Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ghalib's Delhi

You almost cross a light-year as you make your way into old Delhi from the 21st century New Delhi. The journey is just a trot and on a traffic-slackened day [which, the truth be told, is a rarity in this city], you’ll reach old Delhi in a little over half an hour. It is baffling to see two Indias distinctly co-exist within a stretch of few miles.

Tucked away from the corporate boardrooms of the NCR and the sophisticated drawing rooms of South Delhi, lives the original -- ‘Dilli’. A cacophonously-disorderly space where people somehow tend to find order to their lives. While the rickshaw puller paddles his way through hodgepodge of a humanity on the march, you cannot fail to notice the riot of colors on display along the road.

No it is not an ensemble of designer colors that we are generally attuned to in our new age malls. Nor is it any shade of the latest plasma TV or a bold laptop theme color. It is the passel of tiny schoolchildren in their bright red going back home from school, all packed onto a – no brownies for guessing this – rickshaw. It is the rouge chops -- from constant chomping of betel -- of fat men sitting tight on their fat backs inside very narrow shops, selling everything from car engine shafts to marriage cards – at throwaway, wholesale prices.

There is something about old Delhi, especially the stretch leading upto the historic Jama Masjid, which makes it at once timeless and antique. The odd bleat of a pair of goats tied to a beaten pickup right outside the grand mosque reverberates across the terraces of Emperor Shah Jahan’s 17th century marvel. The din of skinny men, carrying double the body weight on their slight heads, and still managing a smile from earlobe to earlobe actually surprises you.

But what fascinates me the most about old Delhi is her myriad shops. They are all old-fashioned, piddly little holes with heavyset men inside them. Most of these establishments have big, rusty fans and no air conditioners [an act unthinkable of in our part of Delhi]. The shopkeeper has his spectacled father’s photo framed and garlanded just behind his head. Usually the picture glass frame has a dot of vermilion applied on it, right in the middle of the old, deceased patriarch’s forehead. It is a general rule. Images of deities and divinity hang from the 100 year old walls. The area right in front of the shop is splattered with red specs. Most business are partnership: RamLal, Baburam and sons; SS Khanna-TS Tullo. Brothers, Pals, who knows but you find pairs abound.

A mesh of wires – electricity, cable, telephone [you can’t make out: they are all Raj era] – jut out from every shop corner, while street vendors in their dozens fry their domestic fast-food on either side of the arcade. Meanwhile shop-owners can be seen animatedly talking into their telephones and cut deals [in 100’s, 1000’s, millions: you can’t make out]. Orders are quickly jotted down and passed on. It looks like a perpetual bazaar [grocerteria], where business goes on amidst the shouting, yelling, pushing around and the confluence of hordes.

People go on buying spices, cycle tyres, books, auto parts, ceramics, safety pins, wedding cards. In between the sonorous chant for Azaan rises above the Jama Mosque and the faithful scramble to pray. The fragrance of a million herbs wafts over the attar joints [local perfume shoppes]. Restaurants are crammed full with people who love to savor lamb, rustled up in secret recipes, passed on since generations.

Children play in box-like homes. Women, clad in the traditional garb jostle for space, with bearded men and mendicants on miniature streets. An old monkey jumps from roof to roof.

Life leaps in Old Delhi, perhaps a little loudly.
I take a rickshaw back to my metro station.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pakistan’s Protagonists

Elections in Pakistan have thrown up a fractured mandate. While PPP has emerged as the single largest party and is likely to lead the next government, PML-N is going to form the new government in the politically important province of Punjab. Together Nawaz and Zardari, it appears for the time being, will share the spoils. However neither Main sahib nor Benazir’s crooked widower [as Jemima Goldsmith, Imran Khan’s ex, calls him] can become the prime minister of Pakistan, in the immediate future, as both men didn’t contest these elections. While Mush initially got the constitution of Pakistan tampered with, solely to keep BB and Nawaz out of the PM’s race [A person can be PM only two times according to the amendment], a slew of corruption charges await Zardari. All these equations could be corrected, in the days and weeks ahead.

Already the balance of power has shifted 180 degrees. We have new protagonists in the play. While some of the older hero’s are dead, others may soon have to take a detour or follow the tracks leading to the exit door. Some of our hero’s have grown horns while others developed a halo. Such is the nature of politics in this part of the world. A profile update of Pakistan’s most powerful protagonists:

Nawaz Sharif: The quintessential Punjabi [Power house].
Fabulously wealthy. He and his extended family made a huge fortune during his days as the powerful finance minister under the dictator Zia. Sharif’s family originally migrated from Kashmir, made its fortune in steel [Ittefaq Industries] before moving into sugar and textiles. Most of Pakistan's political elite has tended to come from the agricultural, rather than industrial sector, so Nawaz is an exception.

The Biryani-loving Sharif – also called Main sahib – used to talk in chaste Punjabi and Urdu and was considered something of a conservative. His exile [which he blames Musharraf for] did two good things to him. He got an image make-over and improved upon his English. Sharif is now clad mostly in Seville row tweeds and has a new hair crop, thanks to a quick hair transplant in London. Not surprising from a man, who wanted an amendment in constitution of Pakistan during his second term as PM, to designate himself as the ‘Amir-ul-Momineen’ [Leader of the faithful], a politically loaded Islamic title.

Asif Zardari: Mischievously yours [Backroom dude].
Ex-polo player, horse-riding, ex-playboy. Zardari is considered to be a corrupt guy and was jailed on murder and other charges for eight long years. He was charged with getting his brother-in-law Murtaza [BB’s bro] bumped off. Nothing was ever proved but Zardari remains a much controversial chap.

Asif grew up in Karachi and did most of his schooling at St Patrick's School -- ironically also the alma mater of President Pervez Musharraf. He belongs to a ‘lesser Sindhi tribe’ and surprised the whole of Pakistan and the world at large -- when he married Benazir Bhutto [from the super rich ‘superior Sindhi tribe’] – heiress to the magical Bhutto legacy.

Zardari is given to rhetoric and pretence. He remains a survivor with a penchant for politicking.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim: The quiet loyalist [PM in waiting]
Rare breed. A squeaky clean Pakistani politician known for his dignified demeanor. Always stood besides Benazir. On her last day he was by her, like a shadow. Even as she was shot, Fahim sahib was in the SUV, like always. Offered the Prime Minister’s post by Mush in the past, Fahim, the true family loyalist, out rightly rejected the offer.

Fahim is a feudal lord. His father Makhdoom Talib-ul-Maula, the spiritual leader of Sarwari Jammat of Pakistan, was one of the founding members of the PPP — which was founded in 1969 by the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Venerated as a peer [spiritual head] of Halla Sharif, Hyderabad, Fahim is elected from Mathihari in Sindh and has an excellent understanding of Pakistan politics. However his heart is in poetry. Loves Rumi on quiet evenings. No wonder his admirers call him, ‘he whose presence brings good harvests’.

President Musharraf: The fall guy [Tough nut]
Ex flamboyant General, Attaturk quoting Prez of Pakistan. Frank. Still thinks out of the box. Wonderful fashion sense. Once loved for the freshness he promised to instill in the debilitatingly corrupt Pakistani political soil, he has since become the worst cynic of his country and went on to commit some humongous mistakes. He sacked the entire judiciary, gagged the media and imposed Martial law -- a move which badly backfired on him. To his credit, he fought Islamists and flushed radicals out of Islamabad’s Red Mosque.

Then something unthinkable happened. Benazir Bhutto was killed on his watch. Right outside the military HQ in Rawalpindi. That evening marked Musharraf’s countdown also. Elections 2008 ousted his party called the Q league. There is no love lost for him. The media continues to grill him. Human rights fellas want nothing less than his scalp. Yet he continues to hang onto power rather shamelessly.

It looks like an ego-fight for him now. Musharraf’s days are clearly numbered.

There are other players at the hustlings who are going to be increasingly relevent in the new dispensation -- The supremely gutsy Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan [PPP]: Dark-horse, the tough Sharif bro Shahbaz [PML-N]: Likely CM of Punjab, the tall Pashtoon Asfandyar Wali Khan [ANP]: NWFP chieftan and key ally at the centre.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Democracy's Revenge

First things first. Elections in Pakistan were fair. There was no pre-poll rigging. Mush, the scheming dictator, as the mainstream media loves to dub him, is after all no Gen Zia. While Zia was a rude Islamist, Musharraf is wordly and smart. Despite his liberal credentials, Mush is nonetheless overtly ambitious. Methinks he read the public mood. There could be other reasons – No rigging could have worked because the victory margins of the winning candidates have been too wide. The army remained neutral under Gen Kiyani, who though a Mush loyalist, is not politically inclined. The press kept its vigil. World capitals -- notably Washington DC and Riyad -- watched carefully. Most analysts however concede that Musharraf knew that were he to rig these elections, the backlash could be terrible, something he cannot withstand.

Coming to the final outcome of Elections 2008 – I was a little generous perhaps with PPP. I predicted 110. They got 88. If we add the women’s and minorities reserved seats, they add up to a decent 113. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N did exceptionally well. Since PML is essentially a centre-right party, election boycott by some right wing parties like the Jamat-i-Islami helped Nawaz. They lapped an impressive 65. Add reserved seats and they touch 84. It is a personal vindication for the man, who was kicked around at Lahore International airport on Musharraf’s orders – upon his return from exile -- only a few months back. Now it is Nawaz Sharif’s time to get even. I expect political maturity from Main sahib. However he may settle for nothing less than Mush’s exit. Sharif can always have those lowly chaps at Lahore International airport grilled over hot coals – Pakistan style.


Elections 2008 shattered a few myths. There was no sympathy vote. People exercised their franchise mostly on ethnic lines. The voter maturity level was very high. People liked Benazir but not her hubby, who remains a much polarizing figure. Despite him, PPP proved to be a party which transcended political boundaries, like always. Dawn, Pakistan most respected newspaper puts it succinctly, ‘PPP has managed the highest number of seats in the National Assembly and not thanks to Sindh alone. Its enviable comeback is owed to a strong showing in all four provinces. Pity that Benazir did not live to see the day.’ PPP remains party of the masses in Pak.

Now the game of courtship begins. PPP is expected to join hands with Nawaz to form a consensus government. Already the era of coalition governments [ like India] has started in Pakistan. We will increasingly get to hear lexicon replete with words like allies, tie-ups et al in the days to come. Together with likeminded guys like ANP, headed by the pashtoon Asfandar Wali Khan [grandson of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan], PPP-PML-N combine can form a stable government. There are differences though – while the PPP appears conciliatory towards Mush, Nawaz is hawkish. [Mush's exit can mean re-alignment of equations for US, who back him at the moment] Restoration of the Nov 3 judiciary could be another sticking point. Since Mush is in no mood to go – though morally he must quit -- I think a confrontational attitude is going to harm the alliance. A more nuanced, step-by-step approach is a smart idea to take the Prez on.

However the task to cobble the next government is uphill. Both PPP and PML-N may have to shed their baggages and past bickering. Unfortunately that may not be very easy. They are ideologically diametrical [PPP: centre-left; PML-N: centre-right] but look headed for confluence. Guardian UK analysizes this thus:
The classic PML voter is urban, lower middle class, relatively educated, with a world-view informed by Pakistani nationalism and a very contemporary moderate Islamism. Nawaz is not particularly politically sophisticated, speaks Urdu or Punjabi not the elite's English but reads local newspapers and watches the new satellite television channels.

By contrast, the PPP's voter, by and large, lives in a different world, a world that was dominant up to a decade ago. It is a world that is much more rural, more deferential, more rooted in tradition. Its nationalism is less marked and its Islam less influenced by the international trends of the last 30 years and thus much less politicised and much more based in centuries-old Sufi traditions.

In hindshight Elections 2008 have been significant for Pak in more than one way. They come at a time of extreme radicalism. The state of Pakistan came close to brink many times in the past few years. The anarchy saw hundreds of innocent Pakistanis die. It witnessed the despicable assassination of Pakistan’s most promising leader. The results, which many read as a referendum against Musharraf and Islamists [both Musharraf’s party PML-Q and Islamists across the political spectrum got a drubbing of their life]. These elections have also firmly established that Pakistan is fed up with the military boots. The verdict is clear. More than anything else the results signal return of the much cherished democracy.

There is an African adage, 'However dark the night, dawn will break'.
Benazir must be turning in her ambrosial grave. It is her dawn.
She has won, even in death.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Pakistan’s tryst with destiny

There were many fake starts. Dates were scheduled and cancelled. Pakistan procrastinated on its polls multiple times. Its powerful army refused to budge. Then suddenly the tables turned. The lawyers rebelled. Its civilian leaders got the much needed political fuel. Long exiled, they cantered back to their motherland. And just as people felt a glimmer of hope, there was blood. Slayers of the worst order roamed at will. Soon they lay the most sinister ambush and slaughtered Pakistan’s most darling daughter – Benazir. There was shock and blue funk. My eyes got moist.

Yet hope lingered on. The battle betwixt the slayers and people continued. Meantime Musharraf's ratings slumped. The world said its obituaries for Pakistan. There was a talk of de-nuking the only Islamic nation with the big bomb. Anarchy reigned supreme in her alleys. The country bled profusely. Yet her people stood firm. New election dates were set. February 18, 2007. A new countdown for Pakistan’s tryst with destiny began.

Almost everything in these elections has been unprecedented. Such is the atmosphere of fear that most candidates chose not to address electoral rallies – which are so key to elections in this part of the world -- and instead campaigned through mass media. TV and newspapers stood up against staggering odds – despite a gag order -- to bring out truth to people. Legal luminaries like Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan faced house arrest for months. Yet the resolve of people did not falter. For once it looks like the people’s power is going to prevail.

However the road to democracy is still fraught with danger. Musharraf – once revered -- and now hated guts continues to make threatening overtures. The Sharif brothers’ nomination papers were rejected outright and now Mush says his party -- the PML-Q --will win this election. The statement comes from an authority which is supposed to be plain neutral. In any case, neutrality looks like in suspended animation in Pakistan. Right now -- the judiciary, election commission and local governments – look suspect.

The fear of rigging is real. PML-Q in all objectivity cannot garner more than 20% of the votes. A free, frank and fair election is most likely to produce PPP – Bhutto’s party – as the winner. Nawaz Sharif's PML-N is another strong entity. For a simple majority in Pakistan, a party needs 136 seats in the senate. Since the Bhutto aura is expansive in Sind and her brutal murder a clear emotive issue, PPP is likely to lap 50 seats from the Bhutto land. Punjab – 148 seats up for grabs – will be crucial. Nawaz is popular after his recent dignified posturing. The wily Chaudary brothers [generational supporters of army] are organized and Mush-backed. So Punjab can end up with a fractured mandate. Let’s assume 65+ to PML-N, 20+ to PML-Q and 30+ to PPP. That leaves out NWFP [called Sarhad] and Balochistan.

PPP is the only political outfit with a nation wide appeal and logically it may suffice with 15 odd seats in NWFP and another 7-8 in Balochistan and FATA put together. This is a realistic estimate: Single largest party PPP 110+ seats. I reckon an alliance with Nawaz [who may lap touching 100 odd seats] or one of the smaller parties – like the MQM/JUI – may get it past simple majority.

Of course I am being speculative here and the end results may vary. Mush may rig big time to get his cronies back in power or PPP may simply sweep these elections. Both situations are hypothetical and probable.

For the future of Pakistan and for results of the most watched, debated, bloody fight in its chequered history -- pockmarked by chaos, coups and clamor -- we wait for a few more hours.

I hope Pakistan’s prayers are answered this time.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Love ~ in the times of metro and malls

Like every year 2/14 has been special. Natives call it Valentine’s day. Love day. Every teenager -- and most adults cued-in to the big media – wait anxiously for the special day to dawn. Bakeries bake hot cakes, mostly shaped like a human heart and balloon sellers do brisk business. Malls throw open their electronic doors and the ubiquitous metro is crammed full with mushy-eyed, love birds. Love is literally littered everywhere.

Like every year, 2/14 event this year was practiced with much markedness. Everyone was out. Cupid hung from roof eaves and café’ joints. Upon staircases and newly-painted park benches [damn the paint]. It was almost carnival like in the new-age malls where everything possible was made out like a heart – streamers, coffee froth, shoe laces, belts -- while people en masse held hands. Completely lost- in-love, made-in-heaven couples strolled about. Queues for movie halls [where cornflake boxes are heart-like] this year got more serpentine than ever.

I am at loss to fathom – or explain -- this sentient spectacle. Why should we go out in the open and walk with hips joined like Siamese twins on this particular day? Why must we sit in the gardens – which are so filled with humanity on 2/14 – and flirt with each other's locks for everyone to ogle? What is so special about this day that we must mandatory wolf heart-shaped pancakes [ridiculously priced]? Why should we practise our emotions like a mass ritual?

Love is such an uncommon sentiment. We love people for what they are. The feelings are oft reciprocal. Erich Segal, author of Love Story [New York Times top selling work of fiction for all of 1970 in the United States, the book was translated into more than 20 languages worldwide. Motion picture of the same name was the number one box office attraction] writes about love thus: Love comes quietly, without banners or flashing lights. If you hear bells, get your ears checked.

Love is for most of the times an inexplicable phenomenon. It is romance, it is fun and it is madness – yeah. But do we need one day in an entire calendar year to express it? Isn’t love eternal? Do cakes and cut flowers and candies and coffee constitute love? The curt answer is ‘No’. The problem with us is that we are madly aping the west. As a society we have failed to balance the cultural onslaught. In doing so, we have been completely overwhelmed by market forces who give us only two options -- either go out and splurge or feel wanting.

No wonder the idiot box is relentless and the newspaper columns persistent. If you don’t go out and participate in the emotional-make believe pageant, you are doomed! In times of globalization and consumerism, the wholesale import of culture/fests do not come as a shock to me. Commodifying emotions do.

I reckon love is more than just ribbons, bouquets and the love panoply on sale. We have come to such a pass where we need to shell out quick bucks [and that is the real reason for this show-boat] to express our love. Love has -- alas -- been reduced to packages and gifts! The great French dramatist Jean Anouilh waxes eloquent,” Love is, above all else, the gift of oneself’.

Happy V-day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Why I support Obama

The American electoral system is a little confounding. In the run up to the eagerly awaited abdication of George II -- towards the end of this year -- we already have a plethora of terms to confuse us – caucuses, delegates, super-delegates, super-Tuesday, primary, convention and the like. In reality the whole mechanism -- along with the rich electoral lexicon -- is a democratic formula to elect the new president of the US of A. As the battle for the hot-seat begins to get shrill and Democrats and Republicans prepare for a final face-off in the epic duet, I take my pick – Barack Obama.

If I had my druthers, I would pick Obama anytime. I like the man because he stands for the lowly as much as the strong. He is for hope as much as he practices realism. The youth love him. The liberal intellectuals admire him. The African Americans- who had for years been ignored by and consequently disinterested in the political process see a promise emerging. As Dave Linorff brilliantly argues in Counter Punch: Whatever his [Obama’s] personal politics, his candidacy is genuinely igniting a wave of passionate support across the nation among people -- particularly the young.

I root for Barack because amidst all the vainglory and money muscle, his is a message of conviction. As Hillary continues to take crucial leads among the mainstream, white-majority states, politically important Hispanic voters, policy wonks and the blue-collar Americans, Obama continues to be chivalrously relevant. Although the high octane speeches and corporate clout may make you wonder, ‘Can Barak Obama ever beat Hillary Clinton?’ Hillary -- of political acumen, of Capitol Hill expertise, of deep pockets, of spin doctors -- with everyone from New York Times to neocon writers endorsing her high-profile candidature – to Obama – a courageous, quintessential American who reminds you of the youthful exuberance of JFK. Though it looks like the biblical David versus Goliath, we remember Goliath was a 40 point favorite over David.

Obama is anti-war. He believes Saddam had no WMDs and the Bush invasion was a strategic blunder. No foreign policy simpleton, he advocates a gradual pull-out from Iraq. Obama told Dartmouth College late last year that it is important to tell the American people the truth. ‘Military commanders indicate that they can safely get combat troops out at the pace of one to two brigades a month. That is the quickest pace that we can do it safely. I have said I will begin immediately and we will do it as rapidly as we can.’ The world urgently needs such conciliatory voices.

The politically mature Clintons’, sensing that the Obama phenomenon is perhaps too strong to go away, recently launched a negative tirade against Barack. Obama kept his focus and refused to mud-sling. He continued to talk hope, counter lies with facts and challenge dissonance with unity. Mildly chaffing the political heavyweight, Obama quipped with his knee buckling smile intact, "Hillary Clinton. She’ll say anything, and change nothing. It’s time to turn the page." Almost immediately the Hillary Camp pulled the negative ads. Time we require a transformational figure, as the head of the world’s most powerful state, rather than a divisive one.

Obama is for a better, cleaner, safer world. He is among the most passionate, compelling, knowledgable leaders with a commitment on clean fuel policy, emission norms and environment protection. He supports Al-Gore’s efforts on climate change. Barack lauded the Nobel peace prize 2007 to Gore. ‘By having the courage to challenge the skeptics in Washington and lead on the climate crisis facing our planet, Al Gore has advanced the cause of peace and richly deserves this reward,’ Obama wrote.

With little or no regard for the must-do's and must-have's in American politics today -- brash rhetoric, electoral frauds, Israel-appeasement, corporate bucks, lobbying, media trials and extreme stances, Barack stands out as an optimist. Rather than scare-mongering and threatening sovereign governments, Obama connects through dialogue and engagement. Quite unlike the ‘I-support-you-because-your-dad-is-rich’ culture, he believes in inclusiveness. Obama truly transcends political pettiness.

He is America’s choice for frankness and candor. For that, and for the fact that an underdog, a first time black senator, with no god-fathers in Washington DC, has the chutzpah to take on the high and mighty and face them in an intellectual, political and cultural battle of the century, I support Barack Hussein Obama.