The ambush

WHAT is human about nature? Bystanders enjoy conflict more than resolution. Partisans may prefer peace, but an audience can be persuaded to pay good money to watch gladiators. Which street in the world ever stopped to applaud a serene couple strolling by, hand in hand?

By Mj Akbar

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Published: Mon 20 Aug 2007, 8:09 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:07 AM

But let a husband and wife begin screaming at each other and a crowd will collect instantly. Let the couple be marginally familiar and a posse of journalists will arrive to turn them into minor celebrities. Such is the law of inhuman nature.

A divorce, therefore, will always get much more coverage than a marriage. Good news has only limited rights over airtime and newsprint. A marriage gets decent attention only at the time of nuptials. You might recall for instance the photographs flooded with smiles when the present UPA government was joined together in functional matrimony a little more than a thousand days ago. Such pictures aren't news after 24 hours. But a divorce can make news every day. There are so many issues to deal with. Who keeps the house after the split? That is a tough one since the house would never have been stable without the willing consent of both parties. The bickering can get intense over the most trivial detail, and each bicker feeds further demand from an insatiable media. Accusations get hurled across that nasty wrestling pit called a television studio.

Mud sticks. Everyone has heard of some happy marriage, for such things are still possible. Whoever heard of a happy divorce? Now that divorce proceedings have begun between the Congress and the Left, the best thing to do would be to make a quick and clean break. The House — the Lok Sabha of course — is now unstable. The partnership has become untenable.

The one thing that the Congress and the Left will not fight about is custody of the child. In three years the Manmohan Singh government has produced just one child, the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left has made it clear that it has serious doubts about the circumstances of its arrival. This government was elected because a majority of Indian voters rejected the fatuous claim that India was shining. That was a moment tailor-made for a new economic agenda that shifted the focus from wealth creation to wealth distribution. Instead, this government of World Bank economists insisted that wealth creation was, in a very fundamental sense, incompatible with wealth distribution.

It stuck doggedly to a crumbs-policy. If it ensured a feast for the rich, there would always be enough crumbs for the poor. This, in essence, is the trickle down theory advocated by the highest in the land, and applauded by all those given a free ticket to the table. One could sense that elections were around the corner when the prime minister rediscovered the poor during his speech on the sixtieth Independence Day. In Indian democracy, the poor get homilies, which the rich get policies. If Dr Manmohan Singh had fought for and staked his government’s survival on an anti-poverty programme, no one would have dared to bring his government down. He would have won an election on his record, for the poor vote.

How poor is India? Some startling statistics have just been released by a forgotten wing of Dr Singh’s own administration, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector. Around 80 per cent of India’s working population is in this sector. Nearly 80 per cent of this group earns less than 20 rupees a day and 85 per cent of this sub group is trapped in debt. By that usual sleight of hand we have drawn an arbitrary line to define poverty: Rs 12 a day constitutes the poverty line. This encourages the illusion that 77 per cent of India is now above the poverty line. It isn't that much above in any case. Nor is this poverty line index-linked to inflation. Twelve rupees a day buys much less today than it did three years ago. The traditional poverty groups remain where they were: 88 per cent of Scheduled Tribes and Castes, 80 per cent of "Other Backward Classes" and 85 per cent of Muslims belong to the "poor and vulnerable" class.

If these statistics are lies the government should disown them, sack the author of the report, and produce alternative figures that indicate a different scenario. Dr Manmohan Singh cannot hide from facts by taking shelter behind silence.

Instead of concentrating on poverty, Dr Singh concentrated on George Bush. Heads of government who have invested in Bush at the expense of their national interest are on a losing streak this year. Tony Blair has disappeared into insignificance so quickly that his decade in office already seems like a mirage. Any good he might have done for his country has been lost in that colossal and unthinking blunder called Iraq. John Howard, the other great Bush ally, is heading for defeat in this year’s Australian elections.

Dr Singh always misunderstood the nature of the debate on the nuclear deal. That political fault line has now extended to the parties in his alliance, who did not have much to do with the decision but surrendered (unlike the Left) their independent judgment in order to hang on to office. Lalu Yadav, Sharad Pawar and M Karunanidhi will be answerable to voters for a decision that they rubber stamped without examining the consequences. For some reason that one has been unable to fathom, Dr Singh once called protests against the Bush visit to India "communal". If he thought that only Muslims were suspicious of his eagerness to accept any terms imposed by the Bush administration then I presume he has changed his views now. Any investment on such a scale, in both financial and strategic terms, cannot be pushed through by merely the will of a government. It has to be sifted through the process of national debate, particularly in parliament. If the American legislature has the right to interfere in decision-making, and impose qualifications, why not the Indian legislature? Is the Indian MP less patriotic than the American senator, or indeed more ignorant? The logic of democracy travels in only one direction: the popular will. The prime minister pushed the pace by presenting his allies with a timetable that they were unable to accept.

There has also been a serious misunderstanding about the nature of government. India’s ambassador to Washington, an extremely capable diplomat, Ronen Sen, says that he has been privately assured that Washington will not react excessively if India uses the option to test. Alas, nations last longer than individuals. The life of this deal is estimated at around forty years. Ronen Sen will not be ambassador that long. Bush will not be president after January 2009. What matters is the law of the land and the written record. The law of America, by which every president is bound, is called the Hyde Act. It will prevail when a Democrat takes the White House from the Republicans. India’s national interest cannot be compromised on the strength of a private assurance. It is astonishing that a senior diplomat should make such a statement, when American negotiators and spokesmen have insisted that the law of their land will determine the course of their actions in any dispute. It is astounding that a government should accept this as some form of guarantee. No marriage ever survived because of prolonged divorce proceedings. The time has come to go to a higher court than even the Indian parliament — to the people of India.

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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