Friday, November 30, 2007

Old man and the sea

Why do we run into cul-de-sacs in life? Why do we change course suddenly only to go into maelstroms? Why do we run smooth and then tumble as we walk? Eventually we realize our mistake but it’s often too late. We sob as we look back on life, perhaps, because we know that deep down all of us are inherently human. Flawed. Animated. Shaky. Emotional.

Plato, the ancient Greek thinker, one of the world’s most influential philosophers, who walked on God’s green earth between 428-348 BC, waxes eloquent, “All learning has an emotional base.”

It didn’t come as a surprise to me that Musharraf choked with emotion and shed a tear, betraying his usual bravado, two times in as many days: First, as he bid farewell to his army and second time when he took oath as the civilian President of Pakistan. [The first military Gen to do so]

Often enough when there is an intense bout of wits between two warring factions and the more powerful one is made to eat humble pie, a sense of dreariness follows. Methinks Musharraf must be contemplating – and lamenting may be -- the enormous goodwill he earned when he took control of the rudderless ship -- called IRO [Islamic Republic of] Pakistan. Like an able captain, he put together a smart crew to navigate through some very rough waters. Everything looked right on.

Then something extraordinary happened. Another mighty ship [big, opulent, powerful like the Titanic] called America was attacked. 9-11. The day changed the world. NYC’s twin towers – iconic symbols of America’s corporate might were brought crumbling down in a matter of minutes. Pentagon – the military jugular of US power was set ablaze in broad daylight. It looked surreal but it was happening – across the Atlantic – on live TV. America got dandered up like that proverbial Spanish bull that is shown a rag. Bush’s war team decided to go rampaging. Their target was clear: Afghanistan.

The good old captain – Mushy -- was contacted mid-night and given a now-famous ultimatum. ‘You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists’. Period. Swiftly and prudently, a wooly-eyed Mushy got the message. He understood, as army commanders are expected to, rather quickly, that something major has happened. That geo-strategic alignments have altered overnight. Briskly, like a keen sailor, he decided to go with the favorable winds. With the west.

The war on terror was won, partly thanks to Mushy’s intelligence folks. They yanked the baddies out of their sleeping beds and turned them over to the US. Once more in history Pakistan rose to the occasion -- providing top level intel, bases, support and backup against the war on terror. Major terror networks and finances were frozen. This greatly angered the Islamists, who hate US for its double standards vis-à-vis Palestine. Also a war on fellow Muslims, however irrational, was not done. OBL had a new foe.

The pragmatic captain’s ship had again meandered into rough waters. Between devil and the deep-sea. US, flush with a victory in Afghanistan, went onto mission Iraq, briefly forgetting about Pakistan [like post-soviet-Mujahidin times]. The attention ebbed. And the Islamist tribe in Pakistan grew. Their writ ran large. Suicide bombing became fashionable. They attacked Prez Mush a couple of times, even getting close to him. He survived each storm. The ship wobbled a little but sailed on.

Suddenly a judge from Baluchistan, who used to dye his hair and moustaches black every morning, decided to play tough. He wanted the names of tribals and other blokes who went missing during the war on terror. Now some of these guys had already been handed over to the US, some imprisoned in Afghanistan and some very high value detainees lodged in Guantanamo bay. I am sure some guys must have been eliminated by the military intelligence – either during the round up or in gun-battles. Judge Ifty was summoned to Army House, Rawalpindi and as is the norm in military, told to put in his papers. When he refused [and the army is not programmed to hear Nays] he was suspended.

The decision was to prove shellacking. Around this time, the captain of the ship alienated some of his passengers. Most of the people traveling aboard the ship had been a secular majority but they thought of the captain as being too tough, too pro-west, too dictatorial and hence planned to thrown him into the sea. The tide turned. I wonder what went through Mushy’s head as he shed the first tear this Wednesday. Was he recounting those ill fated hours when he decided to kick out the corny judge. Soon after the lawyers rebelled. Nawaz came back from exile and was promptly dispatched back. Another mistake. Another tear.

And then the beauty – Benazir -- sashayed down the aisle of the ship. The ramp didn’t burn. Instead 150 people were incinerated. It was a clear message of how far the extremists could go. The court, with the dyed hair judge in control once more, was playing truant again. The captain decided to change direction of the ship and instead made the judge with a grudge, annoying journalists, several lawyers and other trouble makers walk the plank. Another fluke. More Tears.

The rest, as they say, is history. As the countdown to the D-day [Parl elections -- Jan 2008] begins, the crew on the ship has changed and the captain, like Archibald Haddock, is more sober now. Big bro, US is pleased again [often a good sign]. In the next 40 days, we will see a mixture of good, bad and the ugly happening on the ship. Fisticuffs may break out. The beauty [West backed], the old warhorse [Saudi blessing], two brothers from Punjab called the Chowdarys [Mushy favor] and other motley crowd. The captain stays albeit his guns have been taken away from him. We have a new first mate -- Kiyani -- on the ship. He, they tell us, will control the direction now. The captain will only guide. No more flukes.

The ship sails on.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gen to Jinab

Passing the baton

The transition has happened, finally. Gen Pervez Musharraf abdicated his military post after serving the army for 46 prolix years. For a brief while, as he handed over the baton [called command stick; it is more like a symbolic scepter] of army chief to his mate and chosen successor Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, he appeared to be choking but held his nerve, like a solider. Musharraf, a highly decorated army Gen, will be sworn in as the civilian President of Pakistan later today. His legacy, I reckon, will remain that of a competent commander, who led from the front, a PR extraordinaire, someone who wooed the media with his effortlessness, wrote a compelling book while in office and more importantly safe-guarded Pakistan’s interests after the 9/11 US blitzkrieg. He, however, miserably flunked to understand the cesspool of domestic politics in Pakistan and did nothing to allow a new political class to emerge. At some point Musharraf perhaps overstepped his authority but still fared better than most of the previous military rulers.

Even if Mush can no more count on the famed army allegiance but like a smart lad he has played it safe. He has appointed his most trusted men at the top. The ISI boss -- Gen Nadeem Taj -- is a camp Mush man [was his military secretary and accompanied Mush on that eventful flight from Colombo], so is the chief of military intelligence (MI). Gen Tariq Majid, Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, another key guy remains faithful. The corps commanders, who form the backbone of Pak army and constitute its real strength, were seen cheering for Musharraf, as he bade a final aideu to his 'beloved' army, which remained loyal to him till the end. As long as the army is seen to be backing their old boss -- and new Prez -- Musharraf has no worries.

And despite his resignation from the army, Musharraf [now Sadar-Sahib] will continue to keep his current military staff and his security too will be responsibility of the army. The present constitution of Pakistan gives the president reserve powers, subject to a Supreme Court approval or veto [likely to be approved in a retooled SC] to dissolve the National Assembly of Pakistan and trigger new elections. In effect he would have the powers to dismiss the elected PM. The president also chairs the National Security Council and appoints the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Mush, I reckon, is going to stay both relevant and major league.

In hindsight, Musharraf was quite a charmer. I liked his sartorial ways. Always elegantly turned out, thinking out of the box, running his fingers in the hair, well-read and witty, Mush was a great relief from our dour politicians. Usually politicians in the sub-continent are colorless, bromidic kinds. As the military Prez, he would go to the US on his book tour and sweep his TV hosts off their feet. On his India visits, the media would go euphoric trailing his every move. A liberal guy, who kept pet puppies at home, Mush made enemies with conservatives in Pakistan. The West, aware of the Pan-Islamic wave never left him off-hook. Mush’s outstanding help in fighting the war on terror is however not lost to many in the White House.

Kiyani, as the new army chief, is not just a military commander; he is responsible for the institutional reputation and extensive financial interests of the country's top officers, who consider themselves a class apart. Pakistan’s army top echelons – along with their top political class – come from an elite social stratum. [Rest of the country – 85% and spill over – remain the toiling masses] Since Kiyani 55, is younger than Musharraf, he is expected to have a greater connect with his officers. A Kashmiri by ancestry, Gen Kiyani is a Musharraf loyalist, Punjabi by birth, stammerer, chain smoker, moderate, former Spy boss, palsy but tough. A professional, strict guy, he has an attitude that may best be described as: listen [rather than Mush’s Mantra: Talk], army-back-to-barracks [rather than meddle in petty politics]. However, expect a tougher line against ultraists, since Kiyani will try his best to establish the supremacy of the army and streamline its combat efficiency. In doing so, the US trained Gen may not think twice to smoke the bad guys out with surgical precision.

Next Blog: The Cesspool[Dec 2008]


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Water Wars

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. The rhyme of the ancient mariner sprang to my mind as I hopscotched through Kashmir during my last visit. Vale of my childhood, where water was the last thing people would possibly bother about. We used to throw water on each other at school and the fun was fondly called ‘Aab Jung’ [water war]. But those were innocent years, with only a few residential areas and a lot of farm land. The rivers were overflowing and filled with fish. The Lakes, I remember, meandered around hills and the golden kingfisher would dive in to catch a little trout in its beak. In the years to come, that innocence was gradually lost. It was molested by indifferent times. The fish drowned in the waters. Then there was scarcity.

I think the water problem does not come as a surprise. To make things worse everyone wants a separate home, complete with gardens and flowers and fencing in Kashmir. And a place for keeping that sparkling car. This has lead to a steady shrinkage of agricultural land and a dip in the ground water table. Natural resources are -- naturally -- stretched thin. Private construction is at an all time high – homes in all kinds of concrete shapes are coming up. But everyone complains that winters are too cold now and you want to tell them: Look here, when you use too much concrete and glass – trying to replicate Delhi architecture -- you can’t expect the cosy warmth of a Kashmiri home.

And it results in Water wars of a different kind. I first noticed the desperation when we drove to the Manasbal Lake. There are tiny picaresque villages on the way. The narrow pot-holed road is lined with beautiful orchards full of red, juicy fruit, ready to be plucked. At a bend in the road, near a hamlet called Poshwari [meaning flower meadow – no flowers though], we met with villagers, who were blocking the road. They told us that we cannot go further up because they are protesting the acute water shortage in their area. No mini-bus, car or scooter was allowed to pass. Only the occasional security vehicle whizzed past, because nobody dares stop the ‘military’. The villagers were pretty animated and no excuses worked. So we parked our car to one side and waited.

I knew all my media accreditations – that usually allow me an entry to the Prime ministers’ garden in Delhi -- won’t work with these folks. So I warmed upto a few protesting guys. Why are you troubling people like this? I asked. “Jinab, they shot back [That native naïve way of addressing anyone dressed in city garb] we have resorted to this extreme step because we don’t have a drop of water to drink”. Our women walk five miles to fetch a pail of water and all we can do is sit and watch helplessly. “We couldn’t even take a bath on the Eid day,” a young man added for effect. I noticed dandruff on his shoulder; I guess he was not exaggerating. Do you think anyone will take notice of your peaceful sit-in? I questioned an old man who was snorting his tobacco. “We don’t know – Jinab – but what else can we do. We have tried everything possible,” he said with an exasperated expression.

We finally made our way through the melee but I felt bad for the poor guys. It is hard life for them. We live in a world of contrasts, I often tell myself. Bottled mineral water and 24 hour water supply for some – me included – and nary a drop to drink for others.

[My pals in the US drink Evian water. Direct from Évian-les-Bains, on the south shore of Lake Geneva, a close friend remarked last month].

I broached the issue with a top tourism officer – incharge of Manasbal waterways. Though the guy was smart and knew quite a bit about water sports, he gave me that amused look as I raised the topic. You know Sam, he went on in an avuncular fashion, you are a financial journalist, how can you can’t understand this local, petty stuff. These villagers are illiterate, uncouth and they don’t understand the water schemes the government launches for them from time to time. I couldn’t buy his government-like argument. It was a typical passing-the-buck and blaming-the-aggrieved answer. I looked on.

Two days before I took a flight to Delhi, I went to see Tanseer’s [best buddy] folks. I hired a Tonga [horse carriage, good old way] and we rode off. About half a kilometer from my destination, we were signalled to stop. People were furiously pelting stones at vehicles and the Tonga-Walla [Carriage driver] thought the horse might bolt. I got down and walked the remaining distance. I thought it was a usual demonstration against the security forces but it turned out to be a water protest. This time in the heart of a major township. I am sure the crowd was dispersed some time soon because the gathering was not around when I returned. I am sure no one heard them, let alone the authorities.

Back in Delhi, as I sat covering an international event in a five star hotel days later, I asked for some water. As I waited for the maitre d'hotel to bring me water, I casually asked a second attendant for water. Two bottles of Himmelsberger arrived in the next one minute. German water. The extravagance of our lives. I thought about the peasants in that lovely flower meadow. I know no one ever took care of their necessity.

Villagers blocking the road at Poshwari, Kashmir [Mobile Pic]

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Le Théâtre de l'Absurde

Events in Pakistan are flickering at an amazing speed. Every single day we have new developments from the theater of the absurd. Thursday saw ‘tight’ buddy Bush calling Prez Musharraf -- finally after more than 100 hours of the declaration of emergency. On Friday it became clear that Benazir -- the great elocutionist -- has effectively taken over the mantle on behalf of her democracy-starved countrymen and women [Those at CNN and Fox can’t stop praising her]. To start with, she has begun to tie her head scarf more securely now. She addressed her nation [a la Mush style] on Pakistan TV, because diabolical Mush didn’t let her step out of her Islamabad home. Actually the national TV showed a still picture of her, while her audio played in the background. In reality Ms Bhutto was addressing a handful of supporters outside her barricaded, barbed home – after the government thwarted all efforts for a march to Rawalpindi – the Military base of Pakistan – to lead a public rally.

In the evening the white house spokesperson was asking Pakistan to allow Ms Bhutto to travel freely. How it reeks of an ancient theatre? Allow Miss Bhutto to criss-cross the country! How about those mad-caps on prowl for her? They want to get her, we all know that. Right? US, it seems, has finally decided that Mush alone can’t pull it off for them. So they would need to back Benazir. I don’t think any other reason why a political figure -- under martial law -- would be allowed to say all kinds of nasty things against the Prez on PTV. Live! Time, my fave political magazine, puts it rather subtly, ‘The local-language press — generally cynical and conspiracy-minded — grumble about the theatrics of the whole event, pointing out the lack of visible grass roots support for Bhutto in both Islamabad and Rawalpindi’. Something is cooking, for sure.

The belated phone call from Bush actually seems to be working. Prez Musharraf said day before that elections will be held before Feb 15, as per the original plan. The cornered fox also admitted that he will ask his designer to stop making his military uniforms [which he doesn’t wear anymore] after the friendly supreme court validates [invalidation isn’t an option with them, now] his second term win. Automatically the constitution will be restored. That assurance seems to be placating Bush and his deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who – in turn -- called Mush ‘indispensable’ last night. Miss Bhutto, since she is a highly qualified lady, understands that ‘indispensable’ means vital. Yet she would continue to make more noise. That is a little game of politics they teach you at Oxford. Miss Bhutto has been its alumnus. It is about her own relevance.

As for other players, Judge Iftikar Chowdary has been cooped, like Napoleon -- protector of the confederation of the Rhine at Saint Helena. His daughter was yesterday not let out to even sit for her exams. The ultraists are detonating themselves in the hills these days, outside government facilities and the queue to paradise is swelling, as reports suggest. Some of them are on prowl in the military town of Rawalpindi, if the police boss is to be believed [waiting for that pro-west female to come out in the open]. The media is reporting fine. At least the online media looks free. I get my daily dose of happenings in that country from the Pakistani online English press, which is largely accurate and not heavily censored, as one would imagine. Despite all western papers, in story upon story, reminding us that US bankrolled [$10 billion] Pakistan in the last 7 years -- to fight their war, to stitch their flawed policy tatters and to send Pakistani army in the restive tribal belts, for the first time in history to kill their own folks [They don’t tell you that, silly].

Going by the steady flow, the next few weeks are going to be more eventful. We can envisage more hair-raising acts in this ongoing drama. Nawaz – never to be left behind – may attempt something exciting. Benazir will continue to amuse. The Judge with a grudge is expected to say something sensational. Imran Khan, the born-again Muslim [biggety and no mass appeal] might send more emails from his hide-out to his estranged wife. The mad-gang would continue to blow their heads and capture more police posts in the mountains. Fazlullah [Radio-mullah] broadcasts from his private FM, calling for Sharia, could be available to more households. And the US will publicly make all the correct sermons, while privately continue to shape events in their outpost – Pakistan.

Updates to continue.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Little world of ours

The wafer cover was prominent by its duskish color from under the crystal clear waters. Kashmir looks Delphic in fall and the potato chip bag thrown into the Manasbal Lake -- perhaps by a pack of tourists -- portends the extend to which forces of globalization have permeated us. Our surroundings. No shade of God’s green earth is sheltered from its ugly left-over. And our attitute to it has been rather sloppy. We seem to be in some sort of a neurotic love affair with its incessant, grabby pull.

Everything is nicely packaged. In little covers. Small boxes, cones and smart cans. Frankly, I don’t wish to throw some of these peel-offs, at times. The consumer fare is made available to us from the biggest metros to the smallest hamlets in Kashmir, where ordinary folks often think that a certain surname will make them superior to everyone else. And then they happily gulp more of the tangy juice and toss the wrappers on roadside. Carelessly.

Christened ‘New India Aeroplane’ the boat that I took, with my pals, had its termite-eaten roof, nicely covered in an Airtel [that’s Worldtel’s India version] canvas. The boatman’s cell phone kept on ringing and the little boat had to be stopped two times, while he took his calls. In reality everyone seems busy on his/her lucky possession [a sleek, high-end cell phone] in Kashmir. They even touch it from time to time -- in their pocket -- to ensure if it is still there. What is your cell phone model, eh?… is a very standard query. I’d to know mine to be ready with a standard response. Long live Nokia!

The mania has gripped all. You have cell phones suddenly clanking in mosques, in the middle of a prayer, in funerals and most irritatingly, in the middle of a conversation [what is buzzer mode]. Etiquettes, if there are any, are melting away, much like good old socializing. You seem to be chatting away with someone and suddenly he pulls the magic brick from his pocket and punches in something. And puts it back. You are completely irrelevant but you are supposed to take that in your stride. For the sake of Globalization. At the altar of manners.

All along the scenic road to hills, you find beautiful humps of golden crop with a buttery sun in the backdrop. The streak is broken only by Shahrukh Khan [selling airtime to the natives] slumped on a king-size chair, a number of times, with a mischievous grin on his 42 year old face. The beautiful fields with hard working peasants in them toiling away appear diametrically contrasting to the billboard. While the villagers thrash the autumn crop, SRK doltishly looks like one of those old world zamindars [landlord], overlooking his tenants.

People appear a lot rich to me in Kashmir. I don’t squeak much as long as they are prosperous and can afford great gadgets. I must admit that I mostly know people from my own social strata and they look blest. They talk about cars, master plans, local politics, plasma TVs and of course religion. However, I feel that most people living on the fringes and in the countryside are miserable. They are left behind while the grabby train has moved on.

I think the potato wafer is still there, under the clear waters of countryside Kashmir. The Lays chips company, Frito-Lay, was founded in1932 by Herman Lay in Nashville, Tennessee, US. The city is located on the banks of Cumberland river. Gliding in Manasbal, this fall and chancing across the Lays wafer in its depths made me think about Cumberland. I tried to connect the dots. Small world, alright. We live in a global village, full of consumerist stuff, I wondered.

The boatman’s cell rang just in time to break my drift.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Update: General cracks the whip

The squeeze has begun. Pakistan is under de-facto martial law. A string of harsh laws, as expected, have been enforced. A new bunch of friendlier justices have already taken oath. Most of the misbehaving crowd [lawyers like Aitzaz Ahsan, politicians like the ex- playboy Imran Khan, Nawaz’s top man Javaid Hashmi, Human rights activist Asma Jehangir et al] have been silenced. Phone lines cut and outer doors locked. With an elite flock of Pakistani army regulars on guard, not even the milkman’s bicycle can make it to these blokes.

It is now dawning upon the Pakistan media that they have been asked by a tough school headmaster to shut their traps up or else....! The Press can no longer go about saying the unspeakable. It is gagged. Officially. Sample this:

As per the new law “No printer, publisher or editor shall print or publish” any material that consist of photographs of suicide bombers, terrorists, bodies of victims of terrorist activities, statements and pronouncements of militants and extremist elements and any other thing, which may, in any way, promote aid or abet terrorist activities or terrorism, or their graphic and printed representation based on sectarianism and ethnicity or racialism.

Non-compliance of the new curbs is subject to discontinuation of newspaper publication for up to 30 days, and in case of television channels up to three years of jail and 10 million fine or both will be imposed on the broadcast media licensee or its representative and their equipment and premises will be seized.

The media has also been restrained from publishing any material that is likely to jeopardize or be prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or any material that is likely to incite violence or hatred or create inter-faith disorder or be prejudicial to maintenance of law and order.

And didn't we alreday foresee something! Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell [expectedly] said the emergency declaration "does not impact our military support of Pakistan" or its efforts in the war on terror.



The excitement is over. Pakistan is finally under a state of emergency. It had been on cards for quite some time but mid-morning calls from Condy Rice -- in the past -- procrastinated the announcement. I reckon, Mush could hold it no more. Permission from DC came in the end. A public statement by White House [official] can safely be ignored. The military has completely taken over now, as I post [18:30 IST], while the constitution has been put under an animated suspension.

Fundamental rights may go out of the window. That is often the first causality in such a scenario. The judiciary will now be effectively muzzled and the freshly active political parties will go back to their cocoon. Media would be put on a tight leash. The all-powerful Pakistan army is now expected to flex its muscles and a heavy crack down on the gun-totting bad-guys is imminent.

Mush is shortly expected to address the nation explaining reasons for imposition of emergency. I think a new temporary constitution called provisional constitutional order (PCO) will come into effect. It would replace the original constitution of Pakistan. Under Pakistani law, emergency can be imposed only when the security of the country is under threat. The PCO gives sweeping powers to the Prez.

Looks like Mush took the extreme step because Pakistan was fast slipping into anarchy. Extremists were on the prowl. Everywhere. They first attacked Benazir’s convoy, killing 150. Then they struck near the Prez house, another daring suicide attack. Emboldened, a few days later they ripped apart an air force bus, killing a dozen officers. An antiquated radical culture was taking root. Balochistan is on boil. The insurgency in the volatile NWPF is spearheaded by the Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), a banned Islamic organization. In Swat, armed tribals have been parading captured Pakistani troops like prized trophies. This was clearly sending a wrong signal in the command and control.

As if it was not enough, an increasingly active judiciary, which has been looking into the petitions filed against Mush’s re-run for presidency was making more trouble for him. The Supreme Court was expected to deliver a verdict validating/invalidating his second term as Prez in the next couple of days. Also the much talked about American backed deal with Ms Bhutto, it now appears, was not working out.

As we wait for a word from Mush, Democracy in Pakistan has been put on the backburner. The activist CJ of Pakistan’s Supreme Court can now water his manicured lawns. A new CJ may be sworn in any moment. Nawaz can stay put in the Jeddah palace. The radical blokes in the NWFP should now gear up for a tough, long, bloody fight including aerial attacks [complete with laser guided precision bombs] with the Pakistan military.

Reports are coming in that Benazir is on her way back to Pakistan from Dubai where she had gone to see her family. The tribals, calling for imposition of Sharia [Religious rule] in the sensitive Swat, have a visceral hatred for both Bhutto and Mush, whom they see as America's gophers.

Can Mush tame the ultraists? Does the deal with Bhutto still hold? Pakistani politics, as ever, remains ever so unpredictable. Bizzare.