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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Scaling Heights, Plumbing Depths

A Disturbed Weekend in Kasauli

Our friends Yuri and Rupa have a place just outside Kasauli, a civilized mountain oasis on the way to Simla. I call their retreat “Misty Heights.” We got there late on Thursday evening with Gautam and Rita, our other friends with whom we share the experience of living in America. When we arrived late in the evening, I thought of the Eric Clapton song, and said to myself that the place, shrouded in mist, looked wonderful that night.

If ever there was generational bonding, this was it. Yuri, now a growing Bollywood star, is a former IAF fighter pilot, who was chosen to be a part of India’s space program. Rupa is a whiz kid; she is a partner in a global business that deals with American and European buyers of quality apparel.

Gautam is India’s senior-most editor, who is the genius behind the success of the Bombay-based DNA newspaper and who now serves as editorial adviser to The Times of India. He is the most sensible and erudite person in Indian journalism today. Rita is a teacher in Washington DC area; she is the fount of wisdom on education. What we discovered over the weekend is that she is also the greatest authority on films, Hollywood and Bollywood.

When you put this accomplished lot together in the hills, walking in the clouds and wearing sweaters and shawls in July, you have the makings of an enjoyable weekend, dripped in nostalgia. Especially because Gautam and Yuri are also rock stars, who, like the cult band of the 1960s, Traffic, can “sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy.” So we sat in the bar of “Misty Heights” and laughed away the hours, talking about the great things that we could do that weekend.

Even as we enjoyed conversations and music, we learned over the weekend about the bomb blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Many of us had family and friends in the two cities. We tried to reach them but all phone lines were jammed. So we sat on edge, worrying about them, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. We did eventually reach them and were gratified to learn they were okay.

Nevertheless, it cast a pall over the gathering. We wondered what could possibly motivate people to rain death and mayhem on innocent people? I can understand driven psychos like Prabhakaran’s LTTE in Sri Lanka, who sent a suicide bomber to kill Rajiv Gandhi. Given the levels of corruption and police state governance in the island country, there is modicum of logic in the LTTE’s extremism.

What is clearly beyond reason is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in India. There are 150 million Moslems in India and they are within their rights to be concerned about the BJP and its Nazi views. On the other hand, they are a pampered lot, with every political party vying for their support. The classic example of this mollycoddling is that the avowedly secular government of India pays for Moslems to make their pilgrimage to Mecca.

Politics apart, these terrorist blasts have outlined in stark relief the sheer incompetence of the government. It is not about the BJP or the Congress; the central and state government agencies are simply inept and stupid, what a good banker friend of mine calls IAS. These agencies, whether RAW or IB or CBI, have been unable to bring anyone to book, starting with the bombings in Bombay in 1993.

“The world has decided we should be a global player,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once told me. But the world simply has no idea that the Indian government is in held in thrall by corrupt politicians and wily bureaucrats.

So we have the unseemly spectacle of L K Advani, in the midst of this terrorist mayhem, asking the Speaker of Parliament to release a clandestine video that ostensibly shows a cash for votes transaction. No one, including the Speaker, bought the BJP’s wild allegation. In fact, the Speaker is reported to have read Advani the riot act, expressing grave displeasure at the flagrant violation of parliamentary norms.

Advani was referring to an alleged monetary offer made by the government’s supporters to induce legislators to vote for the UPA in the confidence vote in Parliament. What’s even worse, despite enjoying the exalted status of opposition leader, Advani allowed, nay encouraged, these dubious players to enact the cash drama in Parliament.

My personal view is that Advani is the most corrosive politician in India today. He stands criminally accused for his role in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992 and for his recklessly provocative rath yatra two years before. He is so blinded by his ambition to become prime minister that he has lost all sense of balance.

How can Advani focus on the so-called sting operation that members of his party conducted during the vote of confidence? More than 50 people have died in the terrorist attack in Gujarat (which Advani represents in the Lok Sabha) and Karnataka, both states run by the BJP. Shouldn’t he be asking questions of the BJP chief ministers there as to how this happened? He clearly has come unhinged by the government's convincing win on the floor of the house.

Where he should stand shoulder to shoulder with the central government, urging his party chief ministers to move quickly to arrest the perpetrators, Advani has shown he has the mentality of a municipal councilman. As such, he will continue in his cynically graceless manner to yell and scream from the margins to which he has relegated his party. Under the burden of his ambition, the BJP, which could be a useful right of center alternative in the political mainstream, has been reduced to a rump of naysayers and whiners.

Meanwhile back in Kasauli, we agreed that politicians like Advani would naturally draw an extreme response from Islamist formations like the “Indian Mujaheedin,” who have claimed responsibility for the blasts. Advani bashes on relentlessly: sponsoring foolish resolutions to oppose the government's plans to speed up reforms; egging on the egregious Sushma Swaraj in her wild allegations about the blasts; forgetting his own dismal record as home minister. It's time for him to adopt a vow of silence and maintain it for the remainder of this government's term.

copyright rajiv desai 2008