Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Last call to board
Letters
Infirm glory/Book review
A poet was the speaker/Book review
Reading by the poll star/Book review
My family and other spirits/Book review
The editor ought to know best/Bookwise

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 
 
 
 
 

Matter of import

The belated revelation India has come to an agreement with the United States to abolish the last few quantitative restrictions it has on imports has triggered squalling by some domestic manufacturers, the swadeshi lobby and the Indian left. Under the agreement, which follows a World Trade Organization tribunal ruling against India, QRs will be abolished by April next year. Despite failing to make a case before the WTO panel, India will not be unduly affected by the judgment. In the long term, the country will almost assuredly benefit. First, more so than other types of trade barriers, QRs are particularly helpful to interest groups. They allow both foreign and domestic manufacturers to make large profits at the consumers’ expense. The end of QRs will increase competition for an Indian domestic industry that still refuses to shake off the lazy practices it developed under socialism. QRs are recognized to be so detrimental to a country’s economy that only four other countries in the world still use them. Second, claims that those Indian industries most likely to be affected — automobiles, consumer durables, textiles, some makers of agricultural and small scale industrial goods — will not have the time to adjust to the new competition are also exaggerated. India will simply provide them protection under tariffs rather than QRs. In any case, India had promised to abolish all QRs in 2003. The WTO judgment has merely accelerated this schedule by two years.

The focus should now be on ensuring that along with the tossing away of QRs also goes the protectionist mentality that led to their imposition. QRs are one among many means that countries block imports. But some trade barriers are worse than others. A QR puts a ceiling on the quantity of products that can be imported. By cutting any link between domestic and foreign prices and reducing competition between imports and domestic manufactures, QRs encourage a de facto cartel between both types of producers. Tariffs allow imports in unlimited amounts but make them more expensive. However, an overly high tariff can be as economically damaging as a QR. Vested interests are lobbying for exactly that — sky high tariffs. For example, the automobile industry is demanding not only barriers against imported new cars but tariffs of 100 per cent or more on imported used cars. There is the odour of a cartel of foreign multinational car firms and Indian automobile makers joining hands in demanding protection. They share a desire for less competition and higher consumer prices because it means bigger profits for both. Indian industry can rightfully demand the abolition of certain domestic strictures that make it harder for them to compete — lower domestic excises, zero tariffs for capital goods and small scale industry dereservation. Unfortunately, it seems to prefer to tread the easier path of unadulterated protectionism.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2 
 
 
 
 

Moral law

At last the court has taken a firm stand on a public interest litigation. The Calcutta high court has rejected a PIL aspiring to stop the practice of private tuitions by teachers of state run schools. What the petitioners have completely ignored is that stopping private tuitions is not the court’s job. If parents choose to pay for their children’s coaching classes above and beyond their classes in school, and if some teachers take advantage of this, the court cannot take on an admonitory role. It is not society’s moral guardian in this general sense. The phenomenon of a court hauling up errant guardians and teachers for undermining the philosophy and economics of the official system of education would be close to absurd. The crux lies here. That the petitioners expect the court to look into this problem says two things. PILs have been constantly used for such complaints. And many courts have countenanced them. Therefore, there is now a level of popular expectation which demands the court’s action in spheres that fall outside its rightful purview.

This misunderstanding has a history. The indiscriminate use of the PIL provision has contributed significantly to the huge pile of waiting cases. While the PIL has served the purpose of exposing serious crimes against the public, that has been only once in a while. PILs are mainly used to air petty grievances or bring to the court problems about which the law can do nothing. But the PIL provision cannot be easily jettisoned. It is perceived as one window through which the poor and underprivileged, or their representatives, can directly approach the court with little or no expense. Screening procedures and fines for frivolous or malicious complaints have been proposed to stop meaningless petitions at the door. Predictably enough, nothing decisive has been done yet and such petitions continue to crowd into the courts. For example, numerous PILs about the state of the environment have virtually turned the courts into green crusaders. Although the courts have done some good in insisting on the implementation of environment friendly measures, it has to be admitted that this is not the court’s job. There are specific bodies for the purpose, presumably with the adequate expertise. Running to the courts with problems of this kind is a sign of exasperation, brought on by the total lack of discipline and accountability in the various parts of the administrative system. But judgments are merely a short cut to solve this or that particular problem. They do not help resolve the problems in the system; instead they make the public solely dependent on the court. This is unhealthy in the long run. It is for the courts to draw the line in the right place, and the Calcutta high court has done just that.    


 
 
LAST CALL TO BOARD 
 
 
BY BRIJESH D. JAYAL
 
 
In the closing moments of 1999, nothing could have more poignantly conveyed a “soft state” image of India as television pictures of a helpless Indian Airlines Airbus packed with passengers and crew parked in a secluded corner in a remote airfield in Afghanistan. A country run by the taliban, known for their Islamic fundamentalist ideology and not recognized by India, whose mentor is none other than Pakistan. India was reduced to negotiating with air pirates on their terms on soil where it could not distinguish friend from foe. This was no negotiation, but sheer capitulation. India had already lost. It was only a question of at what cost.

Those who profess not giving in perhaps underestimate the loss to national prestige, not to mention the human tragedy, if the plane had been blown up. As later information shows, the hijackers had attached explosives to the plane. Also in the present international climate, a commando type action on foreign soil does not befit a responsible nation. In the event, the price paid may not be too high if India learns appropriate lessons and sheds its self-inflicted attitude of acting like a “soft state”.

If not, then the price may turn out to be greater than one can visualize at this moment. Is perception of India as a “soft state” too harsh a judgement? Not when viewed from the eyes of Pakistani leadership that has for a decade supported insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir without a proactive response and has got away inflicting the Kargil conflict with only a defensive response.

An India where a home minister proposing a proactive policy against terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir is hounded in his own country and where a defence minister’s caution identifying China as a potential threat purely for purposes of future military planning is branded a hawk. And where in the first two or three crisis laden days of the hijacking, relatives of those hijacked are shown by the electronic media to be more concerned about their personal sorrow then about a national crisis needing national resolve.

As events have unfolded this last decade, there is continuing decline in the operational capability, leadership and authority of India’s armed forces. At the same time, on Pakistan’s part there has been a progressive increase in the quality and content of terrorism exported to every part of this country from hijackings to train bombings, not to mention the ever-increasing ferocity of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

With the architect of Kargil now in the chief executive’s chair in Pakistan, India needs to sit up and take note. It is with this perspective that the recent hijacking needs to be reviewed.A hijacking event can be broken down into two discrete phases each with its own distinctly unique dynamics. Effective response accordingly requires two appropriate mechanisms.

Today, there is only one. That of the crisis management group consisting of senior secretaries of concerned departments, no doubt taking orders from respective ministers and the prime minister’s office. That this has failed to deter hijackings is evident from the fact that India ranks amongst the leaders in being subject to plane hijackings.

The first hour or two of a hijack incident are critical to the entire operation. Unfortunately, depending on fuel and position, the time for effective reaction is also severely limited. The crucial aim on first hijack alert must be to see that the hijacked aircraft does not leave Indian airspace and is forced to land within Indian territory. This brings into sharp focus the weakness of the present centralized and top heavy bureaucratized system of dealing with what is essentially a form of undeclared air war on our civil aviation.

Those who followed the downing of the Pakistan navy Atlantique by the Indian air force will recollect that the entire operation was over within a few minutes and even a delay of seconds by the IAF fighters would have allowed the aircraft safe sanctuary. Such operations can only be conducted by the armed forces, trained as they are to tackle such contingencies and for which they rehearse regularly.

This calls for eternal vigilance, high alert status and decentralization of authority to the operators within clearly predefined parameters. Compare this to the hijack response. The CMG consists of members who are otherwise busy in their administrative tasks. For them to get together itself may take anything upto an hour or two depending on circumstances.

Chances are that the individual members have never met as a committee. In all probability they have never rehearsed or practised dealing with such a situation. Precious time will be lost in orienting them to the basics of the evolving situation. Not being specialists, they cannot appreciate most of the technicalities of risk assessment during this phase.

Chances are that a crisis room activated once in months in an emergency will not have the basic information inputs that are required for decision making in a very complex and dynamic air hijack environment.The obvious conclusion is that the first phase of the hijacking can only be handled as a military operation. The responsibility during this phase should be given directly to the operational air command through whose airspace the aircraft is flying. The army operational commander in chief will be in overall command.

He in turn will have the authority to summon commandos of the national security group* and resources of the army operational command to the airfield where the aircraft can be made to land. Should the aircraft land on a civil airfield, air flight authorities must take control of the airfield till the conclusion of the operation, with civil aviation personnel taking orders from the air force. Clearly the designated commander should have the authority to take whatever action is needed, within clearly predetermined parameters, to ensure that the aircraft does not leave the airfield.

Once authorized, he alone is responsible and accountable for the operation and there must be no attempt at interference. Unity of command is the first essential of such a military operation. Once such a system is put in place, military practice will ensure that not only are standard operating procedures clearly defined, but also drills held to achieve tactical surprise and success.

Whether or not the first stage is successful, adequate time would have been available to the CMG to assemble, get oriented and follow the events thus far. The subsequent phase is not thereafter so time critical. Also the focus will naturally shift to areas outside the expertise of the air force and army.

It is now desirable for the CMG to take control of the operation with the proviso that if the aircraft is on Indian soil, the air force, army and the NSG must form an executive part of the CMG, not an advisory adjunct. Should the aircraft be on foreign soil, then involvement of the security forces may or may not be necessary. Air piracy is another manifestation of the low intensity conflict that has been thrust upon India by interests inimical to it.

The only deterrence is a clear message that henceforth hijackings will draw a military response and that the Indian state means business. After the Atlantique, the message should sink in pretty fast. If not, the next hijack attempt will surely carry the message home.

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force    


 
 
LETTERS 
 
 
 
 

Power play

Sir — Sunil Gavaskar’s comment on Brett Lee’s suspected action is justified (“Another tame surrender by the Indian batsmen”, Jan 3). Gavaskar said that only cricketers from the subcontinent are penalized for “misbehaving” or “chucking”. This became evident during the recently concluded test series between India and Australia. Venkatesh Prasad was charged 35 per cent of the match fee for “misbehaving” after he took Michael Slater’s wicket. But everyone kept mum about Greg Blewett’s outrageous behaviour after he dismissed Saurav Ganguly. Shoaib Akhtar’s suspension by the International Cricket Council adds weight to Gavaskar’s opinion. Steve Waugh encourages unscrupulous methods for the sake of “winning” matches. Sachin Tendulkar too was given out on doubtful grounds more than once, yet Wasim Akram had once become the villain when he did not ask Tendulkar back after the latter was unfortunately run out in Eden Gardens. Clearly, the arena of cricket is not free of colonial polarization.

Yours faithfully,
Krishna Majumdar, Calcutta

Introspection at midnight

Sir — In spite of what Surendra Munshi says in “Move over Americans” (Dec 18), there is nothing to be ecstatic vis a vis India’s attainment of freedom and the existence of democracy. Without being disrespectful to our freedom fighters, it must also be mentioned that August 15 is a day of mourning. The exultation of attaining freedom was marred by the horror that struck hapless millions in erstwhile Punjab and East Bengal. An entire generation was devastated and even today many families have not recuperated fully from that shock. It is sheer barbarism to gloat over the “freedom” achieved at the expense of numerous lives of our own countrymen — or the victims of Partition. The “great” institution of Indian democracy is exposed during the election process, by the pomp and gaiety during marriage parties thrown by political stalwarts, the presence of scores of bonded labourers and the tedious legal processes whereby a complainant cannot get justice during his lifetime.

India is united geographically, but the more relevant question is whether it is united within. The Northeast and Kashmir stalemates raise the question about India’s inner integrity. Moreover, the Indian polity is continuously being fragmented on the lines of religion, caste and language. It is futile to blame the politicians since they are not the only ones exploiting the fissures in the polity.

M. K. Gandhi is certainly a man to be proud of, but Indians have no moral right to pay glowing tributes to him. Reality has proved Indians are eminently capable of desecrating his ideal of ahimsa. Introspection is therefore the only meaningful means of entry into the next century.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — Will it be possible for India to be identified as a true democracy? In a developing country such as India, the main problem lies in the unequal distribution of national wealth. This encourages the emergence of an elite class that grabs the power and forces the masses to remain poor. Illiteracy and poor healthcare have added to this inequality. In this context, however, the South is more progressive than the Northeast. Further, literacy programmes should be the key to ensuring the progress of backward states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Planning in India has erred by overemphasizing physical capital at the cost of investment in human resources especially in the area of universal primary education that bridges class division and narrows the gap between the urban and rural population. Thus, mass education will not only help to curb population growth but will also do away with social evils like casteism and communalism.

Meanwhile, medical infrastructure must be available to the poor. Social stability is unsustainable when rising illiteracy is ignored by any government. Such a nation cannot survive, let alone prosper.

Finally, politics urgently needs to undergo a dramatic change. Our country needs some dynamic, honest and selfless individuals to serve the people. And added to this, the Centre should delegate more powers to the states in order to catalyse nation building. To overcome all such barriers, the government and the opposition should contribute unitedly to realizing India’s incredible potential.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Azimganj

In or out?

Sir — The United States has been showing an uncomfortably increasing interest with regard to Russia’s actions for restoring order in Chechnya. The Chechens are mostly Muslims — and they have been armed to fight for secession from the Russian state on the basis of their religious faith. No state can remain idle when faced with such secessionist insurgencies inspired from the outside. Russia’s actions in Chechnya are primarily domestic and any foreign interference here is both dangerous and unwarranted. One must not forget that secession and insurgency are the main issues of discontent and dispute in Chechnya. And just as Abraham Lincoln did not allow secession in the southern states vis a vis slavery, Russia has the right to assert its authority over a part of its own territory — even if it means exercising military action. But US interference is indeed unwarranted and all sovereign nations must be wary about Washington exerting its super power status for imposing its views on them.

Yours faithfully,
M. Nagender Goud, Hyderabad

Sir — Russia has every right to curb the terrorist menace in Chechnya. But Moscow should make some effort to salvage the economic plight of its people. Doesn’t the duma have the slightest conscience? It is a decade since Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in the reforms. Russians still have to queue up for hours for a loaf of bread.

Yours faithfully,
Subir Mallick, Calcutta

Only connect

Sir —There seems to be a great objection from the department of telecommunications to the gross revenue of licensed private telecommunications companies, which will be required to share their revenue with the government. Why then doesn’t the DoT share its revenue with its sister department of post and telegraph? What can be the rationale behind the DoT decision other than a desire to paralyse the private telecommunication companies?

The telecom regulatory authority of India wants to exclude non-service revenues like those from the sale of terminals. But the DoT wants to include it in its gross revenue. TRAI is on the right track because terminals can be sold by anybody without a license as long as they get type approval and are not harmful to the network. The apprehension that the service may be priced low and the hidden subsidy realized from sale of terminals is unfounded since customers will try to get the cheapest bargain which will surely not be from the license holders. It is therefore unfair to penalize companies for license.

The authority of TRAI is being undermined by its own creator. It would be best to disinvest the DoT so it may learn to survive in competition with the private telecom companies.

Yours faithfully,
T.H. Chowdary, Hyderabad

Sir —Notwithstanding the telephone industry being the nerve centre of the country, it is beset with maladies (“Regulator off the hook”, Dec 17). It is true that big and small towns in the country are now buzzing with cellphones and pagers. But in this great age of telecommunicative progress, telephones still remain deaf and dumb for days — making a mockery of the great stride.

Yours faithfully,
Prahlad Agarwala, Nadia
   

 
 
INFIRM GLORY/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY DAYITA DATTA
 
 
Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34,
By Manini Chatterjee, Penguin, Rs 285

The Chittagong armoury raid has become a part of popular martyrology in Bengal but has been relegated to a mere side-show in standard histories of the freedom movement. As Manini Chatterjee points out in this book, while some individuals like Bhagat Singh have been valorized, “the revolutionary stream as a whole has been largely neglected at least in the nation’s popular imagination”. The pride of place has been given to the non-violent struggle with Gandhi-Nehru-Patel as the heroes.

This is Chatterjee’s attempt to set the record straight. The Chittagong armoury raid was not an isolated incident: it set off an intense wave of rebellion in Bengal and a three year insurgency in the district, which was suppressed with great difficulty. In some ways she is well placed to write what she calls an account for the “serious lay reader”. She was fortunate to come close to Kalpana Dutt, a legendary figure in the Chittagong uprising. Chatterjee’s training as a journalist makes her prose free of the scholarly terminology.

It is obvious that a good deal of research has gone into the writing of the book. Despite Chatterjee’s lack of formal academic training, her “reporter’s instincts” have served her well. She has explored a variety of sources, from archival records and memoirs to interviews with the few survivors.

At times she has skilfully compared different sources. She has chosen to stick to a conventional narrative format. Her story is an exciting one and she has a knack for the telling anecdote. One example is an amusing incident recounted by Kalpana Dutt from her time as a fugitive: a poor peasant woman was honoured to serve freedom fighters, and not knowing that tea was brewed, cooked the leaves into a bitter curry for her guests.

Unfortunately, in her desire to give the insurrectionists their due, Chatterjee, perhaps, does them a disservice. For, her compelling account provides ample evidence of those who have dismissed the Indian terrorists as inept and poorly organized. This arises from her tendency to take the Chittagong raiders at their own word. It is true that the charismatic Surya Sen had meticulously planned the raid on the armoury despite constant surveillance by the police. Chatterjee’s description of their “Blindmen’s watch” makes engaging reading. The attack initially went off without a hitch and certainly unnerved the authorities.

But the subsequent unravelling of their plans and their crucial oversight in failing to realize that the arms and ammunition were not stored together, is lamely excused by her. Although she has quoted Ananta Singh’s criticism of this and other errors, she does not seriously question his own impulsiveness in rushing off with the injured Himangshu Sen at the height of the assault. From her account, it is clear that the much-vaunted “Masterda” displayed an astonishing lack of leadership once Ananta Singh and Ganesh Ghosh left.

As for the battle on Jalalabad Hill that followed the raid on the armoury, she tells a tale of pathetic courage and sacrifice by the largely teenage recruits in the face of withering machine gun fire. However in a century in which the arming of young people by insurgents is seen as a cause of concern, perhaps some questions need to be asked whether these young men were not led to their deaths.

The Easter Rising in Ireland that these youthful revolutionaries sought to emulate has come in for some sustained critical analysis in recent years. Patrick Pearse’s words about “blood sacrifice” have a sinister resonance for a country riven by terrorism. This is as much true of India as anywhere else.

But there are ambiguities in Chatterjee’s account. The boys go fearlessly to their deaths. The families express noble sentiments. The peasants willingly shelter the fugitives. Masterda is adored by his boys. Yet their plans failed, they were betrayed and caught. If her intention was to bring out the “humaneness” of it all, surely there was scope to express doubts and reservations. In this context the weakest part of the book is Part III in which she attempts some analysis of certain aspects of the uprising. While the contribution of armed militants has been denied and denigrated, it is also true that the definition of a terrorist or freedom fighter depends on one’s perspective. No doubt the desperadoes holding innocent people hostage see themselves as serving some noble higher cause, as did Pritilata Waddedar when she led the attack on the Pahartali Club.

What detracts from the book is the frequently overblown style. Chatterjee has the gift of telling a story: there is no need for gratuitous flourishes. One example : “From now on peace would be more elusive than snow in a tropical clime.” There are some glaring grammatical errors which are not expected from a writer of Chatterjee’s competence and from a book bearing the famous Penguin logo: “breeded” instead of bred; the use of “spend” and “bend” instead of the past tense forms of these words are some of the egregious examples.

With careful editing and a taut style, this book could achieve Chatterjee’s laudable objective of making known to the general reader an often forgotten chapter in India’s freedom movement. Certainly our youth, preoccupied with personal concerns, need to be reminded that there was a time when, as Chatterjee stresses, “teenagers lived and died for dreams that went far beyond current notions of success”.    


 
 
A POET WAS THE SPEAKER/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY UMA DAS GUPTA
 
 
The Gitanjali of Rabindranath Tagore
Translated by Joe Winters, Writers Workshop, Rs 100

There is cause for rejoicing when one comes across a new translation of Rabindranath’s Gitanjali. We can rejoice specially when we know that the translator, not born to the Bengali language, has done his translation from the original Bengali, not from the English Gitanjali. The book has risen from a real love for beautiful poetry and from a poetic feeling for it. Joe Winter’s contribution lies in his understanding of Rabindranath’s world, to which he brings his sensibilities about another language, another culture and its literature, his desire to bridge the gap between the two languages as one poet to another.

The work is also the product of a careful study of Rabindranath and the society in which he lived. One cannot miss the depth of Winter’s insight when we read “For those who speak Bengali... Rabindranath is virtually a breathing presence. Some may not know many of his words yet are conscious of him in the way that India at large may be said to be conscious of Gandhi — that is conscious with him” (p 9). Thank you Mr Winter for reminding us of where we belong even if much of Indian life today makes us doubt our antecedents. You are probably instinctively right, we are conscious with Rabindranath and Gandhiji even if we often forget them.

The introduction gives a detailed account of the dating of the Gitanjali poems and how he wrote some of them. Another useful bit of research done is an analysis of how many, and which ones, of the English Gitanjali were taken from the Bengali Gitanjali. We assume that the two were one and the same book, that all Rabindranath did was to translate his Bengali Gitanjali into English. We think mistakenly that it was the English version of the original Bengali text that won the Nobel prize. As Winter emphasizes with a scrutiny, of the 103 prose-poems of the English Gitanjali, 50 were taken from other books, not from the Bengali Gitanjali.

Winter brings into the introduction someone who preceded him ages ago in translating Rabindranath from Bengali into English: Edward Thompson wrote the first criticism of Rabindranath’s work in the Twenties. But what puzzles me is his rather volatile reaction to Alien Homage: Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore , written by Edward Thompson’s son, E.P. Thompson (EPT), about his father’s rich though painful friendship with Rabindranath. My reading of EPT’s essay is that he did a masterly job of analysing what could have conceivably gone wrong between the two men.

EPT wrote of the relationship sensitively, as having been at least an “authentic encounter”, where the two men were caught between two cultures and the unfriendly times. According to Winter, EPT “shows his father as naive, unable to see his cultural limitations, eager to praise the poet but not up to the job”. He adds, “Perhaps the title tells us too of a son who is unable to pay more than a doubtful tribute to a father.”

EPT takes the title Alien Homage from his father’s poem to Rabindranath, written after Thompson’s visit to Santiniketan, the day a telegram brought news of the Nobel prize. The poem was written to tempt his new-found friend to Bankura, where Thompson lived, with the words: “Now Poush is past, the month of Magh comes in/ That opens mango-flowers/ And you must leave your bowers/ Beneath whose roof we conversed, you and I,/ While the slow pomp of gracious hours went by./ That evening when the cable’s mighty news/ Flashed under seas and I of western folk/ First took your hand and for our Europe spoke/ That of our alien homage, it befell/ A poet was the speaker ; Fate did well./ But hear, and fall to lure/ Of groves that shame Bolpur. ”

However, Edward Thompson to Winter — with Radice, Datta and Robinson — makes a fine lineage in Tagore studies.    


 
 
READING BY THE POLL STAR/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY MURARI MOHAN MUKHERJEE
 
 
Indian Politics and the 1998 Elections: Regionalism, Hindutva and State Politics
Edited by Ramashray Roy and Paul Wallace, Sage, Rs 450

The book under review analyzes the political strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its major opponents in the 12th general elections. It examines the importance of regionalism in Indian politics, changes in party alliances, the role of caste, ethnicity and religion in elections and the relationship of democracy with separatist movements and political violence.

According to Pradeep Chhibber and Irfan Nooruddin in “Party Competition and Fragmentation in Indian National Elections: 1957-1998”, a key feature of the Indian political scenario in the Nineties has been the polarization of the competition between two parties. While political competition has hotted up in all regions of the country, the greatest fragmentation is noticeable in the Hindi belt.

The authors try to find out whether increased competitiveness, especially the bi-polarization of Indian politics is due to the mobilization of new voters. They also examine whether the BJP and its regional allies mobilized votes at each other’s expense nationally or whether such alliances are only an element in the regional mobilization efforts of parties.

Kanchan Chandra and Virginia Van Dyke explore the changes in the party system and political support bases in Uttar Pradesh. Chandra talks about the emergence of a system in which all major parties — the Congress, the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party — openly appealed to ethnic identity in their political campaigns. She also analyses the result of the channelling of subordinate social group interests through parties other than the Congress.

Van Dyke agrees with Chandra that there were no major shifts in the support bases of major parties in UP. The BJP did achieve marginal gains in votes and seats and also benefited from the competition between its three major opponents. Most striking however was the disparity between the BJP’s national campaign led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and the campaign at the local level in which “certain politically oriented religious specialists were playing on communal tension in their districts”.

Binoy Shankar Prosad analyses the fragmentation of parties and the formation of alliances during the 12th general elections in Bihar. He uses statistics on patterns and trends in voter turnout in parliamentary constituencies where there were changes.

After its ignominious showing in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra, the Congress recouped somewhat in 1998. Sikata Banerjee shows how its victory due to factors like alliances with the Republican Party of India and Samajwadi Party; the state Congress unit’s success in containing factionalism and changing trends in voting by other backward castes, Dalits and Muslims.

Four papers on south India document three major results of 1998 elections. One, the BJP continued its rise as a national party by forging political alliances with regional parties and contesting more seats there. Two, the Congress maintained its position. Three, the collapse of the Janata Dal in 1996. Harold A. Gould portrays the disarray of the Janata Dal in Karnataka due to tussles for power between Ramakrishna Hegde, H.D. Deve Gowda and S.R. Bommai.

Karli Srinivasulu analyses the shifts in Andhra Pradesh politics. He describes how with the coming to power of the Telugu Desam Party and changed policies and institutions, especially the impact of N.Chandrababu Naidu’s reforms. Ramashray Roy focusses on the decline of the Congress in Orissa and analyses the factors responsible for it. Arthur Rubinoff delineates Goa’s complex political history where the Congress won both parliamentary seats in 1998 but where the BJP has now firmly established itself.

In his paper on “Punjab: Changing political agenda”, Pramod Kumar documents the history of electoral alliances in the state culminating in the rule of the Akali Dal-BJP combine now.

Reeta Chowdhuri-Tremblay’s paper on “Elections in Kashmir: A question of pragmatism” is a historical discussion of citizenship under the permanent resident’s legislation. Comparing trends in Lok Sabha elections with the assembly elections especially in the post-insurgency valley, she explains voter turnout in terms of identity politics.

Paul Wallace’s introduction gives an excellent overview of all essays in the volume. This book which includes a lot of basic statistics on Indian politics in the 20th century will be of immense help to interested lay reader.    


 
 
MY FAMILY AND OTHER SPIRITS/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY SHAMS AFIF SIDDIQI
 
 
Banana Flower: Dreams
By Bulbul Sharma, Viking, Rs 295

In case the reader is mystified by the rather strange title of this book, it should be made clear at the outset that Banana-Flower: Dreams is a novel. This is the first novel by Bulbul Sharma who had earlier had only a collection of short stories to her name. Perhaps Sharma intended the title to be an ironic comment on the novel. “Eat banana-flower curry cooked in milk and you will have a boy,” advises one female character in the novel to another. But a girl is born instead of a boy, and thus is born a chain of womenfolk who form the subject of this narrative.

The subtitle “dreams” aptly encapsulates what the novel is all about. More than half of the characters in it are already dead but their spirits return to dominate the living. If this seems a little too much to swallow, then everything about the novel is somewhat queer. Readers must first suspend disbelief, in the words of S.T. Coleridge, if they want to appreciate the world of this book.

But this is not a novel about ghosts and supernatural elements. It is just that a thin line divides the world of the living and dead in Sharma’s novel. Life overflows into death. The spirits participate in life although the living are not conscious of their presence.

There are also hints of the Hindu philosophy of karma although they are not treated seriously. The entire novel is a mixture of the strange and the dreamy, an intermingling of the real and the imaginary, the natural and the supernatural, the philosophical and the practical.

This remarkable story is centred around Monimala, who is a hundred years old and in a state of coma from which she never recovers. It is with her death that the novel ends. The narrative keeps going back and forth, negotiating barriers of generation, time, space as well as life and death.

Even as Monimala lies inert — death too seeming to forsake her — the dead and living crowd around her to keep a watch. Amongst the living is her great grand-daughter Pia, who comes all the way from the United States. The dead include the spirits of Monimala’s mother and her two aunts who amuse themselves by anticipating future events, attempting to participate again in the game of life.

For Pia, Monimala’s illness serves as an excuse to come to India and get rid of the baby which had been conceived in a moment of passion with her black lover in the US. But the wheel turns full circle when she falls in love with not one but two men as soon as she lands in India. As she shunts between the two men, the baby in her womb, called Maya in the novel, keeps growing.

But the author breaks all barriers of probability when she has the spirit of the yet to be born baby join in this merry gathering of spirits. Maya contributes with a continuous commentary of past events. Thus she succeeds in bringing together past, present and future in the novel, in more ways than one.

As a first novel, the fact that Banana-Flower suffers from a lot of shortcomings should surprise no one. This is perhaps because Sharma bites off more than she can possibly chew. The plot of the novel is extremely loose and the author fails to tie together the different strands of the narrative in a flat denouement which leaves little scope for a dramatic interplay of events.

There are just too many characters, most of whom are not only flat and underdeveloped, they also create a lot of confusion in the minds of the readers. But still there is a power to Sharma’s novel which is rarely to be found in a first novel. Banana Flower leads us into a world of dreams readers will love to luxuriate in.    


 
 
THE EDITOR OUGHT TO KNOW BEST/BOOKWISE 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
Is the claim of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to make India a knowledge super-power in this century an empty boast? For a change, forget the negative indicators — a crumbling educational system where simple communication and comprehension skills are absent after 12 years of schooling and three years of higher education and look at the brighter side. Indian professionals are strewn all over the globe. Multinational companies come to recruit Indian talent in virtually all fields — teachers, engineers, doctors, managers, accountants, even cooks!

Yet there is a catch — most Indian talent flowers in the West and not at home. Indian authors “arrive” on the global scene via the West. Why? It’s not because there is greater professionalism in the West, or more money there, but because Western publishers insist on editing the manuscript before sending it to press. Editing simply means chiselling the manuscript’s three essential ingredients — language, style and subject. Every detail is checked, language straightened out and, at times, subject matter restructured to meet the needs of the reader. Who is to be blamed for the lack of this at home — the author or the publisher?

Take the author who submits his manuscript for publication. Very few will countenance a single change, except for “literals” like spelling mistakes, quotes wrongly attributed, wrong dates and so on. Sadly, Indian authors believe the work they submit is perfect in all respects. What they don’t appreciate is that the book has to be made accessible to the reader whose profile is better known to the publisher than th author.

For example, Arundhati Roy apparently objected to even changing a full stop or comma in The God of Small Things; Vikram Seth is fastidious to the last detail (though he agreed to lop off some pages as suggested by his British editor in A Suitable Boy); Vikram Chandra was alarmed to hear that some words had to be prised out of a 5,000 word article he had submitted for publication.

As for Indian academics, the less said, the better. What does one do with with a four-volume study of V.K. Krishna Menon and the Indian League with threats of two more to come? For many Indian academics, scholarship is all about gathering the dregs of world libraries, without any critical analysis, or sense of discrimination.

Yet, what about the publisher’s editor whose job it is to present a clean book to the reader? Droves of books are coming down the pike replete with the most glaring errors and infelicitous language. Sadly, editors are way down the pecking order in publishing houses. What publishers are really interested in is numbers, under the mistaken notion that if X number of titles are published every month, they will be sold and profits will roll in. So, if there are a few blemishes left, it doesn’t matter because the intelligent reader will be able to sort them out himself. The care that was taken by old-timers in checking, re-checking, writing and re-writing has now been tossed as too antiquated and absurd.

Success is what matters, and success means money which will come with numbers. To go back to Vajpayee’s dreams. Yes, we can become a knowledge power-house because there is an enormous amount of talent, though it is sparsely distributed throughout the country. But this talent has to be sieved out through rigorous analysis. Until this happens, we will be like beggars sitting on a pot of gold.    

 

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