Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Trainers in the Lords
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1 
 
 
 
 

Low on interest

It has now become an annual ritual for the finance minister to usher in the budget season by meeting various groups of people — economists, newspaper editors, representatives of the corporate sector — and seek their opinions on budget priorities. There was always a sneaking feeling that these meetings are essentially a public relations exercise since the actual budget seems to contain very few of the suggestions or ideas thrown up at these discussions. This year may have been an exception since one of the main requests of the corporate sector was a reduction in the interest rate structure. The government has just taken a first and important step in this direction by reducing the rate of interest on provident fund and other small savings schemes such as the National Savings Scheme and Kisan Vikas Patra. The government has also lowered the interest rate on loans to state governments given against small savings. The reduction in interest rates on provident fund and other small savings will attract some political flak from opposition parties which will accuse the government of betraying the older generation as well as the middle income group who have invested in these schemes. But, these criticisms do not really have much merit. As finance ministry officials have been quick to point out, this is the first revision of provident fund interest rates since 1978.

Interest rates on small savings have also not been revised for a long time. During this period, the economy has moved to a considerably different inflation regime, with the rate of inflation being a mere five per cent. So, despite the cut in the nominal rate of interest, the real rate of return on investments in small savings schemes and provident fund remain as high as they have ever been. The benefits of a lower interest rate structure are also quite apparent. The immediate impact will be an annual savings of Rs 1000 crore in interest payments. This is no small amount for a government that is struggling to make ends meet. The second round or indirect benefits are likely to be quite substantial. The current reduction in interest rates on provident fund and small savings may simply be the prelude to a general lowering of all interest rates. After all, this was the original demand of the corporate sector. A lower interest rate structure obviously benefits the industrial sector since it reduces their cost of borrowing. There is some substance in the charge that the real cost of borrowing had become much too high because interest rates were refusing to follow the southward march of the inflation rate. Thus, there is a sense in which a lower nominal rate of interest will simply restore the status quo. Of course, this may prove to be the catalyst required to move Indian industry on to a higher growth path. All indices of business confidence indicate that industry is poised to take off, and only a small push is all that is required.

It must also be kept in mind that the government is the largest borrower in the country. So, a lower interest rate structure also brings tremendous benefits to the government in the form of lower interest payments. Finally, this will also provide fresh encouragement to the bulls in the stock markets. The lower interest rates on small savings will lead to greater investment in mutual funds which will subsequently channel these fresh inflows into the stock markets.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2 
 
 
 
 

Rough justice

On January 13, 10 supposed members of an extortionist gang and their abetters were hounded out, each tied to a tree and beaten to death in the Sonarpur subdivision of South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. It was given out that the lynch mob consisted of local residents enraged into spontaneous retaliation by the gang’s long criminal history in this area and by the failure of the police to curb this criminality. It remains beyond dispute that the police have failed — in a manner now disgracefully familiar in Calcutta and its suburbs — to deal with the criminals and with those who decided to take the law in their hands against them. The home (police) and deputy chief minister, Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya, being away hardly makes a difference, since he has come to embody the chronic ineffectualities of the institution primarily responsible for the maintenance of law and order in the state. His physical absence and presence practically amount to the same thing.

What is deeply alarming about the incident is the twofold agency of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the killings, and later, in the party’s projection of it as an act of the people, to be celebrated as a “mass awakening against crime”. First, it has now definitively come to light that this was not a spontaneous uprising, but a carefully planned operation by some district level CPI(M) leaders, admittedly against genuinely disruptive criminals, but involving the passive cooperation of the police and the active deployment of a large band of armed criminals. The police was instructed by these party leaders not to intervene, just as the locals were asked to remain indoors throughout the day long operation. Second, it is profoundly disturbing to note that even as the politburo debates the nature and significance of democracy in its ideology, some of the dissidents calling for modernization and transparency in the party are extolling this instance of benighted brutality and deceit as a triumph of democratic self-empowerment. Mr Samir Putatunda, a prominent rebel, has demanded the “dictatorship of the people” from the politburo. The Sonarpur lynchings — for which Mr Putatunda and his comrades have publicly congratulated the supposedly “awakened” public — reveal the darkest face of this dictatorship.    


 
 
TRAINERS IN THE LORDS 
 
 
ISABELLA THOMAS
 
 
Towards the end of last year, 659 hereditary peers were expelled from the House of Lords, the upper chamber of parliament at Westminster. The abolition of hereditary voting rights in the Lords was mooted many times during the 20th century. But the question that always bedevilled the attempts to reform the chamber and to abandon the hereditary element was, how to replace it? Or rather, who would replace these august representatives of a bygone age who had, in the popular imagination, got there by the guile or the gumption of their ancestors? To do so would be to decide who precisely the British had become, a question the British have difficulty addressing.

Most countries elect both their first and second chambers. British governments have successively avoided electing the latter because prime ministers find it convenient not to be overruled by a modernized second chamber which, once elected, would have as much legitimacy in the eyes of the public as the Commons. The irony was that no government was prepared to reform the Lords because that would lend it legitimacy and give it influence. The hereditary element kept it weak, just as it keeps the monarchy weak.

Lloyd George had passed the Parliament Act as long ago as 1911 which prevented the Lords from being able to block government legislation initiated in the Commons. As a result the Commons held full sway, the authority of the prime minister was the stronger and radical legislation could be easily steered through parliament.

But increasingly, the view gained ground that it was unacceptable for an old guard of landed nobs, as they were caricatured, to be having any say on government legislation. Much was made of the dawn of the 21st century and how this made it imperative to modernize. The reform became a key plank of New Labour’s modernizing binge.

Tony Blair eventually took the gamble and abolished the “hereditaries” in November 1999. Because Blair has had less to do in terms of reorganizing the economy, being in many respects a reconstructed Thatcherite, he has performed a number of token measures to assuage the left wing of his party, in order to make them still feel left-wing. The bill to ban fox-hunting, the arrest of general Pinochet and the reform of the House of Lords were all “designer” policies. Blair has been generally keen to take action which, in his own words, “is not merely fair, but which is seen to be fair”. (It is sometimes said that he emphasises the latter over the former.)

But the government has so far got round the problem of how to replace the hereditaries by not deciding how to replace them. They have banished the hereditaries but kept on the so-called “life peers”, a category begun in the 1950s which ennobled you for your life but did not allow you to pass the title on to your descendants — a kind of non-contagious ennoblement.

The current arrangements are what the government calls a “transitional house”. In a bizarre move, 92 hereditary peers were allowed to stay on for the transitional stage partly as a compromise with the Conservatives: the 92 were elected by the 750 former hereditaries. A royal commission has been appointed to sort out how the upper chamber might look.

Some wryly comment that the transitional house will stay put because no one will agree on how the House of Lords should be composed. For the time being, the lords are left with the odd conundrum that the only elected peers are the hereditaries. That gives them kudos.

The life peers — the “day boys” as they were dubbed by the hereditaries — were allowed to continue since they had supposedly got there on their own merit. But life peers are all appointed by the prime ministers of their day. They range from the law lords and the bishops to former cabinet ministers and politicians, writers, academics and others at the top of their professions from hospital administrators to military officials. They are hand-picked from amongst the friends, and the friends of friends of the prime minister.

The dominance of these people in the upper chamber means that it is now merely an appointed chamber. There are many admirable people amongst them. But there are also placemen chosen through the unedifying channels of political patronage. As the Sun puts it, they are “Tony’s cronies”.

The paradox about the hereditaries was that they were the antithesis of the the ambitious social climber prepared to do anything to get ahead on the slippery slope to political advancement. They were often independent-minded; some were highly intelligent; others were thoroughly stupid. They came from diverse backgrounds: they were certainly not all landed, nor necessarily nobbish or snobbish. They were a mixed bag. A lottery even. Ironically enough they introduced an independent strain and a maverick character to the parliamentary process because they had not bent over backwards to get there.

A greater paradox is that Blair appointed Baroness Jay to steer the controversial bill through the Lords itself. Baroness Jay herself is a fine example of the survival of the hereditary principle. Though a life peer, she is the daughter of the former prime minister, James Callaghan, and was ennobled by Tony Blair. There can be little doubt that she got to her position using the influence of her father. The inconsistency was not lost on the opposition who often mockingly drew attention to Jay’s parentage.

Others complained that the way the hereditaries were dispensed with was done with a shocking lack of graciousness. The Labour front bench in the Lords, headed by Jay, were rude and blunt. Perhaps this was explained by their sheer determination to push the bill through parliament, in view of the impasse that other attempts had met with.

At all events, the tall, blond Baroness Jay became known as the “wicked witch” for her cold, supercilious manner; she sloped around the corridors of the Lords at a measured pace striking fear into the Conservative ranks. The impeccably cordial atmosphere at the House — famously contrasting with the raucous House of Commons — was disrupted, and a mood of distrust and animosity settled on the place.

New Labour has now appointed more life peers in the first two and a half years of its rule than any other government in the 20th century. The place is now heaving with new peers who are bewildered by the rituals which still prevail in the gilded halls. Many were seen to snigger during solemn moments.

Others occasionally wear training shoes into the chamber — and get away with it. But the elaborate manners of the doormen in their unchanged uniforms and breeches insist on certain elements of continuity. And the ceremonies of the place are famously enthralling — and contagiously so.

Those who start off cynical become proud of the place very quickly. There were many Labour peeresses in tiaras at the opening of parliament, and Baroness Jay was seen conversing merrily with the arch hereditary, the Duke of Norfolk, and seemed mesmerised by the flummery of the Yeomen of the Guard.

The new peers, the majority of whom are Labour, are a very different breed to the old. There are television presenters, like Lord Bragg (who presents the South Bank show on ITV), and Lord Birt (the former director of the BBC) as well as representatives of trades unions and non-governmental organizations. Although the government insists this is a transitional house, they do, in some ways, befit the New Britain of New Labour. The writer Anthony Sampson wrote recently that the British establishment has changed fundamentally since he wrote his famous analysis of the ruling elite in Britain back in the 1960s.

Writing in the Independent, he said that “the TV networks have taken over from the country houses as the centre of communications and social ambition”. It is only a short distance to the celebrity politics of the United States. The Baronesses Spice (of the Spice Girls) are waiting in the wings. It is now the Conservative peers who are pressing for a more fully elected House of Lords.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Dry land ahead

Sir — It is amazing how they always manage to get away (“Jaya survives do-or-die case”, Jan 14). Politicians seem to have the most incredible luck. And J. Jayalalitha, ruling the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam roost with fanfare almost ever since the death of her mentor, M.G. Ramachandran, has more luck than most. Assuming that the institutions of the country are all interested in punishing the abuse of power, the layman cannot help asking, what gives? Here we have the spectacle of the AIADMK leader going overboard to stall the hearing of the Tansi land scandal case, obviously because she is scared. We also hear that it is the most “watertight” case against her. And then, there is the predictable whimper and the case fizzles out because of lack of evidence. So either somebody in a responsible position has been talking too much, eager to see the politician behind bars, or the whole thing is a farce to make the people believe that everyone’s bustling about trying to clean up the polity. Take your pick.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjana Poddar,
Midnapore

Right down under

Sir — The Australians have shown exactly why they are the world champions in cricket. After defeating the Pakistanis, they thrashed the Indians three-nil. They were in the driver’s seat right from the first day of the first test match. Sachin Tendulkar’s man of the series award is of little consolation, but it does recognizes the one man who restored the last vestiges of consistency in the team’s performance. But will this disaster knock some sense of responsibility into the selectors and cricketers?

Yours faithfully,
Probal Ghosh,
Calcutta

Sir — Politicking has let Indian cricket down in Australia. Both the captain, Sachin Tendulkar, and the coach, Kapil Dev, have excelled in it, especially off the field in matters of selection. This is amply evident in the way Nayan Mongia was flown to Australia and then unceremoniously sent back as Samir Dighe was rushed there. About Dighe’s performance subsequently, the less said the better.

There must be an inquiry into the entire selection procedure for the Australian tour and especially into the Mongia-Dighe episode. And if certain people are under the impression that their credentials allow them to behave like extra-constitutional authorities, let such heads roll, for India cannot perform any worse without them.

Yours faithfully,
K.K. Roy Choudhury,
Calcutta

Sir — It is quite clear now that Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar were the men responsible for the exclusion of Mohammed Azharuddin from the tri-series squad. Azharuddin’s records speak for him. In spite of the hard times he has been through recently, he deserves another chance. Kapil Dev has enough experience behind him to know that politics has no place in cricket.

Yours faithfully,
Vikas Agarwal,
Tinsukia

Sir — The Indian cricket team has made a fool of itself by letting Australia deal out loss after humiliating loss to it in the test series. The main reason for this, as in many previous occasions, was the failure of batsmen. Sadagoppan Ramesh and Devang Gandhi failed to do well as openers. V.V.S. Laxman was the only exception in the third test. The middle order, with Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and others lacked sting. The absence of an experienced batsman like Mohammed Azharuddin was felt a number of times.

Sachin Tendulkar emerged as the sole consistent element in the team. But one Tendulkar cannot make up for the single digit scores by the rest. The entire team must perform or at least give the impression that it is trying to.

Yours faithfully,
Abhishek Law,
Calcutta

Sir — In the recently concluded test series that India lost to Australia, the Indians’ ability to play on foreign pitches was seriously questioned, but not the impartiality of the Australian umpires and of the Australian cricket board. If Venkatesh Prasad’s exultation after getting a wicket invited punishment, then why didn’t Glenn McGrath’s, after he dismissed Sachin Tendulkar?

Another glaring instance of such bias was the questioning of the action of the Pakistani fast bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, while letting the Australian, Brett Lee, get away with suspect action. Several valid appeals by Indian bowlers were ignored while Tendulkar was given out on dubious grounds more than once. If there is more of this in future, cricket’s last days are truly near.

Yours faithfully,
Ajay Agrawal,
Calcutta

Sir — The manner in which India received a drubbing in the hands of the Australians in the test series is indeed shameful. Although the umpiring left a lot to be desired, the Indians lacked proper application. Indian batsmen are used to playing under very different conditions at home, namely slow spinning tracks. Fast and bouncy pitches become nightmares for them away from home. The players must get accustomed to hard, bouncy pitches which will also prove the true worth of the spinners.The Board for Control of Cricket in India needs to think about this.

Yours faithfully,
Ashish K. Banerjee,
Dhanbad

Dance out of step

Sir — The report, “State as keeper of public morality” (Jan 6), reminds one that there was a time when cabarets were very popular in the city of Calcutta. Many theatres in the city used to incorporate one or two cabarets in their productions. Sometimes, however, they were found to transgress the limits of decency. In the last couple of decades, the line delineating vulgarity has become so thin that it is difficult to be sure what must be condemned as vulgar, especially in the tinsel world of films and in the world of advertising. In both of these, experiments are being regularly conducted, even with the use of nudity.

Under these circumstances, whether we want it or not, cabaret is all set to make a comeback in the near future.

Yours faithfully,
Malay Kumar Nandi,
Calcutta

Sir — There is no doubt that dances like cabaret go against the culture and tradition of India. But an effort may be made to restore cabaret to its original form. In its beginnings the dance form emphasised grace and elegance rather than vulgarity. Cabaret artists can be trained to entertain their viewers with elegance. Once they are so trained, the government should have no problems in allowing cabaret entertainment in restaurants and nightclubs.

Yours faithfully,
Soumitra Biswas,
Calcutta

Sir — Cabaret presents women as sex objects (“State as keeper of public morality”, January 6). This is clear from the reaction of the viewers watching the performance. It is a perversion that must not be encouraged. Just as the public cannot be granted the liberty to choose drugs, similarly they cannot be given liberty in the case of cabaret.

Yours faithfully,
Kuntala Datta,
Calcutta

Sir — Have we, after all this time, suddenly become halfwits so we can’t watch a cabaret without being corrupted? What’s the fuss about?

Yours faithfully,
Prasanna Sinha,
Calcutta    
 

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