Crown Princes have died in the past year. The current one is ailing and King Abdullah is in and out of hospitals. A durable Saudi strategy must await the impending succession to be over.

The lightening shift in Turkish policy in the region has astonished observers. Well known journalist Mehmet Birand told me last year. “We were a docile ally of the US in the past and now a dissident country in the Western Alliance.” No longer can he say that. Tayyip Erdogan won three straight elections incrementally increasing his vote from 36 to 42 and in 2011 to 49 percent. His declared ambition was to have “zero problems with all our neighbours”. With neighbouring Greece on its knees, Turkey’s rise seemed unprecedented.

Why has Erdogan staked so much on the Syrian expedition?

Firstly, does he see Democratic Turkey as a model for the Muslim world in transition?

Secondly, is this vision accompanied by echoes of an Ottoman past which, he must know, is anathema to the Arabs?

Third, is his Akhwanul Muslimeen core, earlier toned down to be acceptable to the Army’s Kemalist secularism, resurfacing with the Akhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) on the rise elsewhere in the Arab world?

Four, is he not opening up fronts with 18 million Kurds, 20 million Turkish Alawites, and Russia’s Slav and Orthodox Church links in the Balkans which had been tamed in the recent past. Forcing a Moscow-Damascus flight, carrying some Russian families, land in Turkey on suspicions of arms being shipped has caused President Putin to postpone his visit to Ankara.

Five, what is the design in provoking direct confrontation with Iran?

Six, is the biggest incentive for the shift the large off shore gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean? This deserves to be focused on.

Whatever the combination of motives, the gamble for Turkey is a huge one.

Iran, ofcourse, must continue to live dangerously between negotiation on the nuclear issue and the risk of being attacked. “Attack Iran” lobby has not weakened in Israel or the US.

In all of this, where does India stand? In the fictitious script Hillary Clinton says India has no clout in the region. Possibly true. But how did Nehru and Indira Gandhi have influence in the area. It will be argued that that was during the Cold War, when India led the Non Aligned which became redundant in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

But with Western decline, a new world order may well be taking shape. In shaping the new equilibrium New Delhi does have a leadership position in groupings like the Non Aligned which will meet in Cairo in coming years. Only by reinventing its leadership role in such groupings will New Delhi insulate itself from the ignominy of being told that in so and so part of the world India does not matter.

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Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Congress Leader And A Congress Session – Both Mysteriously Forgotten

A Congress Leader And A Congress Session – Both Mysteriously Forgotten

                                                                                                                               Saeed Naqvi

So anchored is the Indian ruling class to caste as an essential variable that any discussion of politics or political leadership which steers clear of this basic fact will always be incomplete.

And yet it is in this “incompleteness” that most of the discussion on current affairs is sustained. Friends, who sometimes double up as colleagues too, generally avoid delving into intricacies of caste when conversation turns to classes of which they are a part. Only lower castes can be discussed. Period.

As a direct consequence of democracy in a developing society where it will always be accompanied by egalitarianism, upper castes have ofcourse been unsettled. Egalitarianism is a contentious turnstile which facilitates and obstructs different sets of people towards a deceptively distant equilibrium – deceptive, because equilibrium has been achieved pretty quickly, almost unnoticed.

Take for instance, Chattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, all BJP ruled states where, but for exceptions, Chief Ministers are not from the upper caste.

The Congress which has carefully preserved the Caste structure, has undergone change too: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Haryana, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Kerala, Delhi and Uttarakhand mostly under non upper caste Chief Ministers. Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and Vijaya Bahuguna in Uttarakhand are Brahmins and therefore exceptions. Who knows, Sheila’s may well be a future worth watching if she clears this round.

To these lists add UP, Bihar, Tamilnadu, West Bengal and you have the country fairly firmly in the grip of the “new ruling classes” who have come up the social ladder. Just as new converts are more orthodox in their religious outlook, the new ruling class is in its policies fairly imitative of the class it has replaced.

The problem is to find a leadership at the Centre which will hold the sum of the nation’s parts together. This is the conflictual zone where there is no resolution in sight. In fact caste conflict at the level of the Centre has in the past been extremely bitter.

End of October will be the 12th death anniversary of one of the most remarkable, homespun, “aam aadmi” of the Congress Party. He served in the Union Cabinet under Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. He was President of the Congress for a spell. Above all, he was Treasurer of the Party for 16 years under three Congress Presidents. At a time when the Congress is wriggling against the wall facing charges of corruption, here was the longest serving Treasurer of the Party at whom no finger has ever be raised for corruption. His name was Sitaram Kesari. And yet such deathly silence about him!

Nothing became the Congress less than the manner in which this senior, but low caste Party President was thrown out of office. A fear grew that in the wake of the Congress withdrawing support to the Inder Gujral minority government that Kesari may sneak in as Prime Minister, advantageously placed as he was – Congress President.

Kesari was summarily removed by the Congress Working Committee and Sonia Gandhi installed in his place. Senior Congress leaders went about supervising his name plates being wrenched out of the Party office walls. He was even turfed out of his Rajya Sabha seat.

Why was so much humiliation heaped on Kesari? Because he was of lowly origin who dared to aspire?

There is another instance which sheds light on the Congress attitude to inner Party democracy and, coincidentally, caste: the All India Congress Committee session in Tirupati in April 1992 when P.V. Narasimha Rao attempted to replace the system of a nominated CWC. The AICC was invited to hold direct elections but the results upset the leadership’s caste calculations. Arjun Singh, a Rajput, led the field by a long margin. He was followed by Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot, both intermediate castes.

Party Managers got into a huddle. The results of the election were declared null and void.

The moral ofcourse is that each one of the so called senior leaders seated in a circular formation at CWC sessions are under the alert gaze of their immediate neighbours just in case they, anyone of them, begin to nurse ambitions independent of the Party President. A strong gravitational pull keeps the caste hierarchy within the Congress leadership anchored to the ground.

These are the circumstances in which Congressmen are contemplating the general elections of 2014. Whom will the Party President select to take the lead as Prime Ministerial candidate? It is always easier to pick someone who is from outside the caste circle – like Dr. Manmohan Singh was. Or, if only he were willing, the Congress hierarchy would rapturously accept Rahul Gandhi, for the simple reason that he is not one of them. Dynasty gives him elevation and frees him from the gravitational pull that ties them down. Many in their ranks have taken heart from his visibility in Kashmir.

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