Hobson’s choice

FOR over two decades, roughly since the end of the bipolar world, many people in different countries have faced a Hobson`s choice. In India, they have endured bone-crushing poverty with rampant corruption that came clothed as free-market reforms. The choice they faced was worse — life- sapping religious fascism.

It may not have been a coincidence, therefore, that an ancient mosque was demolished in Ayodhya within months of Dr Manmohan Singh`s arrival as finance minister, triggering religious violence that has become a festering wound. The ensuing political arithmetic suited both the casually secular Congress and the revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Votes were garnered over cynical slogans of communalism and minority rights but the outcome — the electoral mandate — was uniformly handed over to free-market mandarins.

The story is nearly the same in today`s Pakistan where an overtly secular government is widely perceived as corrupt amid accusations of doing secret deals with the IMF behind the people`s back. The lure is that it offers a sliver of hope for a quasi-resolute stand against an ever-growing storm of religious and ethnic fanaticism.

In Afghanistan, the Hobson`s choice is mutating into a trade-off between a corrupt regime sponsored by the West and a return of the Taliban, also supervised by the West`s benign gaze. A government-backed survey in Kandahar last year found more than 70 per cent citizens as not having faith in the state`s capacity to curb corruption. On the other hand, 53 per cent claimed the Taliban were incorruptible.

A UN committee backed by the United States and Britain is preparing to lift international sanctions on a number of former Taliban figures in Afghanistan. It is all claimed to be part of reconciliation for peace talks. The BBC`s Paul Wood informed us from Kabul this week that 47 such men had been selected by the committee for the lifting of travel sanctions, releasing their frozen accounts and, intriguingly, permission to buy arms. Richard Barrett, the coordinator of the Taliban Sanctions Committee, said flatly: “The Taliban will come back.” He added that there was no military solution.

In the meantime, Fareed Zakaria was interviewing the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for the CNN, getting assurances from the hitherto banned group of a syncretic multi-cultural future for the strategically vital Arab country. In India too a vital discourse on governance and probity has been handed over to religious figures and narrow nationalists. Rightly or wrongly, the burgeoning middle class perceives religious leaders as honest brokers against a habitually vile establishment. Mercifully, there is still room to delight in the farce of what is evolving as a situational tragedy.

As the police swooped to pick him up past midnight from his sprawling makeshift Delhi camp, Baba Ramdev instinctively hid behind his agitated yoga students. In the melee, as the police lobbed a few teargas canisters to tame the crowd, the Baba quickly discarded his trademark saffron dhoti for a woman`s shalwar suit. If he was caught before he could flee, it was because of his unkempt beard, which did not match the outfit he had changed into.

Cut to Maulana Abdul Aziz of Islamabad`s Lal Masjid in July 2007. Didn`t he try to dress up as a woman — albeit more cleverly — in a burqa, mindful of his giveaway grey beard? Pakistan`s federal troopers homed in on his stronghold anyway and proceeded to unveil the cleric before a gaggle of bemused cameramen. At least 20 people were killed in that police-extremist standoff and dozens seriously injured. One woman was critically injured in the Delhi operation, but the Baba`s supporters described the police highhandedness as violence in Jalianwala Bagh.

Bereft of his saffron dhoti, and if you can visualise him with a Taliban-style headgear, Ramdev can easily pass for a battle-scarred field commander from the ravines of Gardez. A healed gash on his forehead could pass for shrapnel wound and a twitching smaller eye would not be unlike some of the icons unearthed from the extremist fringe. Ramdev strikes a more purposeful similarity with the Taliban, not the least in his intense desire to rid his country of pervasive corruption. Both advocate barbaric punishments, including death. Both prescribe severe retribution for sexual preferences.

There is of course no known nexus between official corruption and the kind of political system a country follows. For example, Transparency International`s report for 2010 places Denmark and New Zealand at par with Singapore as least corrupt with 9.3 points out of 10. And though both are robust democracies, Australia at 8.7 looks that much more honest than Britain, assigned 7.6.In South Asia, India`s runaway corruption appears saintly at 3.3 among a pack of incorrigibly tainted neighbours. Pakistan at 2.3 is struggling jealously behind Bangladesh, placed a notch higher at 2.4. Sri Lanka at 3.2 looks agreeable by the lowly regional yardstick.

By that token, even an ungovernable Afghanistan can revel at 1.4 for being placed second from the bottom, still ahead of Somalia`s 1.1. Potentially misleading statistics? In which case, how do we explain the Baba Ramdev phenomenon across India, even if many have dismissed him as a creation of the media?

After his eviction from Delhi, the Baba has continued with his hunger fast, a method Gandhi had used to fight colonial power. Backing him to the hilt is the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. The next elections are not due for another three years, but there is a key poll scheduled in Uttar Pradesh next year.

Capturing the state is considered a useful first step to rule India. Corruption is a low-yield political issue vis a vis parochial emotions. Doing a deal with sadhus of different religions seems to be the seasonal flavour across the world. That shouldn`t worry any establishment in India — whether headed by the Congress or the BJP — provided the resultant mandate is transferred to its powerful claimants. The conditions look pretty similar for any country faced with such a Hobson`s choice.

The writer is `s correspondent in Delhi.