Editorial 1/Fifty and trying
Editorial 2/Iowa edge
Honoured republican
Letters To The Editor

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/FIFTY AND TRYING 
 
 
 
 
Fifty years of the Indian republic is not exactly a Mosaic jubilee. An anniversary is as good a time as any to mourn the betrayal of promises. There exists enough grounds to support the case that India and Indians have not been particularly good at anything over the last half a century. The edifice of socialism, secularism and federalism conceived by the founding fathers of the republic is crumbling today. Many would point to the position and popularity enjoyed by the Nehru-Gandhi family to argue that India has not been too successful even at republicanism. Looking at India today, those who sacrificed lives and careers for India’s independence might well wonder if this is what they struggled to bring forth. Similarly, those who are now young may feel frustrated and bitter at the legacy that has been handed down to them. But all this should not take away from the success of what is at the core of a republic: a working democracy. In 1950, with the adoption of the Constitution, India made itself into a full-fledged democracy with universal adult suffrage and equal rights for all. In many aspects, the government of independent India carried over features of its colonial predecessor. Despite this, the making of a republic was by any reckoning a formidable Indian political achievement. Notions of sovereignty, citizenship, rule of law, rights and adult franchise came to India via English education, but were not products of British rule since the latter did not introduce them into India’s political life. The ideas were given shape in India and by Indians who made the Constitution and made these ideas permanent fixtures of the country’s political culture.

The idea of democracy is so imbricated with the idea of India that today no major political party, whatever be its ideological orientation and programme, is openly against democracy. The democratic structure and the Constitution in which it is enshrined has successfully withstood the attempt to subvert them during the Emergency. More recently, when violence and rigging had nearly reduced the electoral process to a mockery, efforts were made by the Election Commission to clean the system of abuses. Again, no political party openly objected to this operation. In the last four years, there have been three elections and in each the people have turned out to vote. Nobody, except a tiny minority, complained of an excess of democracy. The crucial challenge before the republic is the marriage between democracy and development. Like an army a democracy also marches on its stomach. Indeed, poverty often acts as a shackle on the people’s freedom of choice when they vote. That the fundamentals of democracy are strong in India is no longer in doubt but economic development will require a greater consensus among parties. Without this, the achievements of democracy will begin to sound hollow and shadows will begin to fall on the idea of a republic.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/IOWA EDGE 
 
 
 
 
The United States presidential elections kicked off this week with a caucus poll in Iowa. Though the midwestern farm state has a history of selecting underdogs, its voters plumped this year for the Democratic and Republican frontrunners. Mr Al Gore, the main contender for the Democratic nomination, won over 60 per cent of the votes from his party’s supporters in Iowa. This consolidates his lead over his main rival, Mr Bill Bradley. He needs this vote of confidence. Mr Bradley will be in a much stronger position in the next stage of the race: the New Hampshire primary. After Iowa, Mr Gore’s chances in New Hampshire have gone up a notch. However, Mr George W. Bush, the favourite for the Republican ticket and the US presidency itself, leaves Iowa with a less than resounding victory. Mr Steven Forbes, the millionaire publisher running for the Republican nomination, notched up 30 per cent of the vote, putting him about 10 percentage points below Mr Bush. Mr John McCain, until now Mr Bush’s main rival, trailed far behind at fourth place. Mr McCain’s campaign desperately needs a good showing at this early state because it is strapped for money. Iowa and New Hampshire are hardly representative of the US, their populace is overwhelmingly white, largely small town or rural. But getting a solid chunk of the Iowa vote improves the chances of a dark horse candidate. It means more campaign contributions and media attention. Mr Forbes, for example, can expect more television coverage thanks to his success in Iowa.

The odds are still stacked in favour of a presidential race between Mr Gore and Mr Bush. One reason is that unlike previous elections the primary race this year in the US is front loaded. Each candidate picks up delegate votes at each state primary. The winner is the first to get the number of delegate votes his party requires to win the presidential nomination. This year, because big states like California and New York have early primaries, 60 to 70 per cent of the delegates will be selected by the end of March. This will tend to help candidates who have money and organization to handle so many primaries so early and so quickly. In other words, by early April the US primary race is likely to be all but over. This could add two or three months to the presidential election campaign proper, a campaign that traditionally did not begin until July. Pollsters say US voters are even more apathetic this presidential election than normal — there will be no rebellious undercurrents for underdogs to ride on. If Mr Forbes, Mr McCain or Mr Bradley fail to impress in New Hampshire next month, the US primary race will be over, just weeks after it started.    


 
 
HONOURED REPUBLICAN 
 
 
BY K.P. NAYAR
 
 
There is always light at the end of the tunnel. At a time when Indian foreign policy is under attack all-round — on the hijack, the comprehensive test ban treaty, relations with the United States and the Chinese karmapa, to mention a few issues — it is refreshingly appropriate to recount the untold tale of a spectacular diplomatic success. Especially on the 50th anniversary of the Indian republic. The tale has its beginning in September 1998, soon after Olusegun Obasanjo — the chief guest at today’s Republic Day parade on New Delhi’s Rajpath — was released from prison following the death of Sani Abacha, the most hated of all the Nigerian dictators.

Obasanjo had been sentenced by Abacha after a show trial in 1995 to 15 years in prison for treason. When fate brought him freedom at the end of three years of that sentence, he almost immediately decided to travel to India in search of peace and tranquillity. Obasanjo arrived in New Delhi as a private citizen and hoped to spend his time in India in relative anonymity. Until Vasundhara Raje, minister of state for external affairs in the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, came to know about Obasanjo’s presence here.

Raje invited the visiting Nigerian to lunch: not at any fancy culinary outlet, but in the functional surroundings of her South Block office. Obasanjo was persuaded to accept the hospitality of the ministry of external affairs during his stay in India.

At this lunch, Raje asked the recently-freed political prisoner, a Nigerian version of Nelson Mandela, about his plans for the future. He had not, until then, paid serious thought to the idea of contesting elections.

Obasanjo told his associates later that the South Block lunch was his first serious discussion after release from prison about entering electoral politics. The rest, as they say, is history.

Obasanjo won Nigeria’s first election since the former president, Shehu Shagari, was toppled in a military coup in 1983. He returned to India in April last year even before being sworn into office.

The Nigerian president’s association with India actually goes way back to 1965 when he went to Wellington for the prestigious army course after topping the military academy in Nigeria. In those days, the tradition was that the best cadets from Nigeria’s military academy went to Sandhurst for further training, but circumstances brought Obasanjo to Wellington. By his own admission, Obasanjo has treasured the time he spent in India and built on that connection.

Evidence of this association will be all too obvious during the Nigerian president’s stay in India after the Republic Day celebrations. When preparations were on for his visit, Obasanjo went out of his way to seek a string of unusual meetings in India. He wanted to meet the heads of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, the Telecommunications Consultants of India Ltd and the public sector railway construction company, Indian Railways Construction Company. He wanted to go to Punjab in an effort to repeat India’s Green Revolution in his native Nigeria, and of course, revisit Wellington.

Obasanjo is a leader who is totally familiar with the expertise which India can offer his country. He was a farmer for 20 years after he called an election, installed the civilian president, Shehu Shagari, and gave up power as Nigeria’s military ruler. During those two decades, he repeatedly imported agricultural equipment from Punjab for his farms.

He has often told his countrymen to learn from Indian agriculture pointing out that India with, a billion people, is food secure, while Africa with less population is constantly reeling under famine. Obasanjo also wants India to assist Nigeria in setting up small and medium enterprises, knowing that half of India’s industrial output is from the SME sector. After all the years of wasteful expenditure during the boom years on idle steel plants,unused cement imports and the spanking new capital ghost town of Abuja, democratic Nigeria wants to realistically concentrate on promoting SMEs. They are low capital-intensive even as they promote both entrepreneurial incentive and employment.

It is not as if the whole Indo-Nigerian relationship is a one-way traffic. Already, India imports Rs 5,000 crore worth of oil every year from Nigeria, which is the seventh largest oil producing country in the world. It is India’s biggest market in Africa after South Africa. Indian exports to Nigeria last year were worth Rs 1,000 crore.

The potential of Nigeria must be seen not in isolation, but as part of an overall Indian strategy for the African continent. Until a few years ago, there were fewer than five countries in Africa which were democratic. Today, the situation is exactly the reverse.

Not that democracy is the be all and end all of the existence of a nation. Certainly, for countries like India, the return of democracy and stability on the African continent has helped. In Uganda, Indians who had been driven out by the barbaric regime of Idi Amin are returning. For Tanzania, India is now the biggest trading partner in the world. In the last one year alone, India’s trade with Namibia has gone up by 12 times while with Kenya, it is up by 80 per cent. With South Africa, trade has similarly gone up by a whopping 20 times since 1995.

Much more than being any tribute to Indian enterprise, all this is a reflection of the reality that Africa is changing after decades of dismal economic performance and an even more dismal political record. India should change its approach to Africa as well, discarding the high-sounding, but sterile rhetoric from the Sixties to the Eighties and replacing it with market-driven, sound and viable economic tie-ups.

Nigeria is important from a political point of view as well, in view of the imperative of discarding rhetoric and accepting realpolitik. For decades, India invested heavily in South Africa, both diplomatically and politically. Of course, a lot of this investment was altruistic in view of this country’s deep commitment against apartheid.

Successive Indian governments fight shy of accepting the unpleasant reality that the return on this heavy investment has been negative. Indeed, for all that the Third World did for the African National Congress and other South African political organizations which fought for majority rule, the post-apartheid government’s attitude to the developing world has been perfidious.

It is vital for countries like India that South Africa, which is now nothing more than a cat’s paw of the West in fora such as the non-aligned movement and the Commonwealth should be shown its place. Pretoria now heads NAM and hosted the Commonwealth summit last year.

If some of the undeserved gloss of South Africa’s current political leadership is to be wiped off, there should be a credible rival for Pretoria on the African continent. Nigeria is about the only country which can play this balancing role.

When he decided to invite Obasanjo to be the chief guest at today’s Republic Day parade, such a thought must have, doubtless, crossed the mind of the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was himself at the receiving end of South African perfidy when Nelson Mandela gratuitously referred to the Kashmir issue in his opening address to the last NAM summit and consistently tried to undercut the movement in Durban.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Bonds revived

Sir — China is on the verge of reviving military ties with the United States — with General Xiong Guankai arriving in Washington to hold talks with the United States defence official, Walter Slocombe (“China revives military ties with US”, Jan 23). It is really unfortunate that the US is sidelining crucial issues like the future status of Taiwan and China’ s dismal human rights record, and going ahead with rebuilding its strategic base in southeast Asia. Moreover, as the only superpower, the US should be exercising its discretionary powers vis a vis China where human freedom has been severely compromised — Tiananman and Falungong being prime examples. Next, Washington must thrash out Taiwan’s ambiguous status once and for all with Beijing, instead of just focussing on trade with Taipei. And how long will the US continue to ignore the plight of Tibetans? Thus, besides signing arms deals with China, Washington should put the injustices in order.

Yours faithfully,
T.K. Sen, Calcutta

This business of culture

Sir — Sekhar Bajaj’s comment that Bengalis should engage in Rabindrasangeet rather than industrialization is in poor taste (“Pride and prejudice”, Jan 16). He exhibits a philistine mentality by speaking of Rabindra- sangeet with such disregard. It is quite possible for a Bengali to excel in business and “indulge” in Rabindrasangeet too.

History tells us that there were numerous successful Bengali entrepreneurs in their own right, like Motilal Seal, for example. Soon, with the breakthrough in education caused by exposure to English, new avenues opened up in the services sector. The average Bengali was attracted to education and the prospect of a secure job. The situation is different now and job opportunities have shrunk for eligible persons. It is important that Bengalis become business-minded once again. Learning or loving Rabindra- sangeet has little or nothing to do with it. In fact, Rabindranath Tagore himself was one of the greatest supporters of Bengali enterprise.

Contrary to the opinion expressed in the editorial, the cultural superiority of Bengalis is very much a fact. True, the current achievements of Bengalis are small compared to the past. But the glorious past has rid the community of linguistic, casteist and communal chauvinisms — unlike the rest of India.

Bengalis should get rid of their prejudice against business but not of their rightful self-pride.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — Each community in India has its positive and negative characteristics. What makes Bengalis — especially Indian Bengalis — peculiar is the complete lack of self-respect and the sick, unabashed self-flagellation that the community practises under the garb of liberalism. The phenomenon is best epitomized by the series of anti-Bengali strictures in West Bengal’s media. While it is true that Bengali culture no longer basks in the glory of a Rammohun Roy or a Rabindranath Tagore, it is also true that West Bengal is in many ways preferable to the Shiv Sena’s Maharashtra or Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Bihar. If superiority of Bengali culture is a myth, then so are the holiness of Indian culture and the essence of Indian unity.

Yours faithfully,
A. Sengupta, Calcutta

Sir — The editorial, “Pride and prejudice”, hits the nail on the head. Not just people born and brought up in West Bengal, but also newcomers, fall for the unique kind of “Bengali” inertia after living in the state for some time. This immobility, often of a physical nature, may have something to do with the climatic conditions in these parts, coupled with political indifference and hostile labour attitudes. Work culture has become a chimerical concept, but only within the precincts of the state; once out of it, the Bengali becomes motivated and industrious. West Bengal lost its golden sheen long ago. The people here now need to discard the crutches of ideology and nostalgia and look for stars within their own firmament.

Yours faithfully,
Sush Kocher, Calcutta

Lack of interest

Sir — Senior citizens have been disappointed by further reductions in the monthly income and small savings scheme interest rates within the span of one year. Retired employees of public sector units and many private enterprises, who get their retirement benefits in lump sums, usually invest the money in small savings. The interest rates from these are often the only source of their livelihood.

But the periodic lowering of MIS interest rates reduces their income during every renewal and reinvestment. On the other hand, a more or less stable consumer index does not really benefit the senior citizens because of the perpetual increase of medical expenses. Paradoxically, government pensions are being frequently raised and also made commensurate with the increase in the dearness allowance of the existing government staff. It is only fair that the Union finance minister should find a solution for protecting the interests of senior citizens with regard to the reduction of MIS interest rates.

Yours faithfully,
Rabindra Nath Bhattacharjee, Durgapur

Sir — The slashing of interest rates of public provident funds and small savings schemes is bound to reduce the capital accumulation of the rural population, since villagers will now receive lower interests from their savings. One argument in favour of the recent cut in interest rate is that it will boost investments in the stock market. But approximately 70 per cent of the Indian population is based in villages where the concept of stock market investment is alien. Besides, villagers can more easily invest their savings in post offices and banks. Hence, the cut in interest rate will seriously hurt them.

Yours faithfully,
Rajeev Bagra, Naihati

Sir —The Union government can enforce any of the following options rather than lower interest rates of small saving schemes. First, the Union government should reduce the size of its council of ministers — this could save it about Rs 20 crore. Second, the Centre must take steps to curb corruption and stop the ciculation of black money.

Yours faithfully,
N.K. Ghose, Calcutta

Murder, they said

Sir — The gruesome murder of Priyadarshini Mattoo as well as the inept handling of the investigation by the police and the Central Bureau of Investigation have exposed the nexus between these agencies and the criminals (“View to a kill”, Dec 12). The father of the alleged culprit, Santosh Singh, being an Indian police service officer, the CBI went overboard trying to shield him: fabricated DNA reports, botched up blood and semen tests and did not produce crucial evidence. The additional sessions judge, G.P. Thareja, professed his helplessness in being unable to convict the culprit.

The case against Singh could have been foolproof since he was arrested two days after the crime and reportedly confessed to killing Mattoo. The case underlines yet again the pressing need to revamp the police administration and the judicial system.

Yours faithfully,
Hrishikesh Chakrabarti, Agartala

Sir — The Priyadarshini Mattoo murder is one amazing saga. There is the CBI with its bungling of the investigation, and then the judiciary which has to let the accused go on benefit of doubt. Such things happen only because the police administration and the judiciary function under severe constraints. How can justice be delivered under these circumstances?

Yours faithfully,
A.B. Dasgupta, Nagaland

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