Friday 24 December 2010

The best “Muslim” policy for India (PO)

M D Nalapat

It used to be said that Joe Biden was the only US Senator who was not a millionaire. Now, he is the Vice-President. Unlike Dick Cheney, who was in the same office when huge contracts got awarded in Iraq to a company that he had been closely associated with, Biden stays clear of commerce. Had he been a politician in India, here too he would have been the exception. For there is no easier way to fabulous riches in India than through politics. In the present Manmohan Singh government, almost all the ministers are super-affluent. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar (the President of the International Cricket Council) is even richer than former PM of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif or present President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari, as are several of his Cabinet colleagues (even though most conceal their wealth through “benami” entities). Unlike most other politicians, Pawar is open about his wealth and his lifestyle, perhaps the reason why he is still popular in his home state of Maharashtra - the state that has given the world Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar.

In a polity which has multiple parties, even a 3% margin can make the difference between electoral defeat and a landslide. This is the reason why parties other than the few “Hindutva” parties ( who may be compared to the “Islam Pasanda” parties in Pakistan) are so eager to win over the Muslims. Now comprising 16% of the population of the Union of India, the Muslim community has understood the power of the ballot, and participates in the electoral process far more effectively than many other communities. The problem facing the Congress Party is that the Muslim vote is divided between itself and other non-Hindutva parties, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Janata Dal (United). Unless the Congress Party can convince the Muslim community that it can represent its interests better than any other, Rahul Gandhi’s dream of ensuring a majority in Parliament for his party will remain unattained.

Just as Bilawal Bhutto will inherit the Pakistan Peoples Party, so will Rahul Gandhi take over the Congress Party after the retirement of his mother Sonia Gandhi. It must be said that Sonia has ensured that the party remain wedded to her branch of the Nehru family, and not slip into the hands of outsiders. In 1997, when then Congress President Sitaram Kesri came back from the toilet during a meeting of the Congress Working Committe, he discovered to his shock that in the twelve minutes that he had been absent from the meeting, the CWC had ousted him and brought Sonia Gandhi in as the new chief. Kesri had no option but to leave the office, his political career at an end. Since then, Sonia Gandhi has ensured a firm grip over the Congress Party, and has since then been able to change Cabinet ministers and Chief Ministers at will. Any sign of disloyalty to her and her two children Rahul and Priyanka are punished with immediate removal from office. Because their power and prosperity depends on their obedience to Sonia, the Congress Party “leaders” (although this name may be inaccurate, given that they are all essentially courtiers trembling in fear of “Madam”) seek to diligently obey her commands. Few of these seem to have much relation to governance, for the administration of India has gone from bad to awful during the six years that Sonia Gandhi has (in effect) led the government.

The super-rich are not complaining. Indeed, they publicly regard the Congress Party as “Hamara Dukaan” (Our Shop). Huge conglomerates have been speculating in food and vegetables, sending prices through the roof without a whimper of protest from the government. Road and highway construction has slowed to a crawl, while their quality has sharply deteriorated. Procedures have become even more cumbersome. Recently, some individuals who had registered a company some years ago wanted to shut it down. During its existence, the company did not make a single transaction. The directors submitted applications for shutting it down in Delhi, paying for the appropriate stamp paper. Months later, their application was rejected because “the stamp paper was not purchased from the same state as where the company is registered”. Each bureaucratic hurdle means more palms to be greased, which is why a career in administration in India is the second-fastest route to riches, after politics. Rahul Gandhi is working on crafting a plan that would ensure a majority for his party in the next elections. Key to this is winning over the Muslims, which is why he has been making extra efforts to convince the community that he is their trusted ally. He has gone to the extent of saying that some Hindu groups are even more dangerous than the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a statement that has hurt his popularity not just with Hindus but with Muslims as well, few of whom have any sympathy for the Lashkar. Although they keep demanding that the international community delink India from Pakistan, yet many non-Hindutva politicians implicitly link the two countries together,and make the (wrong) assumption that Pakistan is a major factor in the consciousness of the Muslim community in India. In order to show the Muslims that the Samajwadi Party (SP) cares for them much more than the Congress does, an SP leader (Azam Khan) recently denied that Kashmir was a part of India, to the horror of his audience. These days, as they spend more time in Dubai than they do in Delhi, several politicians get confused and sometimes forget that they are in India, the way Azam Khan did when he made that statement, one tailor-made for the BJP and the Shiv Sena, which lost no time in condemning it as anti-national. A few hours after saying in a public eeting - and on television - that Kashmir was not a part of India, Azam Khan realized that he was not in the UAE but in India, and immediately retracted the comment.

Because they spend so little time in India, senior politicians in this country fail to understand that India is not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. In both these countries,Muslims are treated as superior to people belonging to other communities.In Saudi Arabia, the compensation given to a Muslim male is much more than that given to a non-Muslim male or a female. Visitors from Pakistan, living as they do in a country which is open about being a Muslim state, are often horrified by the fact that Indian Muslims have to live in a country where pork and alchohol are freely available, and where more women wear denims than put on the burkha. It is this columnist’s view that it is wrong on the part of state authorities in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan to impose dress codes on people, and who use the laws of the state to prevent alchohol from being sold. There is a difference between doing something out of conviction and doing something for fear of police conviction. In countries that legally ban alchohol, the liquid is freely available. And who has not been in aircraft leaving Saudi Arabia and Iran, where ladies throw away their veils as soon as they get airborne and disembark in jeans and even in short pants? Such matters are best left to individual conscience rather than to law, which is why it is a pity that even in India, there are states such as Kashmir and Gujarat that seek to legislate behaviour in the Saudi or Iranian manner.

While a few Muslims in India are nostalgic about countries where Muslims are given more privileges than those of other faiths ( provided they abide by very strict dress and other codes), almost all of India’s vibrant Muslim community is happy to belong to a secular state. They seek no special privilege, only security and the chance to improve their lives. Hence, the efforts by politicians such as Azam Khan to make the Muslims of India feel different from the rest of the population are likely to get a cold reception. It is a treat to watch young Muslim girls going to school and college, laughing and walking with students who are Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh rather than move separately from the others. Two days ago, in Mumbai, another Indian boy made history. 13-year old Armaan Gaffar struck 77 boundaries in 490 balls before getting out at a score of 498. There is no doubt that he may become the next Sachin Tendulkar, something that will make his uncle, Test cricketeerr Wasim Jafar, proud.

Armaan is on the way to becoming an Indian icon, the way tennis sensation Sania Mirza is a national icon. Sania exemplifies the fact that it is possible to be a good Muslim and a modern person. Indeed, throughout India, Muslims are emerging as among the most forward-looking of communities, working to ensure good education and healthcare. An example is in school educationion. A top construction magnate in Bangalore, Irfan Razack, has teamed up with Nooraine Fazal, a young Muslim lady (who used to work in Reuters Hong Kong) to set up Inventure Academy, a school that trains modern minds to question and create. The atmosphere at the school is liberal without slackening of discipline, the way it should be. Sadly, rather than seek to win over such Muslims - who comprise the overwhelming majority – several political leaders who are more familiar with London or Miami than with India chase after conservative fanatics, who seek to box Muslims off from the modern world and thereby preventing them from competing. The best “Muslim” policy for an Indian leader would be to promote inclusive economic progress, but for this to happen, that leader would have to do away with the stifling system of regulations that generate bribes for officials and politicians but tears for others.

Any country that emphasizes religion and which seeks to use the force of law to enforce codes best left to individual consciences is in danger of falling behind. In India, the Muslim community has begun to shun those who shed crocodile tears for them. A few months ago, in Bihar, the ruling coalition secured an impressive victory, because it is running a reasonably honest and efficient administration. That is all that the people seek. And that is what politicians refuse to give them.

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