Author Archives: M J Akbar


M J Akbar

The great political game

It seems reasonable to suggest that any political organisation with both Stalin and Napoleon on its frontlines, as DMK can boast, should make short shrift of a party with a mere Gandhi at its head. But the Karunanidhi vs Sonia Gandhi sideshow within the larger drama of the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections was always a no-contest. Bluster is hopeless against cool. And when Mrs Sonia Gandhi decides to be cool, polar icecaps break into envious applause. Karunanidhi did not melt because


M J Akbar

Mercury rising

When you buy tickets to a circus you expect to see a few clowns. A clown is not a fool. It is far more difficult to make people laugh than to annoy them. A good clown must silence his ego, for he has to reduce himself to the lowest common denominator to maximise the laughs. He is a professional. But he is also, inherently, a character, or he would be just another diligent accountant, trapped within the limitations of safety-first. It is this characteristic that impels him to leap into


M J Akbar

A failure of imagination

I grew up on stories of Gama Pahalwan, the iconic champion of an age when wrestling in red langotis still captured the imagination of north India. It seems that apart from ever-increasing quantities of buffalo milk, he ate two dozen raw eggs a day. Like a good Indian, I compromised. Raw eggs seemed the diet of a potential bully, and hard-boiled too wimpish. The solution was clearly half-boiled eggs.
India’s foreign policy is the ultimate half-boiled egg; more Indian than foreign


M J Akbar

Talk of the town

There is one commodity that is inflation-proof even in India’s most expensive city, Delhi. Talk is cheap in the capital, available at every cafe and inside every drawing room. But excess of supply should not beguile us into the belief that it is useless. Talk is the barometer of the next political season. Seasons change, at least twice a year. This winter has been cold for the Government; and there was talk that summer might become a bit too warm.
A prime minister does not invite


M J Akbar

The Kuch Nahi Sarkar

Which was the swivel moment when the Indian-born British citizen shook off his psychological shackles and came into his own? There will probably be as many answers as there are success stories. My personal favourite is the year in which an enterprising Sikh businessman bought out a distillery producing the most sustained, and possibly sustaining, export of the British peoples, Scotch whisky. The breakthrough was not in the financial transaction. Money is the easy part. The


M J Akbar

Riddling Mubarak – The Sphinx and the Mahatama

This is yet another Gandhian moment in world history, with implications nearly as momentous as the collapse of the British Raj at the Gateway of India. Egypt has rediscovered itself through the alchemy of non-violence, once dismissed as limp romanticism in the muscular age of colonial empires. Non-violence detached the mightiest empire ever known from its central mooring, India, initiating a process that liberated Afro-Asia from European colonisation in the 20th century.
The


M J Akbar

Gamble or be damned

Srinagar’s Lal Chowk was a destination for the BJP’s Republic Day agenda, but not an objective. The BJP was sending a message to India rather than Kashmir, which it did effectively enough thanks to the caravan of cameras that is in statutory attendance around any drama. Once the curious harmony of military drumbeat and popular-culture rhythm in the January 26 parade is over by noon, it becomes a slow news day. The BJP’s tricolour wheeze got screen-to-screen coverage. Point made.<br


M J Akbar

Fig leaf

Government is instinctively equated with power; and we expect the powerful to fall with a thud like an oak tree that makes the earth quiver. The ambience of authority makes us oblivious to another possibility. A government can also fall like a leaf. The time between twig and turf can stretch beyond the laws of gravity as the leaf is tossed by gusts of wind, or even driven up by continual storms. The turmoil of movement creates the illusion of life, but the truth is that the leaf is


M J Akbar

Over-stepping

The British Raj was the high noon of bureaucracy. The British sepoy armies might have won the day from Plassey to Seringapatnam and Alwaye, but it was the pre-1857 “writer” and post-1857 Indian Civil Service Sahib who converted a day into two centuries. No army can preserve victory; that is the responsibility of the civilian servant of the state.
Every empire becomes a fiefdom of the bureaucracy. The ‘qatibs’ or scribes were so powerful that they successfully resisted the new


M J Akbar

No year is an island

No year is an island. A sequence of events will always demand its consequence, without respect for something as transitory as a calendar. Neither time nor logic pauses on 31 December and takes a holiday on 1 January. Sleaze was the theme of 2010; it has already oozed into the building drama of 2011. The link is Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s brief statement on the eve of 2011: to “cleanse” governance. New Year resolutions, traditionally, are known to have a short life. If the


M J Akbar

The Radialogue wound

New words are an annual media byproduct without a balance sheet. The profit is not immediately visible, and loss not worth the count. The New York Times has produced a thirty-plus list that seems more obligatory than essential. Most words show the strains of artifice. Fortunately, terms like “sofalize” [socializing from home, through the net] will die a natural death after their fifteen seconds of fame. The hideous “mansplainer” just might get fifteen minutes of life, since it denotes


M J Akbar

Silence and noise

It is entirely appropriate that the man in charge of India’s volume control, Pranab Mukherjee, should have uttered what is unarguably the comment of the year: our democracy has become too noisy. Through a long career stretching from the 1960s, Pranabda (as he is fondly known) has always preferred the brain to the lung. Noise has been neither in his temperament nor his bhadralok-Brahmin culture. His metier is ministerial; he is a fish out of water when his party is in Opposition. He


M J Akbar

Under the weather in Milan

Snow is a sheet on the ground, talcum on the trees, a patched overcoat on the Alps and an electric blue at Zurich airport. I have to catch a connection to Milan within 50 minutes but there is no hint of hurry when I check with ground staff. Swiss calm about process and punctuality is eerie. Clockwork is in the DNA. I go through unruffled immigration police, board a transit train, grab a vital necessity from duty free and still reach my next flight with time to dawdle. The train


M J Akbar

The Mao of Gujarat

The unnamed young students of Ahmedabad who had a question or two for Rahul Gandhi this week were pertinent, not pert. They also provided more evidence that students are doing the job that journalists either cannot, or will not, do; which is, ask relevant questions. In this case, media was prevented from reporting the event, so journalists can’t be faulted, and we know what happened thanks only to an enterprising reporter from The Times of India who had a source inside the hall.<br


M J Akbar

Boggledygook

A less complacent lot might have seen the approaching firestorm from some distance. Someone somewhere was bound to turn up with a matchstick. The Supreme Court, which has emerged as the supreme voice of the nation, asked the explosive question that is echoing across the land: what precisely was the relationship between Ali Baba and the 40 thieves?
For those who have just discovered that familiarity is not synonymous with certainty, Ali Baba was an unassuming professional with


M J Akbar

Traders, not partners

How many words will India get in Barack Obama’s autobiography, Faith, Hope and Miscarriage, due in 2013?
Going by the law of proportions, it should be between 100 to 104 if the complete book is around 200,000 words, roughly the length expected in a multi-million dollar advance. According to a fine story by my friend K.P. Nayar in the Telegraph, George Bush, Dr Manmohan Singh’s “best friend”, devoted exactly 208 words out of 195,456 to India in his memoir Decision Points. “Even


M J Akbar

Traders, not partners

How many words will India get in Barack Obama’s autobiography, Faith, Hope and Miscarriage, due in 2013?
Going by the law of proportions, it should be between 100 to 104 if the complete book is around 200,000 words, roughly the length expected in a multi-million dollar advance. According to a fine story by my friend K.P. Nayar in the Telegraph, George Bush, Dr Manmohan Singh’s “best friend”, devoted exactly 208 words out of 195,456 to India in his memoir Decision Points. “Even

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