Thursday, October 19, 2006

Courts of history (October 20, 2006)

Symptoms of a strategic impasse on both sides of the Atlantic

By Swapan Dasgupta

History and nostalgia have been recurrent themes in the works of Alan Bennett, arguably the most compelling playwright in contemporary Britain. In Forty Years On, centred on the annual school play in a minor public school in the Britain of 1968, there is a scene involving a session of the “court of history.” On trial is former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, accused of being beguiled by Hitler—a “scallywag” with a moustache—at Munich in the autumn of 1938. Chamberlain’s defence that he was the first British Prime Minister to fly in an aeroplane, and that too at the age of 69, is dismissed by the judge as being worthy of only a footnote. Nor does the defence counsel’s plea that the hapless Chamberlain was born in Birmingham cut any ice with the court. After peremptorily dismissing the defendant’s final plea—that he died shortly after Munich—the verdict of history is pronounced in a short, two-word sentence: “perpetual ignominy.” Chamberlain protests loudly that “the sentence is impossible. There is no verb in it” but he is again brushed aside.

Of all the post-Victorian prime ministers of Britain, no one has been more decried by both history and historians than Chamberlain. Others may have been guilty of other misdeeds—Arthur Balfour for shameless cronyism, David Lloyd George for ethical promiscuity, Winston Churchill for adventurism and Margaret Thatcher for uprooting consensus for ideology, but Chamberlain’s desperate desire to avert another European war in 1938 has been equated with the most heinous of all moral failings—cowardice.

It is interesting to view history’s rounded denunciation of Chamberlain with an emerging judgment of US President George W. Bush and his close ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Chamberlain was anxious to avert a direct conflict with European fascism for two reasons: British public opinion was fiercely against another long-drawn war; and the economy wasn’t strong enough to withstand a conflict. Even those venerable patricians who loathed Hitler and everything Nazism stood for, were candid enough to admit that Britain would not be able to hold on to the Empire in the aftermath of a long war. Post-War developments quite clearly showed that the fear was entirely legitimate.

Nor should the weight of public opinion be discounted. The deaths and suffering after four years of inconclusive trench warfare scarred all sections of British society. By the conventional wisdom of the times, another European conflict was something that had to be averted at all costs. This was the reason why Chamberlain’s “peace with honour” was so enthusiastically endorsed by the British people in 1938. Indeed, till the end of the phoney war in 1940, the anti-appeasement brigade led by Churchill and sundry Communist intellectuals were labelled adventurers by sensible people. Having burnt its fingers over Belgium 25 years ago, ordinary Britons had no real desire of playing crusaders in Czechoslovakia and Poland. When war became inevitable in 1939, Britain joined in grudgingly and without the jingoistic exuberance which greeted the beginning of hostilities against the Kaiser.

The awkward run-up to World War II has, predictably, evaporated from public memory. Yet, there is bitter irony in the fact that whereas the ignominy attached to Chamberlain persists, there is growing disquiet on both sides of the Atlantic at the Anglo-American war on terror. The Iraq war was always contentious and Britain’s involvement was never fully endorsed by its people. But grudging acquiescence has today yielded way to fierce opposition.

The symptoms of a strategic impasse are there for everyone to see. The neo-conservative project of force-feeding the Middle East with democracy is in a shambles. With the death toll in Iraq rising each day, there is horror when “experts” claim that more than half-million people have died in the conflict which began with the search for Saddam Hussein’s elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction. Public opinion polls in the run-up to November’s mid-term elections suggest that Bush’s Republicans will lose control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Intrepid journalists such as Bob Woodward have documented the disarray within the Bush Administration and argued that the people at the top are in a state of denial over a war that has come to be acknowledged as unwinnable. In Britain, where the conflict has forced Labour’s most adroit leader to announce his premature retirement, the Chief of General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has publicly called for Britain to get the hell out of Iraq—an unprecedented step for a military man.

The Iraq effect is being felt all over the world. In Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban has clearly smelt the possibility of overturning the Hamid Karzai regime. NATO had one hell of a time trying to replenish its forces in Afghanistan with another 2,500 trained soldiers—it had to finally settle for Estonian participation. Pakistan, which was forced into the war on terror at gunpoint five years ago, has again begun dreaming of recovering its strategic depth in Afghanistan. Accurately gauging the fierce anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, it is quietly extending a helping hand to the Taliban and nurturing those Islamists who see future opportunities in India.

So debilitating has been the Iraq effect on Anglo-American morale that a crazy North Korean dictator has chosen the moment to make his country a nuclear-weapons state. Pyongyang is fully aware that the bleeding in Iraq has made it impossible for Bush to even consider another regime-change expedition against the demented Kim Jong-Il.

There is no consistency in the way people react to situations. If Chamberlain was pilloried by the “court of history” for doing too little and leaving the war against fascism for too late, Bush and Blair stand accused of trying to do too much and too soon.

Ironically, the very same arguments which were used to justify appeasement in the 1930s have re-appeared in calls for a retreat from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the iniquity of the Treaty of Versailles was used to press for a more sympathetic understanding of Hitler’s territorial designs, Zionism is being held out as the explanation for Islamist anger. And, just as one Tory back-bencher blamed the cultural deficiency of the Nazis on the absence of fox-hunting, Islamofascism is being attributed to veiled women traipsing through the Midlands.

“Orientalism” and “moral relativism” didn’t exist as trendy catch phrases in the Thirties, but there was always the expedient willingness to let “bloody foreigners” get on with their strange ways as long as they left you alone. John Betjeman may have had tongue firmly in cheek when he wished the bombs to fall anywhere except 189 Cadogan Square but decapitations in Kandahar and bombings in Mumbai can be tucked into the inside pages as long as there are no would-be suicide bombers lurking about Finsbury Park and High Wycombe.

The war on terror has weighed the multicultural man’s burden and found it deceptively lightweight.

It’s the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. The departure from Baghdad and Kabul will be highly spin-doctored but it still won’t be Dunkirk. In all likelihood it will be another last plane out of Saigon. In time, the West will get its homeland security by coming down hard on the potential fifth-columnists in Bradford, Leeds and Tower Hamlets. Sheer expediency will force radicals of Pakistani origin to re-establish the “covenant of security” which was broken by the Al Qaeda.

The implications are obvious: India will soon have to fight its own war against a force oozing with confidence, having worsted two superpowers in rapid succession.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 20, 2006)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

PM foreign to real issues (October 15, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

We are in that phase of a government’s life when prime ministers, and the retinue around them, start experiencing the monotony of national existence. When that happens, convention demands that the gaze of the Prime Minister’s Office is conveniently diverted to “pressing international concerns”—with pleasurable consequences.

For the past two months, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has displayed an over-weaning anxiety to optimise his air-miles. First, there was the long haul to Brazil followed by the quixotic sojourn in Havana—the high point being Fidel Castro’s reminiscences of PL-480 shipments to India. Then there was the Gandhigiri trip to South Africa—a visit which intrigued the hosts and confused the Zulu protestors in Durban. (Question for Kaun Banega Crorepati: Which Indian Prime Minister in recent times hasn’t visited the railway station in Pietermaritzburg?)

Last week, the Prime Minister was in England to collect an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. True, there was also a courtesy call on Tony Blair and the mandatory conviviality with the same businessmen he met two days before in Mumbai, but these were obligatory add-ons to confer an official gloss on a worthwhile private visit.

Yet, there is no need to be accusatory. Prime Ministers have made foreign visits for far flimsier reasons. In 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee spent two agreeable days in Cyprus, en-route to an avoidable India-EU summit in Copenhagen. The only apparent reason was to release a Greek translation of his poetry!

Of course, Manmohan could have made much more of his well-deserved honour from Cambridge. After all, how many Indian notables can match his scholarly credentials? Unlike him, most of those using the prefix Doctor possess honorary degrees.

Last year in Oxford he provoked xenophobes at home with a subtle endorsement of the “coconut” trail, his thank you speech. Last week’s Cambridge performance was unmentionably soporific. It was dotted with the pedestrian eloquence of the JNU kind: “The gap between the rich and the poor is widening… My appeal is that developed countries should not allow short-term national interests to prevail at the cost of promoting freer trade and combating poverty. The prosperity of so many cannot be sacrificed for protecting the interests of so few.” There were also the adulatory references to Jawaharlal Nehru—the head of the family—and Joan Robinson, the socialist economist whose dogmatic influence set the Indian economy back by many decades.

No wonder the Cambridge address secured the ungrudging approval of the certifying authority of progressivism: The Hindu.

Then it was off to what business journalists call the Nokia junket. Normally Finland is not on any itinerary but this year Helsinki was hosting yet another India-EU summit.

A prime ministerial visit to a Scandinavian country is best avoided. It is one thing for the Indian Prime Minister to engage periodically—even if it is by way of a courtesy call en-route to Cambridge—with someone like Blair who knows India, acknowledges its global significance and, most important, is totally at ease with Indian sensitivities; dealing with sanctimonious Scandinavians is a different ball game. Being unable to comprehend the clutter of Indian democracy and the array of the Indian experience, the countries of Northern Europe have been accustomed to treating India on par with say, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, bywords for ethnic strife and poverty. As exporters of conflict resolution and foreign aid, they have never quite grasped India’s nuclear imperatives nor really understood why President George Bush insists on treating New Delhi differently from Pyongyang.

Four years ago, Vajpayee was subjected to a gratuitous Viking sermon on Kashmir and last week Manmohan had to undergo the ignominy of the Finnish Prime Minister sitting in judgment on India’s nuclear programme. The issue is not why Finns are the way they are; the problem lies in India running after foreign testimonials. To justify a grand visit with full entourage, the flatterers prepared the curious headline: “Finland supports Indo-US nuke deal”; what they got instead was “Finland snubs India.”

Pity no one asked the Finns about India’s permanent membership of the UNSC!

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 15, 2006)

Monday, October 09, 2006

The rebel economist (October 10, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Not being a betting man, it is impossible to judge the track record of the US-based Thompson Scientific in predicting Nobel Prize winners. In anticipation of the Swedish Academy’s, the organisation has suggested that the Indian-born Professor Jagdish Bhagwati is, among others, being seriously considered for this year’s Nobel Prize for economics.

If the past is any guide, the prize for economics is not automatically awarded to individuals who have made seminal academic contributions. While scholars who have facilitated understanding of, among other things, risk and prices through complex mathematical models have naturally been honoured, others have been rewarded for what can best be called lifetime contributions. It all depends on the global environment and the priorities of the jury. Purist economists, for example, don’t seem to rate Amartya Sen’s academic contributions too highly. At the same time, everyone acknowledges that Sen’s writings and interventions have been influential in shaping government policy and in reaffirming the status of economics as a human rather than mathematical endeavour.

I leave it to specialists to evaluate the category of Bhagwati’s contributions. However, the jurors in Stockholm may find it reassuring that there will be considerable satisfaction in all right-thinking circles in India if Bhagwati’s name features in the final list. If Bhagwati’s contribution is acknowledged by the trustees of Alfred Nobel’s legacy, it will be an important step in rectifying the intellectual imbalance created by the award to Sen.

Last week, for example, a beleaguered UPA Government announced plans to resurrect the 35-year-old garibi hatao slogan of Indira Gandhi, as the preface for another 20-point populist package. A Nobel Prize for Bhagwati at such a juncture will be a strong indictment of this handouts culture.

To the generation of Indians which came into its own in the period roughly coinciding with the socialist heydays of Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, the name of Jagdish Bhagwati had a special significance. At a time when a planned economy based on draconian government controls, reckless nationalisation, crippling shortages and heady welfarism was the rage in Coffee House circles, Bhagwati was the dissident. His relentless critique of Indian planning and socialism were akin to heretical tracts. They were quietly appreciated, but out of the earshot of the socialist stalwarts who dominated the university faculties. My friends who studied economics used to say that reading Bhagwati was essential for understanding the grim realities of India but irrelevant if your focus was on high marks—the examiners were invariably leftists or worse. The words of one Communist charlatan “If you want marks, you must read Marx” rankled in the minds of the ambitious.

It was this stifling environment that made Bhagwati pack up his bags and depart for the US where he was more appreciated. He was, in many ways, an intellectual exile from socialist India. In A Stream of Windows, Bhagwati wrote about this oppressive climate: “What led India down this road? Some of the ideas came … from the politics of Harold Laski … and from the economics of Joan Robinson et al… But it must also be said that, if the seeds were planted in England, much pruning was done in India itself. There was substantial, homegrown culpability on the part of India’s economists… Faced by the mounting evidence of the bankruptcy of India’s policies, the economists generally dug in their heels, often exercising their theoretical talents to rationalise what was nonsensical. It has been well said that any elementary mistake in economics can turned into a profound truth by ingeniously making the right assumptions to deduce what you want. So India suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premises.”

Bhagwati was never mealy-mouthed in his polemical engagements. He wielded his pen to devastating effect—an attribute that didn’t endear him to the socialist time-servers. He even named Sen as one of the main perpetrators of this intellectual deceit.

At Columbia, Bhagwati was primarily preoccupied with issues of world trade. However, when Manmohan Singh began dismantling the inefficient control economy in 1991, Bhagwati was enthused. In a scathing attack, he described the alternative welfarism propagated by Sen and Jean Dreze as a “throwback to the obscurantism that shielded the inefficient policies from the brunt of early criticisms.”

As productive India trembles at the thought of any reincarnation of Indira’s socialism, an honour for Bhagwati will be comforting to all those have despaired of India settling for the Third World when it should have been reaching for the sky.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, October 10, 2006)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

That sinking feeling (October 8, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

No amount of ham-fisted spin-doctoring and the desperate resurrection of a 35-year-old slogan can take away from what is fast becoming an open secret: the floundering government of Manmohan Singh. In the early days of the UPA Government, it made sense to contrast the sincerity of the Prime Minister with the blundering ways of his coalition colleagues. Today, there is not even that fig-leaf. By desperately trying to bush aside taunts and show that he is indeed leadership material, the Prime Minister has exposed his own inadequacies and ineptitude. Nothing demonstrates this better than his laughable attempts at diplomacy.

The evidence is there in full public gaze. It has taken not even a fortnight for the contrived Havana bonhomie with Pakistan to be overwhelmed by the slippery General’s cigar smoke. Even if there are some missing links in the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s assertion that the July 11 blasts were the handiwork of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and local traitors, the implication of his charge that the whole massacre was conducted under the benign supervision of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is grave. Since the preliminary findings of the Mumbai police inquiry were available to the Prime Minister and his National Security Adviser when they arrived at the Non-Aligned Movement summit, it follows that the Havana agreement on a joint terror mechanism was signed with a man our Prime Minister knew was the chief patron of terrorism.

Nor is there any basis to de-link the ISI from President Pervez Musharraf. Responding to the growing disquiet in the West over the ISI’s complicity in the Taliban’s resurgence in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, Musharraf defended his so-called state-within-a-state aggressively. He told BBC’s Newsnight that the ISI was a “disciplined force”. When it was pointed out that a leaked British Ministry of Defence (MoD) report advocated that a future civilian government should send the army to the barracks and disband the ISI, Musharraf retorted angrily that the MoD should disband itself first.

By refusing to perpetuate the fiction that the ISI is somehow an autonomous cabal, Musharraf was, somewhat uncharacteristically, not being economical with the truth. However, by choosing to paint Pakistan as a co-victim of terrorism, the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary have compromised India’s diplomatic offensive against terrorism. The US Ambassador to Pakistan wasn’t being needlessly insolent by suggesting that India should have first given the Mumbai evidence to Pakistan before going public. The logic of the Havana agreement is that the victim and the terrorist must conduct a joint whodunit.

And why blame Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry for dismissing the Mumbai investigations as preposterous. If Pakistan is the victim of terrorism, how can it be accused of masterminding terror?

By trying, like some others before him, to find a place in history, Manmohan has dug India into a fox hole. The relentless pursuit of a maverick foreign policy has resulted in India being taken less and less seriously in international circles.

Last week, there was the expected ignominy over the Indian candidate to the UN Secretary-General’s post—actually he was his own candidate who used India as an expedient launching pad—which exposed the limits of Indian influence. Simultaneously, there was the strange spectacle of the UPA’s strategic ally, the CPI(M), deciding that India’s priority in the UN strategy is to secure Venezuela’s place in the Security Council! Indeed, with India slipping down the value chain, the CPI(M) has decided that it makes more sense to now flaunt its credentials as China’s liaison agent in India.

Then there was India’s stand-offish attitude towards the ongoing NATO offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan—an indifference that may have convinced the Washington beltway that India is unlikely to make the jump from potential to performance. If, as a result, the Indo-US nuclear deal is timed out by the Senate, it will signal Manmohan Singh joining Chandra Shekhar, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral in the pantheon of the insignificant. The dress-rehearsal was his importunate visit to South Africa and the speech to an empty stadium in Durban.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 8, 2006)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sensible approach (October 6, 2006)

David Cameron coul break Labour's dream run in government

By Swapan Dasgupta

For many years, a truly agreeable meal in London meant only one thing for me: lunch at the Grill Room in The Connaught. A combination of what a friend used to call a “honest meal”, a not too outrageously-priced wine list and a charming ambience made this restaurant my enduring favourite.

Of course that was before nouvelle cuisine and celebrity chefs made their appearance. Confronted with the onslaught of fashion and the image of being of being a fuddy-duddy establishment, the Grill Room effected a radical makeover. The new “Angela Hartnett at The Connaught” was plain different. It was definitely more “contemporary”—whatever that means—and the fare was more healthy than “honest”. A visit to The Connaught these days means an opulent working lunch, not the earlier over-indulgence that preceded the brandy and cigar, and the mandatory snooze in the oh-so-comfortable chesterfield in the club.

In this age of global warming and carbon gas emission, Western civilisation seems intent on snatching away some of the more simple pleasures of life. Courting the Green vote, governments are contemplating punitive taxes on petrol and cheap air travel; smoking has been deemed an act of deviancy; and Britain has even appointed a minister to curb obesity. The nanny state has indeed made life a trifle oppressive in Britain. Thanks to a campaign by Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef whose showmanship is more gripping than his recipes, the education authorities have tried to make school dinners healthy. Mars Bars, sausage rolls and bags of potato chips have been outlawed from the tuck shops and replaced with fruit, milk and cereal. The ubiquitous sausage and chips with cabbage, or liver and chips with cabbage, or pasty and chips with cabbage—food that made the Empire—have been replaced by salads with oodles of rocket leaves and pasta with locally sourced turkey.

Some of us who can’t imagine Britain without fry-up breakfasts on cold, overcast mornings and the unmistakable smell of boiled cabbage have reason to thank the Conservative shadow higher education minister Boris Johnson for upholding the principle of free choice. At a fringe meeting during the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth this week, Johnson damned the “over-priced, low-fat rubbish” being served in school canteens: “I say let people eat what they like… If I was in charge, I would get rid of Jamie Oliver…”

The incorrigible Johnson didn’t stop at school dinners. Responding to the Conservative demand for maximum local autonomy to counter the Labour Government’s over-centralisation, he argued that “localism” could pose unforeseen problems in areas with a large Muslim population. Supposing, he asked, “Tower Hamlets or parts of Bradford were to become governed by religious zealots believing in that system. Are we ready for complete local autonomy if it means sharia law?”

These are questions politicians are not meant to ask. But Johnson’s awkward aside can well be seen in the context of a spirited debate in Britain on the relationship between “core beliefs” and a viable electoral strategy. Ever since Tony Blair discarded the socialist certitudes of the Labour Party, abandoned the trades unions for the spin doctors and won three consecutive general elections, the Conservatives have been grappling with the problems of internal change. Having discarded four leaders in quick succession since 1997, it has settled for the 40-year-old David Cameron who, if the opinion polls are any guide, has the potential of breaking Labour’s dream run in government.

It is not merely Cameron’s kindly youthful looks that gives him an edge over the post-Blair Labour leaders. For the past year, Cameron has lost no opportunity telling the Tory faithful that they were roundly beaten by Blair because they lacked credibility. The post-Thatcher Conservative Party, according to him, was out of tune with the Cool Britannia that warmed up to New Labour. The pet obsessions of Conservatives, he felt, bred an astonishing insularity. The party devoted more time banging on about the hobby horses of its activists than attending to the concerns of voters.

Built on the twin pillars of “change” and “social responsibility”, Cameron has forged a vision of “compassionate” conservatism which is very different from anything the Tories have ever known. He has formally added Green to the Tory blue and made the protection of the environment a key policy concern; he has robustly committed the party to institutions of the welfare state such as the health service; and he has badgered local constituency parties into adopting more women and members of ethnic minorities as prospective parliamentary candidates.

The change of tack has begun yielding dividends. In the local elections in England, the Conservatives beat Labour quite convincingly and polled nearly 40 per cent of the vote. Even his worst critics admit that Cameron has succeeded in persuading a significant number of people to at least start viewing the Conservatives as a possible alternative to Labour. In particular, he has nullified the blind hatred of Conservatives which was a feature of young, urban voters of a culturally confused Britain.

At the heart of the Cameron strategy is the belief that for any party to be win elections, it must first capture the middle ground. Just as Blair shifted Labour from the Left to the Centre, Cameron is nudging the Conservatives into capturing the Centre ground and jettisoning the remains of Thatcherism. The Conservatives have, for example, lessened their traditional preoccupation with tax cuts, fox hunting, immigration and Europe. Instead, the party talks more about community action, Green issues and bolstering social services.

Cameron has conveniently interpreted the Centre to mean anything which preoccupies the popular mind space. It’s a clever ploy because the implication is that while he is addressing voters’ concerns, the ideologues of the Left and Right are loftily detached from the grassroots. The Centre, in Cameron-speak, listens and responds; the ideologues pontificate and lecture.

Labour has attacked Cameron as a PR invention and lacking substance. However, within the Conservative Party, the “sour Right”—Douglas Hurd’s carping description of the old Thatcherites—has charged Cameron with abandoning the party’s “core” concerns—the political equivalent of griping over the loss of the Grill Room. This attack in turn has prompted a larger question: is politics about governance or spreading ideology?

As the oldest political party in the democratic world, the modern Conservative Party has an interesting history. Lacking any doctrinal basis and, instead, flaunting a very English incoherence, the party has nevertheless endured for the past 150 years on the basis of self-renewal. From the repeal of the corn laws under Robert Peel, disputes over tariff reform and imperial preference in the early 20th century, the contrived genuflections before the Welfare State after World War II, to Thatcherism, the Conservatives have not confused policies with principles. The party has kept ideological certitudes to a bare minimum—individual liberty, respect for Crown and country and a non-intrusive state. Within these parameters, there has been a vigorous interplay of ideas and, when in grave doubt, Conservatives have taken refuge behind pragmatism and common sense—what Cameron calls “sensible” policies.

The definition of sensible has, like walking shoes, evolved. Last year, an enterprising journalist wrote a book entitled The Strange Death of Tory England. Like me, he was taken in by appearances. What matters is not that the old Grill Room clientele hasn’t moved into the new celebrity chef’s orbit. The important thing is that both sets of people—separated by age, collective memory, tastes and even outlook—will still, in all probability, be voting Conservative. What matters is that the baton has been passed on to another generation.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 6, 2006)

Monday, October 02, 2006

You can't be good to evil (October 1, 2006)

Swapan Dasgupta

This is the time of the year when India celebrates the triumph of good over evil, of dharma over adharma. In the east, we commemorate the homecoming of the Goddess Durga, the personification of shakti and the divine force which was created to slay the demon Mahishasura. In other parts of India, the triumph of Ram over Ravana is observed with the ceremonial burning of effigies.

The celebrations assume different forms. In Gujarat, there is boisterous dancing through the night. In Bengal, there is feasting and revelry. In the North, the pre-Dussehra restraint is followed by an uninterrupted bout of over-indulgence culminating in Diwali - the day of Ram's triumphant return to Ayodhya.

It is, therefore, ironic that this should also be the time the country is confronted with a disagreeable demand aimed at puncturing our sense of dharma. Under the expedient guise of forgiveness and compassion, there is an insidious attempt to taunt India and the Indian way of life.

The reference is, of course, to the orchestrated outcry against the death sentence handed out to Afzal Guru, the jihadi from Sopore, convicted for his role in the attack on Parliament in 2001.
It would be understandable if the objections came from those who have ethical problems with capital punishment. The belief that no man has the right to take another man's life is grounded in the noblest standards of human conduct.

However, faith in ahimsa also constitutes an indictment of a jihad which is prefaced on the merciless killing of the enemy. Equating murder with judicial punishment implies that every belief should be treated on par.

Few of those who have taken up cudgels for the unrepentant Afzal are either Gandhians or pacifists. For the pragmatic Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, the street demonstrations against Afzal's sentence are an additional headache he could do without.

For the CPI(M), the indulgence towards Afzal is an aspect of the emerging global alliance between Red and Green. And for the Congress, which has made moral relativism its new leitmotif, it is all a question of Muslim votes. In its ambivalence on Afzal, the party is nervously anticipating a similar furore if death sentences are handed out to any of those found guilty in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case.

To be fair, neither Ghulam Nabi Azad nor the one-man CPI(M) in Jammu and Kashmir are pro-active in demanding clemency for Afzal. They are at best responding to an issue that has been seized upon by all the separatist groups and their controllers across the border to hit the Indian State hard.

Why is the Afzal issue important to those who want Kashmir to be a part of our neighbouring Islamic republic? First, a Presidential order commuting Afzal's death sentence to life imprisonment will not be seen as the triumph of Gandhian values over judicial retribution.
It will be seen as the Indian state's capitulation before organised pressure. India, in other words, will be seen to lack the political and moral backbone to uphold its own laws.

Second, if one of the main conspirators in the attack on Parliament - an incident that nearly triggered an Indo-Pakistan war - is allowed to subvert the due process of law, it will be tantamount to suggesting that jihadi crimes will be judged by a different yardstick.
By passing a unanimous resolution calling for one of the main accused in the 1998 Coimbatore blasts case to be set free, the Kerala Assembly has trod a dangerous path and Afzal's reprieve is another step in the long march to capitulation.

It is not very pleasant to acquiesce in capital punishment. However, there are crimes which call for the severest punishment because the perpetrators are unwilling to subject themselves to the same moral codes that determine civilised existence.

The jihadis crossed the lakshman rekha long ago. A show of indulgence towards them is akin to suggesting that there are no boundaries which govern right and wrong. If that is so, why should we bother with Durga Puja and Dussehra?

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 1, 2006)