Clues in candlelight

THE decisive moment in Indian politics comes not when leaders believe that they have convinced the electorate but when they are certain that they have convinced themselves. The system is then informed: Members of Parliament, party officials, and whatever is left of the structure down the scale. If you want to know when a general election is likely to be announced, check the faces inside parliament. If the leaders look buoyant and the MPs glum, you know an election cannot be too far away.

By M.j. Akbar (BYLINE)

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Published: Mon 3 Sep 2007, 8:38 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:33 AM

Any half-decent Sherlock Holmes could have offered a reasonable guess on the date of the next general election. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has strewn his public utterances with clues. It is obvious that, although a man of laconic demeanour, he cannot resist a riposte. When CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat indulged in the metaphor of a nuclear winter, Dr Singh asked whether spring could be far behind. It seems that a spring general election is about to be sprung.

While Pranab Mukherjee was defending the “mechanism” set up to calm nuclear nerves between the Congress and the Left, and implicitly purchase amity for another year, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, who as information minister is also reasonably well-informed, sabotaged peace prospects by saying that talks with IAEA and the Nuclear Suppliers Group had not been cancelled. It only remained for the dates to be finalised.

This date, doubtless, will be finalised the moment the present session of parliament gets over on the 14th of September. An Indian team will be in Vienna as part of routine discussions with IAEA. They might not be required to return to India, and could take up discussions on the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left would then be welcome to do what it liked. Or didn’t like.

Here is an even more revealing clue. Minorities minister AR Antulay was pulled out from the woodwork this week to announce a “follow-up” to the Sachar Committee recommendations for Muslims. When Congress throws sops in the general direction of Muslims by the Congress, can elections be far behind?

Sometimes I feel that the ruling class must consider Muslims to be the biggest idiots in India. In 2006, Dr Manmohan Singh, possibly moved by the Sachar Committee report on the abject plight of Indian Muslims, promised something of an extraordinary multiple rise in the budgetary expenditure for their welfare. When his budget appeared in 2007, the allocation for minorities had actually been slashed. The finance minister apparently forgot to read the prime minister’s instructions. The prime minister of course forgot to do anything about it. Now Antulay, who was given a ministry without an office, has announced a few more committees.

They must also believe that every Muslim is illiterate, and does not know the difference between a guideline and a law or an order. The government has sent “guidelines” that Muslims should be given more jobs in the bureaucracy. These are not orders, just guidelines. I can visualise every secretary of every ministry, his visage flush with the excitement of a new purpose, getting into office on Monday and ordering the immediate hiring of millions of unemployed Muslim youth. It is one thing if they cannot give jobs; why twist the knife with jokes?

Why does Shelley’s line about the desire of a moth for the flame keep coming back to me?

India is in the throes of a violent fever. You can see it shivering everywhere. There is a bus accident in Agra and the young turn to stones and arson. A dalit dies in Haryana, and the community is out on the streets. Caste wars surface only sometimes, but the turbulence is a permanent stream just under the surface. Muslims are restless and angry, imbued with a sense of betrayal as yet another government they helped elect has given them committee reports rather than justice. One part of the crimes of the winter of 1992-93 has been punished, but those who indulged in anti-Muslim riots, including policemen named by the Srikrishna report, are untouched by the law. Any protest is fobbed by the promise of action tomorrow. Tomorrow is a day that never comes. The poor, of all regions, faiths, castes, economic denominations, want economic and social justice; they want life and sustenance, and if they do not get it they will make their voice heard, and their anger evident. Whenever they ask a question, they are told by the government to wait till 2020 for an answer. They are not looking at 2020. They are looking at deprivation and death. There is no 2020 for the farmers who have committed suicide. There is no 2020 for vegetable vendors and the egg-suppliers who see their only form of income being swallowed by a retail giant. A policy for 2020 can work only if sustained by immediate programmes for those who are being dispossessed on the way to El Dorado. A limited dole is not a policy, particularly when it is punctured by corruption.

The nuclear deal with the United States will be an issue in the next general elections, but it will not be the only debate. Campaign season is question time, so the questions that have not yet been articulated will rise to the top of the debate. One can understand, for instance, the family silver being hocked to protect or expand India’s military nuclear programme, but why get into an embrace as demanding, one-sided and restrictive as that detailed in the Hyde Act for civilian nuclear energy? We have enough fuel for our military purposes.

This nuclear deal was not part of the Congress manifesto in the last elections; it did not exist in the Common Minimum Programme that is the basis of the ruling alliance. When the last civilian energy policy of the country was announced, a document which was the sum of collective effort, there was no hint that nuclear power was to become so crucial to India’s energy requirements. From which bottle did this genie suddenly materialise? And if nuclear power is so green and so beneficial, why has America not invested heavily in civilian nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979? America doesn’t need either the Hyde Act, or anyone else’s technology to do so. As this column has argued before, it would be a very foolish country that would prefer hostility with America, but the fundamental requirement of friendship is equality. Subservience is not an equitable or sustainable long-term relationship. How cost-effective is nuclear energy? There is never a direct, or even an indirect, answer from the government to this question. Can those at the bottom of the pile afford this energy, or do they need more hydro power? Water is one natural resource that is not going to disappear, for if it does there will be nothing left to protect.

The basic question before the nation is actually a fairly simple one: is the future of India linked to every Indian? Or is Dream India the destiny of only some Indians? Has Jawaharlal Nehru’s tryst with destiny been converted from a national challenge into a self-satisfied statistic?

Shelley’s flame drew the fluttering moth. Ghalib’s flame, methinks, defines the vote. Shama har rang main jalti hai sahar hone tak. The flame sparkles in every colour until dawn. What comes at dawn when another multi-dimensional electoral candle is exhausted? The clarity of sunlight, I hope.

Eminent journalist and intellectual M J Akbar is editor-in-chief of the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers. He can be reached at

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